Golden Gate University Environmental Law Journal


Nancy Mullikin


This comment argues that the responsible corporate officer (RCO) doctrine, as written into the CWA and the CAA, was intended to impose an affirmative duty on corporate officers based on their position and should be interpreted to expand criminal liability in the prosecution of substantive corporate environmental crimes. This comment also argues that the courts should expand criminal liability based on the RCO doctrine instead of limiting its application. Part II provides an overview of criminal prosecution of environmental crimes: its history, procedures, and purposes, in order to provide a context for understanding how the RCO doctrine appropriately expands criminal liability. Part III outlines the development of the RCO doctrine by the Supreme Court and its addition to the CWA and the CAA. Although the RCO doctrine has been expanded to impose civil liability, this comment focuses on its application to impose criminal liability only. Part IV shows how some of the early judicial applications of the RCO doctrine left it open for later courts to use the doctrine to expand criminal liability of corporate officers. The clearest example of this argument for expansion was articulated by the Tenth Circuit in United States v. Brittain. At the same time as Brittain, other circuits chose to limit liability instead of expanding it; these contemporaneous decisions are discussed in Part V. Part VI shows how subsequent courts chose to affirm the limited interpretation rather than Brittain’s expanded one. Lastly, Part VII examines other legal doctrines that extend criminal liability. This comment concludes by arguing that the effectiveness of environmental laws would be maximized by the application of the RCO doctrine to expand criminal liability.