Restitution For False Distress Calls in Criminal Cases – United States of America v. Serafini

coast guardWhen we think of crimes committed and criminal punishments, jail time is usually the first penalty that comes to mind. Criminals who have harmed others must pay with their time and freedom by spending a period in a jail or prison. In lesser circumstances, this may be converted to probation or a suspended sentence, but restrictions on freedom are still imposed. Another, but less often thought of, remedy available to prosecutors is that of restitution. When a crime has imposed a significant financial loss on another individual or entity, the criminal may be required to pay that money back. However, restitution may not be universally imposed. Instead, it must be authorized by statute.

In United States of America v. Serafini, Mr. Serafini was rescued after the boat that he was on drifted into a restricted marine area. When questioned about how he came to be on the boat and how he ended up in this restricted area, Mr. Serafini said he had been assisting another man to get on the boat and was then unable to safely return to shore. Instead, he stayed on the boat. According to Mr. Serafini, the other man and he later got into a dispute, and Mr. Serafini pushed the other man off the boat and then drifted into the restricted area. The Coast Guard then began a search to look for the other man.

Ultimately, they were unable to find him, but they learned that Mr. Serafini had likely stolen the boat he was on. Mr. Serafini was arrested and admitted at the police station that he had taken medication that may have caused him to imagine the second man. He was charged under a federal statute with communicating a false distress message under 14 U.S.C. 88(c). He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 14 months imprisonment. He was also sentenced with an order to pay restitution of $117,913 to the Coast Guard for the costs incurred in their search and rescue. Mr. Serafini appealed the restitution sentence, arguing that the statute did not permit restitution in criminal cases.

14 U.S.C. 88(c) states that individuals may be held liable in civil or criminal proceedings for “all costs the Coast Guard incurs as a result of the individual’s actions.” Mr. Serafini argued that while this might apply to civil redress in a civil action, it did not permit restitution in a criminal action because criminal restitution was not explicitly set forth in the statute. The Fourth Circuit disagreed. First, it noted that the explicit purpose of the statute was to protect the Coast Guard’s resources in dealing with search and rescue operations and to protect its employees from harm. Thus, the statute explicitly contemplated financial recovery for the Coast Guard.

Second, the court held that the language of the statute in no way limited restitution to civil cases. Instead, it allowed liability for all costs in criminal or civil proceedings. The court also noted that while other federal statutes may explicitly reference restitution, this did not require 14 U.S.C. 88(c) to do so. Instead, providing for the recovery of “all costs” was sufficient.  Accordingly, the court denied Mr. Serafini’s appeal.

Here, the Fourth Circuit made clear that restitution may be used as punishment in a criminal case even when it may not be explicitly referenced in the statute, as long as the general language is unambiguous.  When considering the risks of a criminal conviction, it is important to carefully consider the possibility of restitution as a punishment in addition to jail time, and to speak with your attorney regarding whether restitution may apply in your case. The West Virginia criminal defense lawyers at the Wolfe Law Firm have been serving clients in both state and federal courts for more than 25 years. Call us at 1-877-637-5756 or contact us online for a free consultation.

Related blog posts:

Can Family Gifts Be Used to Pay Restitution? – Painter v. Ballard

Restitution Just One of the Financial Consequences of a Criminal Conviction in West Virginia – State v. Hawkins

A Plea Deal Gone Wrong in West Virginia – State v. Fields