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Avoidance of Criminal Liability For Violations of Federal Environmental Laws

Robert T. McAllister, Barry Boughman, Kathryn Haight Meyer,, Lynda H. Knowles, Environmental Law: An Update for the Busy Natural Resources Practitioner (1990)

Long a fundamental precept of criminal law is that an actor must be shown to have exhibited criminal intent in order to be found guilty of a crime. In Morrisette v. United States,1 the United States Supreme Court reversed the conviction of a man who had taken shell casings from a government target range. Morrisette, charged with theft, claimed that he believed the casings had been abandoned. In refusing to impose strict liability, the court noted that:

A relation between some mental element and punishment for a harmful act is almost as instinctive as the child's familiar exculpatory “But I didn't mean to,” and has afforded the rational basis for a tardy and unfinished substitution of deterrence and reformation in place of retaliation and vengeance as the motivation for public prosecution.2

Slowly but surely this legal axiom has eroded in areas concerning the public welfare. In such areas, rather than requiring proof that a defendant intended to do an illegal act or knew that he was engaged in an illegal act, courts have increasingly tended to imposed strict liability. Well-known concepts of intent and knowledge are thus becoming more and more irrelevant, and the usual judicial abhorrence of strict liability has waned substantially in what is known as “public welfare” legislation.

In United States v. Dotterweich3, the president of a pharmaceutical comp