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Appeal could put Secretary of Agriculture in courthouse door

For the first time since the U.S. Department of Justice increased filing criminal charges for food safety violations, it may get its wings clipped just a bit by a challenge to district court jurisdiction in some limited instances.

At issue is a jurisdictional question being raised on appeal that could prevent some criminal charges from being filed in any of the 94 U.S. district courts on the grounds that the Secretary of Agriculture has sole jurisdiction.

courtroomdoor_406x250A “conclusive exception” to district court jurisdiction exists for criminal charges involving “false labeling,” which fall under the province of the Secretary of Agriculture, claim the appellants in a Consolidated Reply Brief filed with the 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

Appellants are William B. Aossey Jr., 74, his son Jalel Aossey, 41, and Midamar Corp., the family business based in Cedar Rapids, IA. Their now-combined appeals stem from criminal convictions in July 2015 in the U.S. District Court for Northern Iowa on charges of falsifying documents and other records involving the export of supposedly Halal-certified meat products to Muslim countries.

Through their attorney, Jason R. Klinowski of Wallace, Jordon, Ratliff & Brandt LLC of Birmingham, AL, the appellants are seeking to have the judgments against them set aside and the indictments dismissed.

A panel of 8th Circuit judges will be assigned shortly to hear oral arguments in the legal dispute over jurisdiction. A date for the oral arguments has not yet been assigned.

Klinowski writes, “At bottom, these appeals turn on the meaning of a congressionally-specified exception in the text of the statute conferring criminal ‘jurisdiction’ on the district court. Consistent with the proper rules of strict construction for criminal cases, the exception applies for the “false labeling’ cases under the Federal Meat Inspection Act … .”

“Those cases are committed the decision-making expertise of the Secretary of Agriculture, and as the U.S. Attorney noted, the exception is narrow … . As he also has noted, the sanctions available to the Secretary for charges of false labeling are ‘conclusive,” Klinowski adds.

“Consistent with proper rules of strict construction for criminal cases the Secretary’s narrow ‘conclusive’ authority over ‘false labeling’ should be understood to repeal district court jurisdiction over indictment charging ‘false labeling,” he continued.

How the circuit court judges read the legal texts is likely to decide the case. Klinowski writes that the U.S. Attorney has to abandon “well-accepted canons of construction” to argue that the exception is not clear enough to limit district court jurisdiction.” While the exception exists so too does language granting district courts jurisdiction over “all offenses against the United States.”

The appeal argues that the Secretary of Agriculture has exclusive jurisdiction “to determine conclusively whether labels for meat or meat products are false or misleading and, if so, to order that labels not be used until modified to eliminate the falsity. It leaves no room for parallel criminal proceedings to determine such factual matters, but instead, leaves them to the Secretary for ‘conclusive” jurisdiction, subject to judicial review only by the Circuit of Appeals.”

The elder Aossey is serving a two-year federal prison sentence to be followed by three years of supervised release, along with a fine and assessments totaling $61,500. He has been in custody since the July 2015 jury trial, which means he is scheduled to be released next year.

Jalel Aossey, who originally faced a 92-count indictment, negotiated a plea agreement with the government and pleaded to a single count, as did Midamar. He is serving a year and a day in federal prison, with a release date set for Feb. 15, 2017.

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