As a general rule, criminal liability requires criminal intent. The legal term of art, “Mens Rea,” (Latin for “guilty mind”), stands for the concept that deliberate wrongdoing is a condition precedent to criminality. It is based on the principle that society should not punish people for unintended violations of law. There are, however, exceptions to this rule—so-called strict-liability offenses.
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With strict-liability, the perpetrator’s intent and awareness of wrongdoing are irrelevant. Speeding, for example is a strict-liability offense. It does not matter whether the driver intended to speed or was aware they were speeding. Absent extraordinary circumstances, the driver is guilty of speeding purely by virtue of having exceeded the speed limit. Like speeding, violating the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) is a strict-liability offense.
The Responsible Corporate Officer Doctrine (RCOD), colloquially known as the “Park Doctrine,” is a controversial prosecutorial tool that allows for the criminal prosecution of companies and officers, regardless of whether they had unlawful intent or awareness of the violation. In U.S. v. Dotterweich, the Supreme Court explained that FD&C Act prosecutions dispense “with the conventional requirement for criminal conduct—awareness of some wrongdoing. In the interest of the larger good it puts the burden of acting at hazard upon a person otherwise innocent but standing in responsible relation to a public danger.”
In the decades since Dotterweich, federal prosecutors have routinely used the RCOD to successfully prosecute corporations and officers for FD&C Act violations. To obtain a conviction for an FD&C Act violation, prosecutors must prove each of the following beyond a reasonable doubt:
- The corporate officer was in a position of responsibility relevant to the violation;
- The corporate officer was able or authorized to prevent or correct the violation; and
- The corporate officer failed to prevent the violation.
RCOD jurisprudence, or case law, is both interesting and instructive. The written opinions of judges and justices are more than a mere conveyance of a rule’s meaning. They tell a story, putting the rule in meaningful context. Often, the story is far more instructive than the analysis of the rule. The story teaches us how to avoid unwittingly coming into conflict with the rule.
For example, we all understand that delivering adulterated food into interstate commerce is a violation of federal law. But until we understand what befell John Park, who, absent any intentional wrongdoing, was tried, convicted, and now has a criminal legal doctrine named after him, we cannot begin to understand how the law works.
United States v. Dotterweich, 320 U.S. 277 (1943)
The Dotterweich case, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1943, established that corporate officers could be prosecuted for violating the FD&C Act, regardless of any knowledge or awareness of the violation.
Joseph Dotterweich was the president of Buffalo Pharmacal Company, Inc. Buffalo’s business involved purchasing bulk drugs, repackaging them, and selling them under its own label. Unbeknownst to Dotterweich, the company received a batch of adulterated drugs, which it subsequently repackaged and shipped into commerce. Dotterweich had no idea the products—which were guaranteed by the manufacturer—were adulterated. Nonetheless, Dotterweich and Buffalo were criminally charged for violating the FD&C Act.
Determined to prove his innocence, and apparently that of his company, Dotterweich took the case all the way to trial. Despite the supplier guarantee and Dotterweich’s lack of knowledge regarding the adulteration, the jury found him guilty.
Dotterweich appealed his conviction, and the case eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Unfortunately for Dotterweich, the Court upheld his conviction, reasoning that “the only way in which a corporation can act is through the individuals who act on its behalf.”
Perplexingly, the jury found the company not guilty. To find Dotterweich guilty and Buffalo not guilty is illogical, and Dotterweich’s attorneys argued the verdict should be invalidated. The Supreme Court disagreed, holding “Whether the jury’s verdict was the result of carelessness or compromise or a belief that the responsible individual should suffer the penalty…is immaterial. Juries may indulge in precisely such motives or vagaries.” There is an important lesson here: Letting a jury decide your case is very risky. Juries are manifestly unpredictable, and even when a verdict is seemingly unjust, courts will rarely overturn it.
United States v. Park, 421 U.S. 658 (1975)
Three decades later in the early 1970s, Acme Markets, Inc. operated a large national retail food chain with 874 stores, 16 warehouses, and approximately 36,000 employees. As Acme’s CEO, John Park had broad operational oversight responsibility, but little involvement in the day-to-day operational duties. As CEOs often do, Park delegated operational responsibilities, including sanitation, to qualified division heads who, in turn, had their own staffs and departments under them.