The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is putting some muscle behind Regulation Best Interest (Reg BI). On June 16, 2022, nearly two years after Reg BI went into effect, the SEC filed its first federal lawsuit to enforce the rule against a broker-dealer and its registered representatives.

The SEC sued Western International Securities, Inc. (Western), a dually registered broker-dealer and investment advisor, along with five of its registered representatives, in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California for allegedly violating Reg BI’s care obligation; the defendants allegedly recommended certain high-risk, speculative bonds to retail customers without themselves fully understanding the associated asset risks and without establishing how the investments served the customers’ best interests. The SEC also charged Western with violating its compliance obligation under Reg BI for allegedly failing to maintain adequate policies and procedures and other controls.

The fact that the SEC sued registered representatives — notwithstanding allegations that their firm had inadequate internal controls and policies —  is a strong statement that individuals must use their best judgment to make their own independent inquiries and determinations about the products they recommend to their clients. Registered representatives cannot hide behind their firm’s guidance and control failures to escape primary liability under Reg BI.Continue Reading SEC’s First Reg BI Lawsuit Takes Strong Position on Individual Liability

On December 26, 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) announced a settlement with communications technology firm Polycom, Inc. (“Polycom” or the “Company”) for violating the books and records and internal accounting controls provisions of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”) in connection with a scheme to bribe Chinese government officials. Under the settlement, Polycom agreed to pay the SEC approximately $12.5 million in disgorgement and prejudgment interest and a civil money penalty of $3.8 million. The Polycom settlement illustrates the liability that can arise from reliance on third-party agents such as distributors, but—as explored below—also presents a missed opportunity for the SEC to provide some clarifying guidance for companies looking to avoid similar outcomes.
Continue Reading SEC’s Polycom FCPA Settlement Leaves Unanswered Questions

On May 9, 2018, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion in United States v. Kolsuz, holding that the Fourth Amendment requires individualized suspicion for forensic searches of cell phones seized at the border.

In so holding, the Fourth Circuit provides important clarification about how the Fourth Amendment applies to border searches of electronic devices. But, both in the Fourth Circuit and in jurisdictions across the country, critical questions remain unanswered about the scope of the Fourth Amendment in this context.

Source: ACLU.org

The Decision

In United States v. Kolsuz, federal customs agents found firearm parts in the checked luggage of an airport traveler and then detained him as he was attempting to board an international flight. Subsequently, and without a warrant, agents seized his cell phone and “subjected it to a month-long, off-site forensic analysis, yielding a nearly 900-page report cataloging the phone’s data.” Based in part on this information, the traveler was eventually convicted of, among other things, attempting to smuggle firearms out of the country.

On appeal of his conviction, the traveler challenged the denial of his motion to suppress the forensic analysis of his cell phone as a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights.

In addressing the issue, the Fourth Circuit acknowledged that government agents may perform “routine” searches at international borders, or their functional equivalents, without a warrant or individualized suspicion consistent with the Fourth Amendment. But, the Court recognized that even at the border certain “non-routine,” “highly intrusive” searches require individualized suspicion.

Ultimately, the court held that forensic searches of digital devices, like the one at issue in that case, qualify as such “non-routine” searches and are thus prohibited absent some level of individualized suspicion.

The Court’s holding was based, in part, upon its determination that forensic analysis of a digital device can “reveal an unparalleled breadth” of “private,” “sensitive” information. It was also based on the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in Riley v. California, which recognized the strong privacy interests associated with electronic devices. There, the Supreme Court held that a warrant is required to search a cell phone seized incident to arrest because of the private, extensive information contained on such devices.

Notably, however, the Fourth Circuit did not decide whether the requisite level of suspicion for such forensic searches is reasonable suspicion, or something more (like a warrant supported by probable cause). It also had no occasion to decide the requisite level of suspicion for officers to conduct “manual” searches, where agents review the content of electronic devices without the help of forensic technology.

Other Case Law, Open Questions
Continue Reading Courts Continue to Grapple with Border Searches of Electronic Devices: Fourth Circuit Rules Forensic Searches Require Individualized Suspicion

A Ninth Circuit panel recently issued a decision in United States v. Olson, affirming the conviction of the former Alaska executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (“USDA”) Farm Service Agency for misprision of felony under 18 U.S.C. § 4. Specifically, the panel held that the former director was correctly convicted of misprision of felony “for concealing and failing to notify authorities of her business partner’s submission of false statements” to the USDA’s Rural Development Program in connection with a federal grant application.

In so holding, the Ninth Circuit provided critical clarification of the type of knowledge the government must prove to establish “misprision of felony.” Misprision of felony is one of the oldest federal crimes, and was first enacted in a “functionally identical” version as part of the Crimes Act of 1790.

Elements of “Misprision of Felony”

The panel affirmed the long-established federal rule that “[t]o establish misprision of a felony,” under 18 U.S.C. § 4, “the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt: ‘(1) that the principal . . . committed and completed the felony alleged; (2) that the defendant had full knowledge of that fact; (3) that he failed to notify the authorities; and (4) that he took affirmative steps to conceal the crime of the principal.”

The panel, however, also provided additional clarification as to the knowledge element. It held for the first time that “the government must prove not only that the defendant knew the principal engaged in conduct that satisfies the essential elements of the underlying felony, but also that the defendant knew that the conduct was a felony.”
Continue Reading 9th Circuit Clarifies Elements of Misprision of Felony

Since the financial crisis, the Securities and Exchange Commission’s enforcement activity has been the subject of much attention and debate. But depending on the results of pending litigation and agency proposals, the SEC’s enforcement activities could change significantly. Three key areas of potential change include insider trading, the SEC’s use of in-house tribunals, and enforcement resources.

1. Insider Trading Prosecutions.

As discussed in a prior post, in United States v. Salman, the Ninth Circuit affirmed that the requisite “personal benefit” for insider trader liability is established where an “insider makes a gift of confidential information to a trading relative or friend.” In so holding, the Ninth Circuit rejected the Second Circuit’s narrower holding in United States v. Newman that a “personal benefit” may only be inferred from a personal relationship where the exchange of information “represents at least a potential gain of a pecuniary or similarly valuable nature.”

The Supreme Court has granted certiorari in Salman to potentially resolve the circuit split regarding the “personal benefit” element of insider trading liability. (Notably, while the government filed a petition for certiorari in Newman, the Supreme Court denied it prior to granting Salman’s petition.) Earlier this month, Salman filed his brief in the Supreme Court, and the case is scheduled to be addressed during the Supreme Court term starting October 2016. The Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Salman will undoubtedly affect the number and type of insider trading cases the SEC pursues, and will provide crucial guidance about the contours of insider trading liability.Continue Reading Three Key Challenges To the Future of SEC Enforcement

In an apparent circuit split that may well garner attention from the Supreme Court, a Ninth Circuit panel issued an opinion in United States v. Salman affirming that the requisite “personal benefit” for insider trading liability is established where an “insider makes a gift of confidential information to a trading relative or friend.”  In doing so, the Ninth Circuit rejected the Second Circuit’s narrower holding in United States v. Newman that a “personal benefit” may only be inferred from a personal relationship where the exchange of information “represents at least a potential gain of a pecuniary or similarly valuable nature.”  Notably, the Salman opinion owes its authorship to SDNY’s Judge Rakoff, who has previously questioned the Second Circuit’s decision in Newman, and now–when sitting by designation–adopts a view in tension with his home Circuit.
Continue Reading 9th Circuit Rejects Newman Holding on Insider Trading