United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana
ORDER AND REASONS
STANWOOD R. DUVAL, Jr., District Judge.
Before the Court is the Defendant Matthaios Fafalios' Motion for Judgment of Acquittal (R. Doc. 101). Having reviewed the motion, memoranda, record, and relevant law, the Court DENIES the motion for the following reasons.
Defendant, Matthaios Fafalios, a Greek foreign-national, served as the Chief Engineer of M/V Trident Navigator, a bulk carrier cargo ship. On January 18, 2014, the ship entered the jurisdiction of the Eastern District of Louisiana, and the United States Coast Guard undertook an inspection and investigation of potential violations of international and United States law, including the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships (APPS), 33 U.S.C. § 1901, et seq. On June 26, 2014, the grand jury returned a indictment in this case, charging the Defendant with three counts: (i) a violation of APPS, 33 U.S.C. § 1908(a); (ii) obstruction of justice, 18 U.S.C. § 1505; and (iii) witness tampering, 18 U.S.C. § 1512(b)(3). Trial began on December 8, 2014, and continued through December 15, 2014. At the close of the Government's evidence on December 12, 2014, the Defendant made oral motions pursuant to Rule 29 for judgment of acquittal on Count One. The Court reserved ruling on the motion but allowed Defendant to renew its motion after the trial. On December 6, 2014, the jury returned a verdict of guilty as to all counts. After the jury verdict Defendant thereafter re-urged his motion for acquittal.
II. LEGAL STANDARD
A motion for judgment of acquittal challenges "the sufficiency of the evidence to convict." United States v. Hope, 487 F.3d 224, 227 (5th Cir. 2007)(quoting United States v. Lucio, 428 F.3d 519, 522 (5th Cir.2005)). Rule 29(a) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure provides that after the government closes its evidence or after the close of all evidence, on a defendant's motion, the court "must enter a judgment of acquittal of any offense for which the evidence is insufficient to sustain a conviction." As the Supreme Court stated in Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319, 99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560 (1979), "[t]he relevant question is whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt." See also United States v. Hope, 487 F.3d at 227-28. The court determines "only whether the jury made a rational decision, not whether its verdict was correct on the issue of guilt or innocence." United States v. Dean, 59 F.3d 1479, 1484 (5th Cir. 1995)(citation omitted). "[I]f the fact finder was presented with sufficient evidence to support the verdict reached, that verdict must be upheld." Lucio, 428 F.3d at 522.
In viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, the court must "consider the countervailing evidence as well as the evidence that supports the verdict in assessing sufficiency of the evidence." United States v. Moreland, 665 F.3d 137, 149 (5th Cir. 2011)(quoting United States v. Brown, 186 F.3d 661, 664 (5th Cir.1999)); see United States v. Peterson, 244 F.3d 385, 389 (5th Cir.2001) ("All evidence is considered, not just that supporting the verdict, but the evidence need not conclusively disprove alternatives; the jury is free to choose among reasonable constructions of the evidence."). The court must also draw upon " reasonable inferences from the evidence to support the verdict." United States v. Percel, 553 F.3d 903, 910 (5th Cir.2008) (quoting United States v. McDowell, 498 F.3d 308, 312 (5th Cir.2007)) (emphasis added). Though the court may not "weigh the evidence or assess the credibility of witnesses, " United States v. Lopez, 74 F.3d 575, 577 (5th Cir. 1996)(citations omitted), "[a] verdict may not rest on mere suspicion, speculation, or conjecture, or on an overly attenuated piling of inference on inference." United States v. Moreland, 665 F.3d 137, 149 (5th Cir.2011) (quoting United States v. Rojas Alvarez, 451 F.3d 320, 333-34 (5th Cir. 2006)).
Nevertheless, "[t]he evidence need not exclude every reasonable hypothesis of innocence or be wholly inconsistent with every conclusion except that of guilt, and the jury is free to choose among reasonable constructions of the evidence." United States v. Mendoza, 522 F.3d 482, 488 (5th Cir. 2008) (quoting United States v. Ortega Reyna, 148 F.3d 540, 543 (5th Cir.1998)). "Circumstances altogether inconclusive, if separately considered, may, by their number and joint operation, especially when corroborated by moral coincidences, be sufficient to constitute conclusive proof." United States v. Vasquez, 677 F.3d 685, 692 (5th Cir.2012). "But the evidence presented must allow the jury to find every element of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt." United States v. Uvalle-Patricio, 478 F.3d 699, 701 (5th Cir.2007) (internal quotation and citation omitted). If the evidence "gives equal or nearly equal circumstantial support to a theory of guilt or innocence, " the court should reverse because "under these circumstances a reasonable jury must necessarily entertain a reasonable doubt." Mendoza, 522 F.3d at 488-89 (quoting United States v. Ramos-Garcia, 184 F.3d 463, 465 (5th Cir.1999)).
Count One of the Indictment charged the Defendant with a violation of the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships, 33 U.S.C. § 1908(a), as follows:
On or about January 18, 2014, within the navigable waters, internal waters, and ports of the Eastern District of Louisiana, defendant MATTHAIOS FAFALIOS did knowingly fail to maintain an Oil Record Book for the M/V Trident Navigator in which all disposals of oil residue and discharges overboard and disposals otherwise of oily mixtures, slops from bilges, and bilge waste that accumulated in machinery spaces were fully recorded. Specifically, on or about January 18, 2014, the defendant, MATTHAIOS FAFALIOS, failed to maintain an accurate Oil Record Book by failing to disclose a discharge of bilge water that had accumulated in a machinery space that had been made with bypass equipment and without the use of a properly functioning Oily Water Separator and Oil Content Monitor, all in violation of Title 33, United States Code, Section 1908(a) and Title 33, Code of Federal Regulations, Section 151.25(a), (d), and (h) and the MARPOL Protocol, Annex I, Regulation 17, 1340 U.N.T.S. 61, 62 & 84.
(R. Doc. 1, 4). In his Rule 29 motion, Defendant argues that the Government failed to meet its burden of proof with respect to Count One, the APPS charge under section 1908(a). Specifically, the Defendant alleges that Government failed to prove with sufficient evidence that the Defendant knowingly violated the regulations issued under APPS or the MARPOL Protocol.
The Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships, Title 33, United States Code, Section 1901, et seq., represents Congress' implementation of two related marine environmental treaties to which the United States is a party: the 1973 International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from ships and the Protocol of 1978 relating to the International Convention for the Pollution from Ships. These treaties are known collectively as MARPOL 73/78 ("the MARPOL Protocol"). APPS authorizes the Coast Guard to "prescribe any necessary or desired regulations to carry out the provisions of the MARPOL protocol..." 33 U.S.C. § 1903(b)(1). Thus, section 1908(a) of APPS makes it a crime to knowingly violate any of these provisions: "A person who knowingly violates the MARPOL Protocol, Annex IV to the Antarctic Protocol, this chapter, or the regulations issued thereunder commits a class D felony." 33 U.S.C. § 1908(a).
In Count One of the indictment, the Government charged the Defendant with violating MARPOL Protocol, Annex I, Regulation 17, 1340 U.N.T.S. 61, 62 & 84. Paragraph one of Regulation 17 states that "[e]very oil tanker of 150 gross tonnage and above and every ship of 400 gross tonnage and above other than an oil tanker shall be provided ...