Federal and State Laws Make Importation of Prohibited Animals, Such as Piranha, a Criminal Offense

A man pleaded guilty in January to federal charges related to importing prohibited wildlife, specifically piranha, in falsely-labeled packaging. U.S. v. Rakower, No. 1:13-cr-00696 (E.D.N.Y.) Federal law and laws in many states, including Texas, prohibit the importation, purchase, sale, and possession of various species of animals deemed “exotic” without a permit, allowing both civil and criminal proceedings for alleged violations. The statutes and regulations do not always specify whether the state must prove that a defendant acted intentionally or knowingly. This is an important feature in most criminal statutes that protects defendants by ensuring that prosecutors must prove that a person acted with some criminal state of mind.

The Lacey Act, 16 U.S.C. §§ 3371 et seq., provides a wide range of protections for plants and animals, with both civil and criminal penalties. It generally prohibits any trade in wildlife, fish, and plants that have been obtained or transported in violation of any law or treaty. Some prohibitions are motivated by concerns of conservation and apply to endangered or threatened species. Others are based on public safety, such as in the case of the piranha, a notorious carnivorous fish that is native to South American rivers. One court, in affirming criminal penalty provisions regarding the piranha, noted that it is “an extremely voracious, aggressive, carnivorous fish” that poses “a danger to other fish, to mammals, and to human beings.” Adams v. Shannon, 7 Cal.App.3d 427, 433 (Cal. App. 2nd Dist. 1970).

In the present case, prosecutors alleged that the defendant, through a solely-owned corporation, imported nearly 40,000 piranhas from a tropical fish supplier in Hong Kong. He allegedly directed the supplier to label the fish as silver tetras, an unremarkable aquarium fish, to get the packages through U.S. Fish and Wildlife inspections. He and the corporation were each charged with one count of false labeling in violation of the Lacey Act. 16 U.S.C. § 3372(d)(3). Both defendants pleaded guilty on January 29, 2014, agreeing to pay fines and restitution to state environmental regulators. Sentencing is scheduled for April.

Texas law includes piranha in its definition of “harmful or potentially harmful exotic fish.” 31 Tex. Admin. Code § 57.111(15)(F). It prohibits buying, selling, importing, possessing, or transporting any such fish within the state without a permit, and prescribes penalties under two different statutes. Id. at §§ 57.112(b)(1), 57.137. A violation may be a Class C Parks and Wildlife Code misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of $25 to $500, Tex. Parks & Wildlife Code §§ 12.406, 66.012(a); or a general Class B misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum fine of $2,000 and maximum jail term of 180 days. Tex. Agr. Code § 134.023(b), Tex. Pen. Code § 12.22. None of the statutes or regulations seem to require proof that a person acted with knowledge, intent, or even recklessness.

Criminal defendants have rights under the U.S. Constitution that police, prosecutors, and courts must respect at all times. Board-certified criminal defense attorney Michael J. Brown has spent more than twenty years fighting for the rights of west Texas defendants in criminal cases, and he has worked as an FBI agent and a federal prosecutor. To schedule a confidential consultation regarding your legal matter, contact us today online or at (432) 687-5157.

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