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United States v. Mast

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

September 16, 2019

United States of America Plaintiff - Appellee
v.
Kevin Jay Mast Defendant-Appellant

          Submitted: February 14, 2019

          Appeal from United States District Court for the District of South Dakota - Sioux Falls

          Before LOKEN, COLLOTON, and KELLY, Circuit Judges.

          KELLY, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         In 2010, Kevin Jay Mast came up with a plan to install drain tile to drain water from certain areas of his property in Brookings County, South Dakota, so as to make it more suitable for farming. He requested approval of his drainage project from the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). The NRCS noted that Mast's property was subject to an easement that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) had acquired from a previous property owner in 1973, and it instructed Mast to seek permission from the FWS for his drainage project. The FWS easement prohibited draining of "small wetland or pothole areas suitable for use as waterfowl production areas." The FWS created a map of the wetland areas on the property and sent it to Mast, explaining that his proposed drainage project would violate the terms of the easement and suggesting alternate locations on the property where drain tile could be installed without interfering with the identified wetland areas. Nearly two years later, in response to Mast's 2010 request for approval, the NRCS sent Mast another map identifying "wetland locations and setback distances" in which drain tile could not be installed, which differed from the areas identified on the FWS map.

         In the fall of 2013, Mast installed drain tile on his property in a manner consistent with the NRCS map but inconsistent with the FWS map. The government charged Mast with knowingly disturbing property within the National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS), in violation 16 U.S.C. § 668dd(c) and (f)(1). At trial, the district court instructed the jury on both the charged offense and the lesser-included offense of otherwise disturbing NWRS property, in violation of § 668dd(c) and (f)(2). The jury found Mast not guilty of the greater offense but guilty of the lesser offense.

         Mast appeals his conviction and sentence. He raises many issues on appeal, but we need address only one: whether the jury was properly instructed on the mental state required by the lesser offense. Jury instructions are usually reviewed for abuse of discretion, but where, as here, "statutory interpretation is required, 'it is an issue of law that we consider de novo.'" United States v. Carlson, 810 F.3d 544, 551 (8th Cir. 2016) (quoting United States v. Petrovic, 701 F.3d 849, 858 (8th Cir. 2012)).

         "[D]etermining the mental state required for commission of a federal crime requires construction of the statute and inference of the intent of Congress." Staples v. United States, 511 U.S. 600, 605 (1994) (cleaned up). We begin with the statute itself. See id. 16 U.S.C. § 668dd(c) prohibits "disturb[ing]" NWRS property, including land subject to easements such as the easement at issue here.[1] Criminal penalties are set out in subsection (f), which provides:

(1) Knowing violations
Any person who knowingly violates or fails to comply with any of the provisions of this Act or any regulations issued thereunder shall be fined under Title 18 or imprisoned for not more than 1 year, or both.
(2) Other violations
Any person who otherwise violates or fails to comply with any of the provisions of this Act (including a regulation issued under this Act) shall be fined under Title 18 or imprisoned not more than 180 days, or both.

         Mast was charged with a knowing violation under subsection (f)(1).

         When fashioning the jury instructions for Mast's trial, the district court correctly noted that the sole difference between (f)(1)'s greater offense and (f)(2)'s lesser offense is the requisite mental state. The district court instructed the jury that the greater offense required proof beyond a reasonable doubt "that Mast knew the wetlands at issue were subject to an easement," whereas the lesser offense did not. In other words, it instructed the ...


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