Imagine that you are the CEO of large food producer, and you are notified out of the blue that your company is responsible for a salmonella outbreak possibly affecting thousands of people around the country. If I were that CEO, I would be worried for those who were affected and disappointed that my leadership hadn’t prevented such an outbreak. Most importantly, I would immediately act to remedy the situation.
In August, 2010, this hypothetical became a reality for Austin (“Jack”) DeCoster and his son, Peter DeCoster, the CEO and COO, respectively, of a large Iowa egg producer, Quality Egg, LLC. Around this time, the Food and Drug Administration traced a salmonella outbreak back to the company’s eggs after it received reports of roughly 1,900 illnesses. Jack and Peter DeCoster were unaware of the contamination in their facilities and had no knowledge that their company was sending out such eggs, but they immediately took steps to remedy the outbreak. They voluntarily recalled millions of dozens of eggs and complied with all of the Food and Drug Administration’s investigations into their facilities.
When the United States prosecuted Quality Egg under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (“FDCA”), which prohibits the introduction of any adulterated food into interstate commerce, the company plead guilty and agreed to pay a $6.8 million dollar fine. Jack and Peter DeCoster also plead guilty to being “responsible corporate officers” of Quality Egg under a doctrine created by the Supreme Court in United States v. Park, 421 U.S. 658 (1975).
Under the Park doctrine, a corporate officer can be found guilty of committing a misdemeanor when his or her corporate position affords them “the power to prevent” violations of the FDCA, even absent “knowledge of, or personal participation in” the violation. Park, 421 U.S. at 6670, 676. Because of this low burden for proving criminal culpability, and the lack of any “guilty mind” requirement, no corporate officer had ever received a jail sentence under the Park doctrine. In the plea agreement, both the government and the DeCosters agreed that the DeCosters had no knowledge that the eggs contained salmonella and that the DeCosters had taken no action to contribute to the release of the adulterated eggs into the marketplace. In other words, the DeCosters had neither a “guilty mind” nor had they taken any “guilty act” to commit this crime, as is required to receive a prison sentence under the Fifth Amendment Due Process Clause of the United States Constitution.
Nonetheless, at sentencing, the Judge found the DeCosters had run the company in a negligent manner, and sentenced them each to pay a $100,000 fine and serve three months in prison.
After a split panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed, the DeCosters filed a petition for a writ of certiorari, asking the Supreme Court to review the legality of their prison sentence. The DeCosters’ petition highlights Due Process concerns that could affect anyone being charged criminally for the conduct of others. On February 10, 2017, Cause of Action joined a “friend of the court” brief in support of the DeCosters’ petition, along with the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, arguing that liability for “responsible corporate officers” has never and should never result in prison time, due to a lack of any mens rea requirement for conviction.
In our system, the government must prove in a criminal prosecution that the defendant committed a criminal act and did so with criminal intent. As the Supreme Court has stated, “we must construe [an imprisonment] statute in light of the background rules of the common law in which the requirement of some mens rea for a crime is firmly embedded.” Staples v. United States, 511 U.S. 600, 605 (1994).
The DOJ wants to make an example of the DeCosters. The U.S. Attorney who filed the case stated: “Corporate officials are on notice….[c]laims of ignorance or ‘I delegated the responsibility to someone else’ will not shield them from criminal responsibility.” But to do so at the expense of a hallmark principle of our justice system is a mistake, and marks a dangerous departure from the safeguards of American criminal jurisprudence.
Erica Marshall is counsel at Cause of Action Institute.