United States v. Izurieta is an odd opinion. Turns out the Eleventh Circuit was a very good defense attorney in this case.
Two brothers - Yuri and Anneri Izurieta - ran an import/export business. They brought food into the United States from Central America.
They were charged with not following FDA procedures when they brought food into the country that - according to a trial stipulation - contained e coli and salmonella.
They were convicted at trial.
They appealed and raised some interesting issues - a Confrontation Clause challenge, a challenge to some of the prosecutor's statements during the trial, and an issue about how the sentence was calculated.
Everyone showed up for oral argument ready, presumably, to talk about these issues. The briefs had been filed. The issues were clear. I'd like to think the defense lawyer was wearing a new suit.
Then, at oral argument, the Eleventh Circuit panel asked whether the indictment in the case actually set out something that is a violation of the criminal law of the United States.
As it happens, it didn't.
So, there's a practice pointer for defense lawyers - check to make sure that an indictment accuses the person charged with something that is actually a crime.
Here are the details.
The brothers were charged with seven counts:
Count 1 charged a conspiracy to unlawfully import in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371. Counts 2 - 7 charged the Izurietas with the failure "to redeliver, export, and destroy with FDA supervision" five shipments.
More specifically, Counts 2 through 7 charged a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 545, which says,
Whoever fraudulently or knowingly imports or brings into the United States, any merchandise contrary to law, or receives, conceals, buys, sells, or in any manner facilitates the transportation, concealment, or sale of such merchandise after importation, knowing the same to have been imported or brought into the United States contrary to law . . . Shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.
So the "contrary to law" part is really important.
Here, the brothers violated an FDA regulation which provided for civil, but not criminal penalties. Does section 545 convert the violation of that regulation into a crime?
The Ninth Circuit had previously weighed in on this in 2008 in United States v. Alghazouli, 517 F.3d 1179, 1187 (9th Cir. 2008) and found that section 545 doesn't do the alchemy of converting not criminal regulations into criminal ones.
There, relying in part on an 1892 Supreme Court case that held that "[i]t is necessary that a sufficient statutory authority should exist for declaring any act or omission a criminal offence" in the course of striking down a conviction for violating a bookkeeping regulation under the Oleomargarine Act (which, seriously, sounds insane. You should read more about it here and here).
The Fourth Circuit, on the other hand, held in United States v. Mitchell, 39 F.3d 465 (4th Cir. 1994), that section 545 criminalizes the violation of otherwise noncriminal regulations when the underlying regs are "legislative" in nature because, really, we're not going to lead the world in prison population without everyone doing their part.
The Eleventh Circuit ragged a bit on the Ninth Circuit's opinion, then noted that
lenity remains an important concern in criminal cases, especially where a regulation giving rise to what would appear to be civil remedies is said to be converted into a criminal law.
Because of ambiguity about whether the regulations that these brothers violated could be prosecuted criminally, the Eleventh Circuit held that, under the rule of lenity, they couldn't be.
The indictment, then, didn't allege a violation of the criminal law. And the brothers' convictions were vacated.
Gentle reader, you may be wondering whether, procedurally, this is kosher. Can it be that an appellate court can first raise whether the indictment charges a violation of the law at oral argument?
It can, because the issue is jurisdictional. If there's no adequate allegation of a crime, then the court of appeals doesn't have jurisdiction to hear the case. So, if there's a jurisdictional error, that can be raised at any point.
As the Eleventh Circuit noted,
In Seher, we held that this court is required to raise sua sponte the jurisdictional issue of whether the indictment sufficiently alleges an offense in violation of the laws of the United States provided the mandate has not issued on direct appeal. Seher, 562 F.3d at 1359.
Also, the opinion was written by Judge Jane Restani, a judge on the United States Court of International Trade, sitting by designation on the Eleventh Circuit. You don't see that very often.
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