U.S. v. Sabretech, 00-14516

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (11th Circuit)
Citation271 F.3d 1018
Docket NumberNo. 00-14516,00-14516
Parties(11th Cir. 2001) UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. SABRETECH, INC., Defendant-Appellant
Decision Date31 October 2001

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

Before EDMONDSON, DUBINA and POLITZ*, Circuit Judges.

DUBINA, Circuit Judge:

On May 11, 1996, a ValuJet commercial airliner crashed in the Florida Everglades and all persons on board perished. It was a tragic accident that could have been avoided. Following an investigation, the government, for the first time, indicted an aviation repair station, SabreTech ("SabreTech"), and several of its employees for various violations related to the transportation of hazardous materials. The record reflects that these aviation repair station personnel committed mistakes, but they did not commit crimes. The jury found SabreTech not guilty of willful violations of the Hazardous Materials Transportation Act ("HMTA"). 49 U.S.C. § 5124 (1994). The jury did, however, find SabreTech guilty of recklessly causing the transportation of hazardous material in air commerce. 49 U.S.C. § 46312 (1994). We hold that the government and the district court improperly relied upon hazardous materials regulations that had not been authorized by the Federal Aviation Act ("FAA), as required by 49 U.S.C. § 46312, to support the reckless counts. As will be discussed infra, these counts are a legal nullity. Accordingly, we affirm in part, vacate and remand in part.

I. BACKGROUND

From July 1995 until June 1999, SabreTech engaged in the repair, modification, and maintenance of commercial aircraft. In January 1996, ValuJet Airlines delivered three used McDonnell Douglas MD-80 aircraft to SabreTech's facility in Miami, Florida, for major modification and maintenance prior to their introduction into the ValuJet fleet. In the course of overhauling these aircraft, SabreTech's mechanics determined that many of the oxygen generators1 had exceeded their 12 year service life. ValuJet personnel issued written work orders instructing the mechanics to remove the old oxygen generators and install new ones. The work orders listed steps for SabreTech's mechanics to follow when replacing the old oxygen generators with new ones. The work orders contained a warning that unexpended oxygen generators could generate extremely high temperatures.

In the process of removing the old oxygen generators, mechanic John Taber ("Taber") noticed the absence of shipping caps. Taber asked his supervisor David Wiles ("Wiles") about the shipping caps, and Wiles told him to set the old generators aside and continue working. Taber, along with fellow mechanics Robert Rodriguez ("Rodriguez") and Eugene Florence ("Florence"), then proceeded to wrap the lanyards tightly around the firing pins of the generators and tape the ends of the lanyards to the body of the generators to prevent the release of the trigger mechanism. In March 1996, new generators, bearing yellow, diamond-shaped stickers, arrived at the SabreTech facility. The mechanics installed the new generators and tagged the old generators with green "unserviceable" tags on which they wrote "out-of-date" as the reason for removal. The mechanics boxed the generators and stored them in the hangar where they remained for six weeks.

On May 10, 1996, SabreTech shipping clerk Andy Salas ("Salas") re-packed the generators with bubble wrap and placed them in boxes that he sealed with tape. He placed ValuJet "COMAT" labels on the boxes, indicating that the boxes contained ValuJet "company materials." The shipping ticket described the contents as "5 boxes" of "Oxy Canisters Empty." The next day, a SabreTech driver took the boxes to the ValuJet ramp area where Flight 592 was scheduled to depart for Atlanta. ValuJet personnel placed the boxes in the forward section of the aircraft's cargo compartment. Shortly after take-off, a fire erupted on the plane. Flight 592 crashed into the Everglades and killed all 110 persons on board.

On July 13, 1991, a grand jury returned a 24-count indictment against SabreTech and employees Daniel Gonzalez ("Gonzalez") Florence, and Mario Valenzuela ("Valenzuela).2 Count I charged all defendants with conspiracy to make false statements on aircraft maintenance records, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1001. Count II charged Gonzalez with knowingly and willfully making a false statement on a maintenance record, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1001. Counts III - VI charged SabreTech, Florence, and Valenzuela with knowingly and willfully making false statements on ValuJet maintenance records, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1001-1002. Counts VII, IX, XI, XIII, XV, XVII, XIX, and XXI charged SabreTech with willfully causing the transportation in air commerce of hazardous materials without complying with packaging, marking, and labeling requirements of hazardous materials regulations, in violation of the HMTA, 49 U.S.C. § 5124, 18 U.S.C. § 2, and 49 C.F.R. §§ 171.2(a), 171.3(a), 172.202(a)(1)-(5), 172.300, 172.301(a), 173.24(e)(4), 173.24(b)(2), 173.24a(a)(3), 173.27(b)(3). Counts VIII, X, XII, XIV, XVI, XVIII, XX, XXII charged SabreTech with willfully causing the transportation in air commerce of oxygen generators, in violation of the FAA, 49 U.S.C. § 46312, and 18 U.S.C. § 2. These counts also charged all defendants with recklessly causing the transportation in air commerce of oxygen generators, in violation of 49 U.S.C. § 46312 and 18 U.S.C. § 2. Count XXIII charged SabreTech with willfully failing to train its employees in accordance with hazardous materials regulations, in violation of 49 U.S.C. § 5124, 18 U.S.C. § 2, and 49 C.F.R. §§ 172.702(a), 172.704(a)(2). Count XXIV charged SabreTech with willfully placing destructive devices on the plane, in violation of the Aircraft Sabotage Act, 18 U.S.C. §§ 31, 32 and 18 U.S.C. § 2.

Prior to trial, SabreTech moved to dismiss the section 46312 counts, arguing that the FAA had not authorized, as required by 49 U.S.C. § 46312, the hazardous materials regulations cited as predicates for the alleged criminal activity. Following argument, a magistrate judge recommended that the counts be dismissed. The district court rejected the recommendation. The trial commenced, and at the conclusion of the government's case, SabreTech renewed its pretrial motion to dismiss the section 46312 counts. The district court denied that motion. SabreTech also moved for judgment of acquittal on the section 46312 counts, the section 5124 counts, and the hazardous materials training count, on the ground that the government had presented insufficient evidence to support these counts. The district court also denied this motion. The district court did, however, grant a judgment of acquittal to Florence, finding the evidence insufficient to support a section 46312 charge against him.

After trial, the jury acquitted SabreTech of Counts I, III-VII, IX, XI, XIII, XV, XVII, XIX, XXI, and XXIV. The jury found SabreTech guilty of Counts VIII, X, XII, XIV, XVI, XVIII, XX, XXII, and XXIII. The jury acquitted Gonzalez of all charges and Florence of all remaining charges. Following an extensive sentencing hearing, the district court sentenced SabreTech to pay a fine of $2,000,000 and restitution of $9,060,400.

II. ISSUES

1. Whether the district court erred in denying SabreTech's motion to dismiss the 49 U.S.C. § 46312 counts.

2. Whether the evidence was sufficient to convict SabreTech on the reckless counts and the failure to train count.

3. Whether the district court erred in imposing both a fine and restitution on SabreTech.

III. STANDARDS OF REVIEW

"The interpretation of a statute is a question of law subject to de novo review." United States v. Hooshmand, 931 F.2d 725, 737 (11th Cir. 1991). This court reviews de novo the sufficiency of the evidence, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the government. United States v. Diaz, 248 F.3d 1065, 1084 (11th Cir. 2001). "This court ordinarily reviews a district court's restitution order for abuse of discretion." United States v. Davis, 117 F.3d 459, 462 (11th Cir. 1997).

IV. DISCUSSION
A. Validity of Reckless Counts

SabreTech argues that the statutory and regulatory history creates a dichotomy between the HMTA and the FAA that cannot support as a crime the reckless violations of the hazardous materials regulations. It contends that the reckless counts are a legal nullity. In these counts, the government alleged that SabreTech should be punished pursuant to 49 U.S.C. § 46312 - the criminal penalty provision of the former FAA - for violation of certain hazardous materials regulations. Section 46312(a)(2) makes it a crime to recklessly cause to be transported hazardous material in violation of any regulation or requirement prescribed under the FAA. SabreTech posits that the regulations it was convicted of recklessly violating were not enacted under the FAA. These regulations were promulgated under a different statutory authority - the HMTA. That statute penalizes only willful violations of its regulations. 49 U.S.C. § 5124. Therefore, SabreTech contends that the government improperly charged it with a crime. We agree.3

1. Statutory Overview

By way of background, Congress originally enacted 49 U.S.C. § 46312 in 1949 as Section 902(h) of the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938, as amended. Pub. L. No. 81-186, 63 Stat. 480 (1949). Section 902 was the criminal penalty provision of the Act. The 1949 amendment made it a crime to deliver knowingly, or cause to be delivered for transportation, or cause the transportation of explosives or other dangerous articles in violation of regulations promulgated by the Civil Aeronautics Board under Title VII of the Civil Aeronautics Act. Thus, at that time, the Civil Aeronautics Board was responsible for the regulation and enforcement of the transportation of explosives and dangerous articles by air.4

In 1958, Congress...

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