SUPREME COURT RULES THAT JURY MUST DETERMINE LENGTH OF VIOLATIONS FOR CIVIL PENALTIES
SUPREME COURT RULES THAT JURY MUST
DETERMINE LENGTH OF VIOLATIONS FOR CIVIL PENALTIES
On June 21, 2012, the Supreme Court ruled in Southern Union Co. v. United States that the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of a jury trial applies to criminal fines under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). The Sixth Amendment states a jury must decide, beyond a reasonable doubt, all facts leading to criminal liability. Many environmental laws include criminal fines, including the Clean Water Act.
In Southern Union, the Defendant was convicted by a jury of violating RCRA by knowingly storing liquid mercury without a permit. Violations of this statute carry criminal penalties of up to $50,000 per day. However, in making its determination, the jury was not asked to specify the number of days in which the Defendant was in violation of the statute. Therefore, the Defendant argued the jury had not found them guilty of multiple violations.
The Supreme Court determined the criminal fines in RCRA were subject to Sixth Amendment protection. Since the jury’s verdict did not specify the number of days of violation, the verdict was limited to a single violation, with a maximum penalty of $50,000. Had the Supreme Court ruled otherwise, the Defendant faced fines of up to $38 million.
Based on this ruling, any prosecution under an environmental law which contains criminal fines will now require that the jury decide, beyond a reasonable doubt, the number of days of violation committed by the defendant. This could be a significant factor in trial strategy going forward. Not only will prosecutors have to show a violation, but they will also now have to prove the number of days in which the violation occurred. If you are faced with criminal penalties relating to a violation of environmental laws, this decision will have an impact on your trial strategy.
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