In this appeal, we are asked to interpret the cost provisions of the federal law that makes it a crime to "knowingly and willfully communicate a false distress message to the United States Coast Guard." 14 U.S.C. § 88(c) (1990). We hold that, under the plain meaning of the statute, persons who knowingly and willfully cause the Coast Guard to expend resources on a false search and rescue mission are liable for all costs incurred by the Coast Guard in that mission, from start to finish.
Early in the morning of January 7, 1991, Benjamin Acardo James contacted the United States Coast Guard Station in Miami, Florida by radio. After identifying himself as "James Bacaardo,"
The Coast Guard dispatched a 42-foot boat to rescue James. However, the boat's direction-finding equipment indicated that James' vessel was not at sea but near Miami. A second 42-foot boat was then dispatched. Its direction-finding equipment confirmed the first boat's reading. At this point, the Coast Guard suspected that James' call was a hoax, but continued to pursue his calls as a real search and rescue mission.
After the helicopter crew had narrowed the search area to a location near East Coast Fisheries, the crewmen in the boats found James and watched him as he continued to send false distress signals. James was arrested at approximately 3:30 a.m., nearly three and one-half hours after the Coast Guard first received his call. The crewmen noted that James smelled of alcohol and found beer cans all over the boat.
James was charged with communicating a false distress message to the Coast Guard in violation of 14 U.S.C. § 88(c) (Count I); impersonating an officer or employee of the United States in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 912 (Count II); and making a false statement in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1001 (Count III). The court granted James' motion for acquittal as to Count II and the jury convicted James on Counts I and III. James was sentenced to two concurrent terms of probation for a total of two years with a special condition that he reside in a community treatment center for six months.
The government requested that, under 14 U.S.C. § 88(c), James be assessed the full costs incurred by the Coast Guard in
By sending out a false distress signal to the Coast Guard, James fell within the proscriptions of Title 14 of the United States Code, Section 88(c), which provides:
Thus, James' financial liability to the Coast Guard rests on an interpretation of subsection (3). James and the government agree that this provision should be interpreted according to its plain language. See Greyhound v. Mt. Hood Stages, Inc., 437 U.S. 322, 330, 98 S.Ct. 2370, 2735, 57 L.Ed.2d 239 (1978); United States v. Bradshaw, 840 F.2d 871, 874 (11th Cir.), cert. denied, 488 U.S. 924, 109 S.Ct. 305, 102 L.Ed.2d 324 (1988). This is particularly so where, as here, there is no clearly expressed legislative intent to the contrary. United States v. Rawlings, 821 F.2d 1543, 1545 (11th Cir.), cert. denied, 484 U.S. 979, 108 S.Ct. 494, 98 L.Ed.2d 492 (1987).
The parties disagree, however, on the meaning of the plain language. James argues, as he did below, that the cost provision is included in a section that deals exclusively with "saving lives and property," 14 U.S.C. § 88, whereas the section that follows, 14 U.S.C. § 89, deals with "law enforcement," but does not contain a cost provision.
The government, on the other hand, contends that Congress could not have been more clear in using the words "all costs the Coast Guard incurs" to express its intent. This argument is bolstered by the Supreme Court's decision in United States v. Monsanto, 491 U.S. 600, 109 S.Ct. 2657, 105 L.Ed.2d 512 (1989), in which the Court construed the criminal forfeiture statute, 21 U.S.C. § 853, as containing no exemption for assets used to pay attorneys' fees. That statute provides that a person convicted under federal drug abuse prevention and control laws "`shall forfeit ... any property' that was derived from the commission of these offenses." Id. at 607, 109 S.Ct. at 2662 (citing 21 U.S.C. § 853(a)). In a subsequent section of the statute, the sentencing court is directed to order the forfeiture of "all property" described in § 853(a). The Court wrote, "Congress could not have chosen stronger words to express its intent that forfeiture be mandatory in cases where the statute applied, or
We agree with the government that the correct interpretation of the cost provision in 14 U.S.C. § 88(c) requires that James be held liable for all costs the Coast Guard incurred in responding to James' false distress message. James clearly violated the statute in sending out such a false distress signal, and this unlawful act set in motion a chain of events which resulted in efforts directed at his apprehension. In other words, but for James' actions, the Coast Guard would not have expended any resources on a search and rescue mission and subsequent apprehension. Therefore, James should be responsible for the costs of the operation from beginning to completion.
In addition, as evidenced by the facts in this case, it is not always clear when the Coast Guard has moved from "saving lives and property" to "law enforcement," particularly when the Coast Guard's actions are part of one continuous operation. We would expect the Coast Guard to pursue a distress call, even when it suspects it is a hoax, until all doubts are resolved. As Coast Guard Lieutenant Bobotek testified at the sentencing hearing:
(R. 2 at 7-8). Furthermore, as was pointed out at trial and at the sentencing hearing, the use of Coast Guard units to investigate hoaxes — which must be done at the time the calls are being sent — means that those units are not available to respond to genuine rescue needs. One who causes the Coast Guard to waste its limited resources chasing down false distress signals should be held liable. Congress chose the assessment of costs as one part of that liability and we give full effect to Congress' intent.
Finally, James is not assisted by the rule of lenity, which requires courts to strictly construe criminal statutes to encompass only that conduct which Congress intended to criminalize. As this court consistently has recognized:
United States v. Hill, 863 F.2d 1575, 1582-83 (11th Cir.1989) (citations omitted). James, in fact, argues that the statute is clear on its face, and thus should be interpreted by its plain meaning. We agree, and thus hold that the rule of lenity is inapplicable in this case.
Accordingly, we REVERSE the decision of the district court and REMAND for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
(R. 2 at 7).