On March 14, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the conviction against Matthaios Fafalios, the chief engineer of the Trident Navigator, who was wrongfully charged and convicted in December 2014 of “failing to maintain an oil record book aboard a foreign-flagged merchant sea vessel, in violation of 33 U.S.C. § 1908(a) and 33 C.F.R. § 151.25.”
At the close of the government’s evidence at trial, Fafalios, a Greek seafarer, moved for judgment of acquittal pursuant to Fed. R. Crim. P. 29 on the grounds that the government failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was the “master or other person in charge” of the vessel and therefore he was not legally required under the Coast Guard’s regulations to maintain the oil record book.
The District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana denied the motion for judgment of acquittal, and Fafalios sought appellate review of the conviction by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Fifth Circuit reviewed the language contained in the applicable statutes and regulations, confirming that where the language is unambiguous, the Court should not look beyond the plain language of the statute or regulation. The Court stated unequivocally that “under the plain language of the regulations, only the ‘master or other person having charge of the ship’ is responsible for maintenance of the oil record book.”
The Fifth Circuit rejected the government’s reasons for why the conviction should be upheld. First, the government challenged the applicability of Rule 29, arguing that Fafalios should have moved to dismiss the indictment before trial allowing the government an opportunity to correct any insufficiency. The Court disagreed.
In addition, the Fifth Circuit rejected the prosecutor’s argument that the chief engineer’s responsibility to sign and record bilge water operations in the oil record book was a “continuing obligation.” The Court held that any failure by Fafalios to make a required entry occurred while he (and the vessel) were still in international waters and therefore the United States did not have jurisdiction over such an offense, as the “failure to sign an oil record book while in international waters, standing alone, is not a violation of either APPS or its attendant regulations.”
The Court concluded that the regulation’s requirement for the record book to be signed “without delay” implied that the offense was committed as soon as the book was not signed, and that different language would have been used by the drafters if a continuing obligation was intended.
Further, the Court rejected the government’s alternative argument that Fafalios was obligated, as the vessel’s chief engineer, to comply with the regulations’ requirement for the ship, itself, to “maintain” an oil record book, finding that such argument was “foreclosed by traditional rules of statutory construction, not to mention common sense.”
The Fifth Circuit criticized the government’s “strained reasoning” as to why this duty should extend to chief engineers, finding that there was “no convincing explanation” as to why the ship’s duty should be delegated to a chief engineer, especially when the applicable statutes permit an in rem cause of action against the ship.
Recognizing the lack of merit to the case, the government’s argument that the Coast Guard had a well-known practice of enforcing regulations against chief engineers which was rejected out of hand by the Fifth Circuit as “being without merit.”
The Court of Appeals highlighted that the Coast Guard’s past practices did not provide a reason to deviate from the regulation’s plain language.
Finally, in rejecting what it referred to as an “unusual” policy argument, the Fifth Circuit stated that it was unpersuaded by the government’s concerns that reading the regulation to impose the duty to maintain the record book only on the vessel’s master would cause chief engineers to falsify records and conceal their falsification from the master.
In addition, the Fifth Circuit found the government’s argument to be nothing more than a “contrived hypothetical.”
George M. Chalos, George A. Gaitas, and Briton P. Sparkman represented Mr. Fafalios during his criminal trial in the Eastern District of Louisiana. George M. Chalos presented the oral argument to the panel for the Fifth Circuit on December 4, 2015.