Last week, the Department of Justice announced the indictment of eight men from across the U.S. on charges of violations of the Lacey Act, a federal law that prohibits the trade in protected animal and plant species. The government claims in four separate indictments that the defendants— Petr Babenko, Felix Baravik, Dmitri Elitchev, Arkadiy Lvovskiy, Artour Magdessian, Bogdan Nahapetyan, Fedor Pakhnyuk and Andrew Praskovsky—were involved in the illegal trade of caviar, manufactured from the eggs of the American paddlefish. Eighty-five federal agents were involved in the investigation, which as identified over 100 suspects, many of whom have not yet been indicted.
The American paddlefish is a species of fish closely related to sturgeon that lives in the stream tributaries of the Mississippi River drainage system. Due to the decline of sturgeon—the traditional source of caviar—due to overfishing, the caviar industry has increasingly relied on the paddlefish as an alternate source of caviar. This has led to overfishing of paddlefish, which has now itself become a threatened species. Under Missouri law, and the law of a number of other states, it is illegal to sell, purchase, or transport paddlefish eggs, and sport fishing of the paddlefish has been significantly limited.
According to the government, the defendants traveled to Warsaw, Missouri in the spring of 2011 and 2012 to purchase paddlefish, collect their eggs and process them into caviar, and transport the caviar to other states and, in one case, internationally in violation of the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Four of the defendants allegedly attempted to evade detection by authorities by using counter-surveillance techniques while transporting the caviar to Colorado. If convicted, the defendants face up to five years imprisonment, fines of up to $250,000 for each violation, and forfeiture of any property involved in the illegal conduct.
The Lacey Act, under which the eight defendants were indicted, creates federal crimes for numerous types of violations of state laws protecting endangered plant and animal species. The Act, which was passed in 1900, has undergone numerous amendments and is increasingly used by the federal government to prosecute a wide variety of conduct, even those not directly involved in the illegal collection of threatened species.
Notably, the federal government sued the Gibson Guitar Corporation in 2011 alleging that it had purchased rosewood and ebony illegally logged in Madagascar. The company denied any wrongdoing but settled the case claiming that it would be more expensive to litigate than to pay the $350,000 settlement amount.
In another recent case, the 72-year-old owner of a Colorado outfitting company was convicted of Lacey Act violations for baiting wild game with salt and taking clients to hunt them. The elderly man was sentenced to 41 months imprisonment and ordered to pay $37,390 in restitution to the state of Colorado.
Lacey Act investigations are conducted by a number of federal agencies including the Park Service, Forest Service, and Fish and Wildlife Service. Additionally, investigations by state agencies are commonly referred to the federal government for prosecution. The large number of Lacy Act prosecutions has even led to the creation of new investigative sections within federal agencies, such as the Wildlife and Marine Resources Section of the DOJ’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. As lawyers in the Gibson case claimed, the increasing number of prosecutions under the Lacey Act over recent years show and “increasing trend on the part of the government to criminalize rules and regulations and treat U.S. businesses in the same way as drug dealers are treated.”
Despite the growing number of Lacey Act prosecutions, it remains an area unknown to most criminal attorneys. Our federal criminal lawyers have an outstanding record in defense of federal crimes and our firm is one of a few law firms in the U.S. with significant experience representing clients in Lacey Act cases. In one recent case we were able to resolve felony charges brought under the Act with a plea agreement to a misdemeanor violation.