Of Rotten Eggs and Guilty Minds

It isn’t every day that a person can go to his or her job, work, not participate in any criminal activity, and still get a prison sentence. At least, that used to be the case: the overcriminalization of regulatory violations has unfortunately led to the circumstance that corporate managers now face criminal—not just civil—liability for their business operations’ administrative offenses.

Take Austin and Peter DeCoster, who own and run an Iowa egg-producing company called Quality Egg. The DeCosters plead guilty to violating certain provisions of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act because some of the eggs that left their facilities contained salmonella enteritidis, a bacterium harmful to humans. They were sentenced to 90 days in jail and fined $100,000 for the actions of subordinates, who apparently failed, also unknowingly, in their quality-control duties.

In other words, the “crime” that the DeCosters were convicted of didn’t require them to have put eggs with salmonella into interstate commerce, or even to have known (or reasonably been able to foresee) that Quality Egg was putting such eggs into interstate commerce. It didn’t even require the quality-control operator(s) most directly involved in putting the contaminated eggs into interstate commerce to have known that they were contaminated.

Nearly a century of jurisprudence has held that imprisoning corporate officers for the actions of subordinates is constitutionally suspect, given that there’s neither mens rea (a guilty mind) nor even a guilty act—the traditional benchmarks of criminality since the days of Blackstone. Yet there are about 300,000 regulations that can trigger criminal sanctions. These rules are too often ambiguous or arcane, and many lack any requirement of direct participation or knowledge, imposing strict liability on supervisors for the actions (or inactions) of their subordinates.

In United States v. Quality Egg, the district court ruled that courts have previously held that “short jail sentence[s]” for strict-liability crimes are the sort of “relatively small” penalties that don’t violate constitutional due process.  Such a sentence has only been imposed once in the history of American jurisprudence, however, and for a much shorter time on defendants with much more direct management of the underlying bad acts. Additionally, prison is not the sort of “relatively small” penalty—like a fine or probation—that the Supreme Court has allowed for offenses that lack a guilty mind requirement.

Joining the National Association of Manufacturers, Cato points out in an amicus brief supporting the DeCosters’ appeal that this case presents an opportunity for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit to join its sister court, the Eleventh Circuit, in holding that prison sentences constitute a due-process violation when applied to corporate officers being charged under a strict-liability regulatory regime.