Environmental Crimes Charges: Here’s How a Federal Defense Attorney Can Challenge Them
Environmental crimes are on the rise. With increasing political and public focus on climate change, pollution, and protecting the environment, both federal and state prosecutors are getting more aggressive about pursuing criminal charges for violations of environmental laws and regulations. This means more individuals, small businesses, and corporations may find themselves under investigation and facing serious criminal penalties for what they may have previously thought were minor civil infractions.
If you or your company is being investigated for or charged with an environmental violation, it’s important to understand these crimes are treated very seriously by prosecutors and can result in felony convictions, massive fines, and even jail time in some cases. You need an experienced federal criminal defense attorney on your side who understands environmental laws and regulations inside and out. A knowledgeable lawyer can often get charges reduced or even dismissed by challenging improper investigations, vague regulations, or using other defenses.
Common Environmental Crimes Charged by Federal Prosecutors
Federal environmental laws like the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) make it a crime to pollute the air, water, or land under certain circumstances. Some of the most common federal environmental crimes include:
- Illegal discharges or dumping into rivers, lakes, oceans, or other bodies of water
- Exceeding legal limits for air pollution from smokestacks or other sources
- Improper storage, treatment, transportation or disposal of hazardous wastes
- False reporting or tampering with monitoring equipment
- Importing or exporting banned chemicals
- Killing protected wildlife and endangered species
Most environmental crimes require prosecutors to prove the defendant acted “knowingly” or intentionally violated regulations. But some laws like the Clean Water Act also allow misdemeanor charges for negligent violations.
Steep Penalties for Environmental Convictions
A federal environmental conviction can lead to severe punishments, including:
- Felony charges punishable by years in prison
- Fines up to hundreds of thousands of dollars per day
- Restitution to cover environmental clean-up costs
- Probation requiring costly compliance measures
- Revoked permits that shut down operations
Corporations often face even steeper fines in the millions or billions of dollars, along with years of probation. For small businesses, the costs and disruption of defending environmental charges can be an existential threat.
Given these high stakes, anyone facing criminal prosecution for environmental violations needs an experienced defense lawyer on their side.
Investigating Environmental Crimes
Environmental crimes are usually investigated first by the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Criminal Investigation Division. The EPA conducts searches, interviews witnesses, obtains samples, and gathers evidence to build a case.
If the EPA believes it has enough evidence, it will refer the case to the Department of Justice (DOJ) for prosecution. The DOJ’s Environmental Crimes Section then reviews the evidence and ultimately decides whether to pursue criminal charges.
During an environmental investigation, the EPA may issue an “information request” requiring you to provide documents, emails, sampling results, or other information. Failing to fully comply with these requests can itself become a new basis for criminal charges.
An experienced environmental attorney can help clients navigate these investigations, protect sensitive information, and avoid missteps that could lead to further prosecution.
Using Technicalities and Loopholes to Fight Charges
The complex web of environmental regulations contains many technical requirements, exceptions, and loopholes that a knowledgeable defense attorney can use to get charges dismissed or reduced.
For example, certain environmental laws require the EPA to identify the specific provision being violated in a notice to the defendant before they can bring criminal charges. If the notice fails to spell out the violation, charges may be dismissed on that technicality.
The EPA also must prove the defendant was properly notified and aware of the particular regulations they violated. Ambiguous or poorly written regulations can make it difficult for prosecutors to prove knowledge and intent beyond a reasonable doubt.
Other tactics lawyers use to fight environmental charges include:
- Poking holes in the EPA’s testing methodologies
- Arguing samples were mishandled and evidence is tainted
- Leveraging exceptions for emergencies, accidents, or “acts of God”
- Claiming expired statute of limitations for charging certain violations
- Fighting to suppress illegally obtained evidence
Negotiating Favorable Plea Deals
Given the expense and uncertainty of trial, many environmental cases end up being resolved through plea negotiations. An experienced lawyer may be able to leverage technical flaws in the government’s case to get charges dismissed or reduced significantly.
It’s also possible to negotiate alternatives to prison time, such as reaching a civil settlement requiring payments for environmental mitigation projects. In some cases, violations can be remedied through compliance measures under probation rather than imposing crushing fines.
The government may also agree to drop criminal charges in exchange for a defendant’s cooperation in investigating others. Having a lawyer with good working relationships with prosecutors is invaluable for negotiating the best possible settlement.
Common Defenses Against Environmental Charges
Beyond legal technicalities, environmental attorneys have several other defenses they frequently rely on in challenging these cases:
Lack of Intent
Most environmental crimes require proving the defendant knowingly violated regulations. Your lawyer may argue you were simply unaware of complex or highly technical rules.
You can avoid liability by showing you took reasonable precautions and due diligence to comply with environmental rules. Simply making an honest mistake does not equate to criminal intent.
Blame the Government
In some cases, the EPA or other agencies contributed to violations through poor communication, failure to approve permits promptly, or unclear regulations. This can help defeat intent requirements.
Your attorney can argue the government lacks proof it was your actions, versus some other source, that directly caused the environmental harm.
If regulators encouraged you to take actions later deemed illegal, your lawyer may argue you were entrapped into unknowingly violating the law.
Finding the Right Environmental Defense Attorney
Facing criminal prosecution under environmental laws is scary, but having an experienced lawyer by your side can make all the difference. Be sure to hire an attorney with specific experience in environmental defense work, not just any criminal defense lawyer.
Look for lawyers with a proven track record getting environmental charges dismissed or reduced through motions, negotiations, and other strategies. Deep knowledge of environmental regulations is key.
Trusted attorneys develop good working relationships with prosecutors and regulators that allow them to negotiate favorable settlements when possible. An environmental lawyer’s reputation and connections can be crucial for the outcome of your case.
Don’t take chances with your future. If you or your business is under investigation or charged with environmental violations, consult with a federal criminal defense attorney immediately. An expert lawyer can protect your rights, avoid missteps, and develop an aggressive strategy for challenging the government’s charges against you.