Was U.S. v. Hoskins Correctly Decided? (Probably Not.)

My post last week discussed the recent U.S. Court of Appeals decision in United States v. Hoskins, which held that a foreign national cannot be charged with aiding and abetting a violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), or with conspiracy to violate the FCPA, unless that foreign national either took some action connected to the violation within US territory, or else acted as an agent of a US domestic concern or an issuer of securities in the US. That’s a bit of a mouthful. To put this another way: The FCPA itself says that it applies extraterritorially to US nationals (including US firms), to non-US firms that issue securities on US markets, and to the officers, employees, directors, and to agents of firms in either of the preceding categories. The FCPA also applies to foreign individuals or firms (other than issuers) if but only if they engage in some part of the wrongful conduct while in US territory. The question is whether such foreign individuals (including non-issuer firms), who act outside of US territory, and so cannot be charged directly with violating the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions, can nevertheless be charged with aiding and abetting, and/or conspiring with, some other actor’s FCPA violation. In Hoskins, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit said no: Not only can a foreign national (other than an issuer or an agent of a US domestic concern or issuer) not be charged with FCPA violations based on conduct abroad, but such a defendant’s conduct abroad also cannot support a charge of aiding, abetting, or conspiring in an FCPA violation.

Perhaps because appellate court decisions on legal issues related to the FCPA are so rare, Hoskins has attracted considerable commentary. Most of this discussion, including my post last week, focuses on summarizing the court’s holding, considering its implications for future cases, and assessing whether Hoskins’ limitation of complicity and conspiracy liability is likely to improve or worsen FCPA enforcement overall. However, I haven’t seen very much commentary on the question whether, as a matter of legal doctrine and legal interpretation, Hoskins was decided correctly—that is, whether it is consistent with precedent, statutory text, and generally-accepted jurisprudential principals. That’s entirely understandable—most of the initial wave of commentary is coming either from law firms that want to explain to their clients what this decision means for them, or from those interested more in the policy issues than in parsing the doctrine. Nevertheless, I do think it’s worth getting a conversation going about whether Hoskins’ reasoning is (legally and doctrinally) sound. I may not be the best person to do this, as I’m not a criminal law specialist, but I figured I might as well take a crack at it, if only in the hopes that doing so might prompt some of the real experts to weigh in.

After reading the case a few times, and delving into some of the earlier case law and other materials, it seems to me that Hoskins is a hard case. Really really hard. And I tentatively think that is was probably decided incorrectly. Or maybe “incorrectly” is too strong—instead, perhaps I should say that the Hoskins result is in tension with existing doctrine, and the result the court reaches, though defensible, requires an aggressive expansion of traditional doctrinal principles, one that the court doesn’t really acknowledge. For those readers out there who care more about the policy bottom-line than about the intricacies of legal doctrine, you may want to stop here. Law nerds, read on! Continue reading