United States v. Weitzenhoff

35 F.3d 1275 (9th Cir. 1994)

  • Weitzewhoff and Mariani were managers at a sewage treatment plant in Hawaii. They were supposed to have their waste-activated sludge (WAS) shipped off to a disposal facility, but instead they just dumped it into the harbor in the dead of night.
    • This violated their National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. They dumped 436,000 pounds into the harbor over the course of a year.
      • Their NPDES permit allowed them to dump 976 pounds of WAS per month.
    • They also failed to report the dumping as required by their permit.
  • The FBI arrested Weitzewhoff and Mariani and charged them with a criminal violation of the Clean Water Act.
    • Weitzewhoff and Mariani admitted to authorizing the dumping, but claimed that it was justified under their interpretation of the NPDES.
  • The Trial Court found them guilty and sentenced them to a few years in prison each. They appealed.
    • The Trial Court found that Weitzewhoff and Mariani knew that they were dumping WAS into the harbor.
    • Clean Water Act 309(c)(2) makes it a felony offense to, "knowingly violate...any permit condition or limitation implementing any of such sections in a permit..."
      • The Trial Court gave a jury instruction that "the government is not required to prove that the defendants knew that the act or omissions were unlawful."
  • The Appellate Court affirmed the convictions.
    • The Appellate Court found that the government is not required to prove that Weitzewhoff and Mariani knew that their acts violated their NPDES permit.
      • Weitzewhoff and Mariani unsuccessfully argued that that criminal sanctions should only apply when the defendant knows that the dumping actually violates the permit.
        • Kinda like if a cop pulls you over for speeding and you plead that you didn't know what the speed limit was.
    • The Appellate Court looked at a number of cases that argued for and against the requirement of knowledge. They found that in general, laws that protect public welfare do not require knowledge that the act is illegal, while laws that are not designed to protect the public welfare do require knowledge that the act is illegal.
      • In this case, the Appellate Court recognized that the Clean Water Act is designed to protect the public welfare, therefore the prosecution is not required to establish knowledge.
  • In a dissent it was argued that state of mind is an important factor in many aspects of criminal law, and that the application of criminal law to innocent conduct reduces the moral authority of the criminal law system.
    • The dissent argues that the fact in this case could easily show that Weitzewhoff and Mariani had knowledge, but since the jury was not required to make a finding of fact, the Appellate Court couldn't consider it on appeal.
      • Most people who don't know that they are doing something illegal don't do midnight dumping and forge their monitoring reports...
    • The dissent argues that the law is designed to stop people who dump a lot of sewage on purpose, but with this ruling it will also result in criminal prosecutions of people who only exceed their permits by a little bit by accident. Wouldn't it be better to prove knowledge, which should be pretty easy to do in most cases of willful violations?
  • In two other cases (United States v. Ahmad (101 F.3d 386 (5th Cir. 1996)), United States v. Wilson (133 F.3d 251 (4th Cir. 1997))), it was found that if you make a mistake of fact, as opposed to a mistake of law, then you would not be held criminally liable.
    • The difference is that a mistake of law is when you know you are dumping poison, but think that it is legal. A mistake of fact is when you dump what you think is a tank of plain water and it turns out to be a tank full of poison.