Seven people have recently been taken into custody on charges related to the trafficking of endangered black rhinoceros horns. Four of the seven individuals were arrested in the Los Angeles area as part of an investigation called “Operation Crash,” a nationwide, multi-agency effort to investigate and prosecute those involved in the black market trade of endangered rhinoceros horns.

Operation Crash is a continuing investigation by the Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service (F&WS), which received assistance from other federal and local law enforcement agencies including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), and the Internal Revenue Service. The investigation is being led by the Special Investigations Unit of the F&WS Office of Law Enforcement and involves a task force of agents focused on rhino trafficking.

On February 22, federal authorities arrested a Chinese national who allegedly oversaw the shipment of dozens of rhino horns from the United States to China. Jin Zhao Feng was arrested by special agents with the F&WS after he arrived at LAX on a flight from China.

In a case filed in the Central District of California, members of a U.S.-based trafficking ring that allegedly supplied rhino horns to Feng were arrested – three in Southern California and one in Texas – after being charged with conspiracy and violations of the Lacey Act and the Endangered Species Act. According to a criminal complaint filed in federal court in Los Angeles, authorities have apparently documented the shipment of rhino horns since 2010, and during the investigation 17 packages were opened pursuant to federal search warrants, which led to the discovery of 37 rhinoceros horns.

The five individuals charged in Los Angeles are Jin Zhao Feng, 45, of China; Vinh “Jimmy” Choung Kha, 49, of Garden Grove, the owner of Win Lee Corporation; Felix Kha, 26, of Garden Grove, who is Jimmy Kha’s son; Nhu Mai Thi Nguyen, 41, of Highland, the owner of a nail salon where packages containing rhinoceros horns were being mailed; and Jarrod Wade Steffen, 32, of Hico, Texas, who allegedly supplied the Khas with rhino horns.

If convicted, maximum penalties under these charges are up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for conspiracy; five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for Lacey Act violations; and up to one year in prison and a $100,000 fine for violations of the Endangered Species Act.

Two related cases of alleged trafficking of rhino horns have been pursued under Operation Crash. Amir Even-Ezra was recently arrested in New Jersey on a felony trafficking charge in violation of the Lacey Act after purchasing rhino horns from an individual from New York at a service station off of the New Jersey Turnpike. Antiques expert David Hausman was arrested in relation to a case filed in federal court in Manhattan that charges him with illegally trafficking rhinoceros horns and with creating false documents to conceal the illegal nature of the transaction. Hausman allegedly purchased a black rhinoceros mount (a taxidermied head of a rhinoceros) from an undercover officer in Illinois and was later observed sawing off the horns in a motel parking lot.

Rhinoceros are an herbivore species of prehistoric origin and one of the largest remaining mega-fauna on earth. All species of rhinoceros are protected under U.S. and international law. All black rhinoceros species are endangered. The rhino horn, made of keratin, has become a sought after commodity due to its rarity after the international ban on trade since 1976. Although many environmental and animal crimes are not publicized as often as other federal crimes such as various kinds of fraud, the U.S. government continues to pursue ongoing crimes in these areas, as evidenced by these cases. The penalties for violations of such crimes are quite severe.

The Lacey Act was enacted in 1900, and has been amended over the years. Specifically, the Act prohibits trade in wildlife, fish, and plants that have been illegally taken, possessed, transported or sold. In sum, the Lacey Act prevents trafficking of endangered species, and imposes civil and criminal penalties if convicted.

The Endangered Species Act applies to federal agencies, and ensures that actions they authorize, fund, or carry out are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any listed species or result in the destruction or adverse modification of designated critical habitat of such species. The law also prohibits any action that causes a “taking” of any listed species of endangered fish or wildlife. Likewise, import, export, interstate, and foreign commerce of listed species are all generally prohibited.

The author of this blog is Erich Ferrari, an attorney specializing in Federal Criminal Defense matters. If you have any questions please contact him at 202-280-6370 or ferrari@ferrari-legal.com.

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