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U.S. v. SAUNDERS, NO. 15-4498

Decided: July 5, 2016

The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s dismissal of the indictments and remanded the district court’s ruling for further proceedings.

On January 15, 2015, Appellees, Gaston Saunders, Bryan Daniels, Michael Potter, and Stephen Daniels, captains of commercial fishing vessels, were indicted on multiple Lacey Act violations.  Appellees were indicted because they harvested tons of bass from federal waters (EEZ) in violation of federal law.  The Government appeals the district court’s dismissal of the indictment against Saunders and Daniels in part and against Potter and Daniels in full.

The Bass Act prohibits people from harvesting bass from the EEZ.  “The Lacey Act makes it a crime to take wildlife in violation of some other federal law.”  An exemption under the Lacey Act is present if it was “‘activity regulated by a fishery management plan in effect under’ the Magnuson-Stevens Act.”  The district court determined the “Commission’s plan authorized the Secretary of Commerce to regulate striped bass in federal waters, the EEZ.”  The district court concluded the Commission’s plan regulated the captains’ behavior and the Lacey Act exemption applied because of regulation-50 C.F.R. § 697.7(b) which prohibited fishing for or harvesting Atlantic striped bass in the EEZ.  The Fourth Circuit disagreed stating “[t]he text of the Commission’s plan does not purport to grant any power to regulate federal waters to the Secretary of Commerce.”  The Commission’s plan left the regulation of federal waters to the power of the Secretary of Commerce through the Bass Act not the Commission’s plan.  Furthermore, the Court stated the Secretary of Commerce’s power to regulate federal waters “comes directly from the Bass Act,” through federal sources because the Secretary of Commerce is a member of the President’s cabinet.  The Court concluded the Commission regulates the States’ waters not federal waters.

The captains contend the statutory framework prohibiting their conduct is void for vagueness.  The Court disagreed stating, “[a] statute is unconstitutionally vague if it ‘(1) “fails to provide people of ordinary intelligence a reasonable opportunity to understand what conduct it prohibits” or (2) “authorizes or even encourages arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.”’”  The Court stated the indictments were straightforward: the captains harvested Atlantic striped bass from federal waters, the Bass Act prohibited fishing for bass in federal waters and the Lacey Act prohibited taking wildlife in violation of a federal regulation.  Therefore, when the captains harvested bass from federal waters, they violated the Bass Act, which in turn violated the Lacey Act.  The captains contended they had to consult numerous statutes in order to know their conduct was illegal.  The Court dismissed this assertion stating “[o]ur sister circuits have squarely held that regulatory complexity does not render a statute (or set of statutes) unconstitutionally vague.”  The Court also noted the prohibition of fishing for bass in federal waters had been on the books for over 25 years.  Finally, the Court concluded the framework was not void for vagueness because the Lacey Act contained a scienter requirement demanding the Government to prove the captains’ knowledge.  A “‘scienter requirement alone tends to defeat’ vagueness challenges to criminal statutes.”  Therefore, the Court concluded the Lacey Act exemption did not apply and the regulatory regime was not void for vagueness.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the district court’s dismissal of the indictments and remanded the district court’s ruling for further proceedings.

Full Opinion

Alicia E. Morris