Environmental Crimes – California Penal Code 14309
While many environmental acts are handled by civil law, there are some situations in which the defendant’s conduct can rise to the criminal level. Environmental crimes can have federal or state criminal implications. It is important that criminal defendants understand the nature of the charges against them and whether they are being prosecuted on the state or federal level.
Environmental Protection Agency
The United States Environmental Protection Agency is primarily responsible for enforcing federal environmental crimes. The California Environmental Protection Agency mirrors the federal organization to pursue state claims. Both agencies are committed to reducing acts of pollution and illegal discharges throughout the state. These agencies aggressively pursue individuals suspected of completing crimes that may jeopardize the health and safety of other individuals. If a person is facing environmental crime charges, it is important that he or she seek the assistance of competent legal counsel.
Environmental Circuit Prosecutor Project
California lawmakers established the Environmental Circuit Prosecutor Project.1 This is a cooperative project between the California Environmental Protection Agency and the California District Attorneys Association. The agency was established to help prevent environmental crimes and to enforce them against perpetrators. Additional funds and resources are available to district attorneys to help them prosecute these crimes.
Types of Environmental Crimes
There are a variety of environmental crimes. Some common environmental crimes include the following:
- Air pollution
- Unauthorized disposal, transport or treatment of hazardous waste,
- Oil spills
- Diesel engine pollution
- Illegal storage or disposal of hazardous waste
- Illegal discharge of contaminants into the water or air supply
- Pesticide release into unauthorized areas
- OSHA violations
- Asbestos contamination
- Removal of asbestos materials in a manner inconsistent with regulations
- Illegal discharge to surface and groundwater
- Illegal disposal of hazardous waste
- Export of hazardous waste without permission from foreign state or country
- Illegal import of certain regulated chemicals
- Groundwater contamination
- Water law violations
- Illegal logging
- Illegal wildlife trade
- Toxic dumping
- Chemical spills
- Fraudulent certification of smog tests
- Smokestack pollution
- Fish and game violations
- Altering a streambed
- Unauthorized development
Additionally, environmental crimes may involve violating any of the following sources of law:
- Clean Air Act
- Resource Conservation and Recovery Act
- Safe Drinking Water Act
- Toxic Substance Control Act
A variety of state and federal agencies may be authorized to enforce these rules and regulations, including the following:
- The United States Environmental Protection Agency
- California Air Quality Management District
- California Department of Toxic Substances Control
- California Department of Fish and Wildlife
- Occupational Safety and Health Administration
- California Environmental Protection Agency Air Resources Board
- California State Water Resources Control Board
- California Department of Food and Agriculture
It is important to understand the nature of the charges against you and the agency that is pursuing enforcement. Proceedings are different for each agency, so this is critical information that your lawyer will need to know.
Penalties for Environmental Crimes
A person facing charges for environmental crimes must take these charges seriously. A conviction can easily mean a lengthy prison sentence and large fines. Additionally, a conviction can result in damage to an individual’s or business’ reputation. In some instances such as when environmental crimes involve the use of explosions or a chemical leak, manslaughter charges may be added. OSHA violations may also result in manslaughter charges. The ultimate sentence imposed depends on a number of factors, including the history of the individual or business charged, any prior criminal convictions, the agency involved and the circumstances associated with the case. Businesses that are found guilty of environmental crimes may be disbanded, required to pay fines in the millions or lose corporate protections. Because the consequences are so grave, it is important to discuss your case with an experienced lawyer who is familiar with charges associated with environmental crimes.
Contact an Environmental Crimes Lawyer
It is critical that you seek the assistance of legal counsel as soon as you learn that you are the subject of investigation. This allows a lawyer to get ahead of the investigation and to explore settlement options early in the process. It may be possible to remedy actions or to stop doing actions in order to avoid being charged with environmental crimes. An environmental crimes lawyer can explore the charges that you are facing and aggressively build a defense on your behalf in order to minimize negative consequences such as prison time or substantial fines. Conviction of an environmental crime can cause long-term damage to the reputation of the business or individual charged.
Environmental crimes are often complex and California has some of the strictest regulations in the country. Often, individuals find themselves as defendants in these complex cases after unintentionally violating environmental regulations. It is important to use legal counsel who has an in-depth understanding of the regulations related to the environment and experiencing defending individuals charged with violations of environmental laws.
1 California Penal Code 14309 – (a) The Environmental Circuit Prosecutor Project, a cooperative project of the California Environmental Protection Agency and the California District Attorneys Association, is hereby established.
(b) The Environmental Circuit Prosecutor Project shall have the following purposes:
(1) Discourage the commission of violations of environmental laws by demonstrating the effective response of the criminal justice system to these violations, including, but not limited to, assisting district attorneys, particularly in rural counties, in the prosecution of criminal violations of environmental laws and regulations, where a district attorney has requested assistance.
(2) Establish model environmental crime prevention, enforcement, and prosecution techniques with statewide application for fair, uniform, and effective application.
(3) Increase the awareness and effectiveness of efforts to enforce environmental laws and to better integrate environmental prosecution into California’s established criminal justice system by providing on the job education and training to local peace officers and prosecutors and to local and state environmental regulators.
(4) Promote, through uniform and effective prosecution and local assistance, the effective enforcement of environmental laws and regulations.
(c) (1) The secretary shall award project grants and administer funding from the account to the California District Attorneys Association for the purpose of providing for the day-to-day operations of the project.
(2) The award may only be used to fund the costs of prosecutors, investigators, and research attorney staff, including salary, benefits, and expenses.
(3) Circuit prosecutor project employees may be either employees of the California District Attorneys Association or employees on loan from local, state, or federal governmental agencies.
(d) (1) A district attorney may request the assistance of a circuit prosecutor from the Environmental Circuit Prosecutor Project for any of the following purposes:
(A) Assistance with the investigation and development of environmental cases.
(B)Consultation concerning whether an environmental case merits filing.
(C) Litigation support, including, but not limited to, the actual prosecution of the case. A district attorney shall, as appropriate, deputize a circuit prosecutor to prosecute cases within his or her jurisdiction.
(2) The authority of a deputized circuit prosecutor shall be consistent with and shall not exceed the authority of the elected district attorney or his or her deputies.
(3) Violations of city or county ordinances may be prosecuted by circuit prosecutors when there is an environmental nexus between the ordinance and a violation of state law, federal law, or both state and federal law.
(4) Participating district attorney offices shall provide matching funds or in-kind contributions equivalent to, but not less than, 20 percent of the expense of the deputized environmental circuit prosecutor.