Insider Trading: The Unknowable Crime

Under our criminal justice system, ignorance of the law is no defense.  But what if the law is undefined?  Or what if it seems to change with every new case that’s brought?  What if unelected judges (with life tenure) started to invent crimes, piece by piece, case by case?  Holding people accountable for knowing the law is just only if the law is knowable, and only if those creating the law are accountable to the people. 

On Friday, Cato filed an amicus brief in Salman v. U.S. that is aimed at limiting the reach of just such an ill-defined, judicially created law. “Insider trading” is a crime that can put a person away for more than a decade, and yet this crime is judge-made and, as such, is ever-changing. Although individuals may know generally what is prohibited, the exact contours of the crime have remained shrouded, creating traps for the unwary.

The courts, in creating this crime, have relied on a section of the securities laws that prohibits the use of “any manipulative or deceptive device or contrivance” in connection with the purchase or sale of a security. The courts’ rationale has been that by trading on information belonging to the company, and in violation of a position of trust, the trader has committed a fraud.  The law, however, does not mention “insiders” or “insider trading.”  And yet, in 2015 alone, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) charged 87 individuals with insider trading violations.  

Broadly speaking, insider trading occurs when someone uses a position of trust to gain information about a company and later trades on that company, without permission, to receive a personal benefit.  But what constitutes a “benefit”?  The law doesn’t say.

Left to their own devices, the SEC has pushed the boundaries of what constitutes a “benefit,” making it more and more difficult for people to know when they are breaking the law.  In the case currently before the Court, Bassam Salman was charged with trading on information he received from his future brother-in-law, Mounir Kara, who had, in turn, received the information from his own brother, Maher.  The government has never alleged that Maher Kara received anything at all from either his brother or Salman in exchange for the information.  The government has instead claimed that the simple familial affection the men feel for each other is the “benefit.”  Salman’s trade was illegal because he happens to love the brothers-in-law who gave him the inside information.

Under this rationale, a person who trades on information received while making idle talk in a grocery line would be safe from prosecution while the same person trading on the same information heard at a family meal would be guilty of a felony.  Or maybe not.  After all, if we construe “benefit” this broadly, why not say that whiling away time chit-chatting in line is a “benefit”?    

No one should stumble blindly into a felony.  We hope the Court will take this opportunity to clarify the law and return it to its legislative foundation.  Anything else courts tyranny.