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Chapter 6 Criminal Law

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, you should be able to do the following:

  1. Explain how criminal law differs from civil law.
  2. Categorize the various types of crimes and define the most serious felonies.
  3. Discuss and question the criminal “intent” of a corporation.
  4. Explain basic criminal procedure and the rights of criminal defendants.

At times, unethical behavior by businesspeople can be extreme enough that society will respond by criminalizing certain kinds of activities. Ponzi schemes, arson, various kinds of fraud, embezzlement, racketeering, foreign corrupt practices, tax evasion, and insider trading are just a few. A corporation can face large fines, and corporate managers can face both fines and jail sentences for violating criminal laws. This chapter aims to explain how criminal law differs from civil law, to discuss various types of crimes, and to relate the basic principles of criminal procedure.

6.1 The Nature of Criminal Law

Criminal law is the most ancient branch of the law. Many wise observers have tried to define and explain it, but the explanations often include many complex and subtle distinctions. A traditional criminal law course would include a lot of discussions on criminal intent, the nature of criminal versus civil responsibility, and the constitutional rights accorded the accused. But in this chapter, we will consider only the most basic aspects of intent, responsibility, and constitutional rights.

Unlike civil actions, where plaintiffs seek compensation or other remedies for themselves, crimes involve “the state” (the federal government, a state government, or some subunit of state government). This is because crimes involve some “harm to society” and not just harm to certain individuals. But “harm to society” is not always evident in the act itself. For example, two friends of yours at a party argue, take the argument outside, and blows are struck; one has a bloody nose and immediately goes home. The crimes of assault and battery have been committed, even though no one else knows about the fight and the friends later make up. By contrast, suppose a major corporation publicly announces that it is closing operations in your community and moving operations to Southeast Asia. There is plenty of harm to society as the plant closes down and no new jobs take the place of the company’s jobs. Although the effects on society are greater in the second example, only the first example is a crime.

Crimes are generally defined by legislatures, in statutes; the statutes describe in general terms the nature of the conduct they wish to criminalize. For government punishment to be fair, citizens must have clear notice of what is criminally prohibited. Ex post facto laws—laws created “after the fact” to punish an act that was legal at the time—are expressly prohibited by the US Constitution. Overly vague statutes can also be struck down by courts under a constitutional doctrine known as “void for vagueness.”

What is considered a crime will also vary from society to society and from time to time. For example, while cocaine use was legal in the United States at one time, it is now a controlled substance, and unauthorized use is now a crime. Medical marijuana was not legal fifty years ago when its use began to become widespread, and in some states its use or possession was a felony. Now, some states make it legal to use or possess it under some circumstances. In the United States, you can criticize and make jokes about the president of the United States without committing a crime, but in many countries it is a serious criminal act to criticize a public official.

Attitudes about appropriate punishment for crimes will also vary considerably from nation to nation. Uganda has decreed long prison sentences for homosexuals and death to repeat offenders. In Saudi Arabia, the government has proposed to deliberately paralyze a criminal defendant who criminally assaulted someone and unintentionally caused the victim’s paralysis. Limits on punishment are set in the United States through the Constitution’s prohibition on “cruel or unusual punishments.”

It is often said that ignorance of the law is no excuse. But there are far too many criminal laws for anyone to know them all. Also, because most people do not actually read statutes, the question of “criminal intent” comes up right away: if you don’t know that the legislature has made driving without a seat belt fastened a misdemeanor, you cannot have intended to harm society. You might even argue that there is no harm to anyone but yourself!

The usual answer to this is that the phrase “ignorance of the law is no excuse” means that society (through its elected representatives) gets to decide what is harmful to society, not you. Still, you may ask, “Isn’t it my choice whether to take the risk of failing to wear a seat belt? Isn’t this a victimless crime? Where is the harm to society?” A policymaker or social scientist may answer that your injuries, statistically, are generally going to be far greater if you don’t wear one and that your choice may actually impose costs on society. For example, you might not have enough insurance, so that a public hospital will have to take care of your head injuries, injuries that would likely have been avoided by your use of a seat belt.

But, as just noted, it is hard to know the meaning of some criminal laws. Teenagers hanging around the sidewalks on Main Street were sometimes arrested for “loitering.” The constitutional void-for-vagueness doctrine has led the courts to overturn statutes that are not clear. For example, “vagrancy” was long held to be a crime, but US courts began some forty years ago to overturn vagrancy and “suspicious person” statutes on the grounds that they are too vague for people to know what they are being asked not to do.

This requirement that criminal statutes not be vague does not mean that the law always defines crimes in ways that can be easily and clearly understood. Many statutes use terminology developed by the common-law courts. For example, a California statute defines murder as “the unlawful killing of a human being, with malice aforethought.” If no history backed up these words, they would be unconstitutionally vague. But there is a rich history of judicial decisions that provides meaning for much of the arcane language like “malice aforethought” strewn about in the statute books.

Because a crime is an act that the legislature has defined as socially harmful, the parties involved cannot agree among themselves to forget a particular incident, such as a barroom brawl, if the authorities decide to prosecute. This is one of the critical distinctions between criminal and civil law. An assault is both a crime and a tort. The person who was assaulted may choose to forgive his assailant and not to sue him for damages. But he cannot stop the prosecutor from bringing an indictment against the assailant. (However, because of crowded dockets, a victim that declines to press charges may cause a busy prosecutor to choose to not to bring an indictment.)

A crime consists of an act defined as criminal—an actus reus—and the requisite “criminal intent.” Someone who has a burning desire to kill a rival in business or romance and who may actually intend to murder but does not act on his desire has not committed a crime. He may have a “guilty mind”—the translation of the Latin phrase mens rea—but he is guilty of no crime. A person who is forced to commit a crime at gunpoint is not guilty of a crime, because although there was an act defined as criminal—an actus reus—there was no criminal intent.

Key Takeaway

Crimes are usually defined by statute and constitute an offense against society. In each case, there must be both an act and some mens rea (criminal intent).


  1. Other than deterring certain kinds of conduct, what purpose does the criminal law serve?
  2. Why is ignorance of the law no excuse? Why shouldn’t it be an excuse, when criminal laws can be complicated and sometimes ambiguous?

6.2 Types of Crimes

Learning Objectives

  1. Categorize various types of crimes.
  2. Name and define the major felonies in criminal law.
  3. Explain how white-collar crime differs from other crimes.
  4. Define a variety of white-collar crimes.

Most classifications of crime turn on the seriousness of the act. In general, seriousness is defined by the nature or duration of the punishment set out in the statute. A felonyA serious kind of crime, usually involving potential imprisonment of six months or more. is a crime punishable (usually) by imprisonment of more than one year or by death. (Crimes punishable by death are sometimes known as capital crimes; they are increasingly rare in the United States.) The major felonies include murder, rape, kidnapping, armed robbery, embezzlement, insider trading, fraud, and racketeering. All other crimes are usually known as misdemeanorsCrimes that are less serious than a felony, usually involving punishment of six months in prison or less., petty offenses, or infractions. Another way of viewing crimes is by the type of social harm the statute is intended to prevent or deter, such as offenses against the person, offenses against property, and white-collar crime.

Offenses against the Person


HomicideThe killing of one person by another without legal excuse. is the killing of one person by another. Not every killing is criminal. When the law permits one person to kill another—for example, a soldier killing an enemy on the battlefield during war, or a killing in self-defense—the death is considered the result of justifiable homicideWhen the law permits one person to kill another.. An excusable homicide, by contrast, is one in which death results from an accident in which the killer is not at fault.

All other homicides are criminal. The most severely punished form is murder, defined as homicide committed with “malice aforethought.” This is a term with a very long history. Boiled down to its essentials, it means that the defendant had the intent to kill. A killing need not be premeditated for any long period of time; the premeditation might be quite sudden, as in a bar fight that escalates in that moment when one of the fighters reaches for a knife with the intent to kill.

Sometimes a homicide can be murder even if there is no intent to kill; an intent to inflict great bodily harm can be murder if the result is the death of another person. A killing that takes place while a felony (such as armed robbery) is being committed is also murder, whether or not the killer intended any harm. This is the so-called felony murder rule. Examples are the accidental discharge of a gun that kills an innocent bystander or the asphyxiation death of a fireman from smoke resulting from a fire set by an arsonist. The felony murder rule is more significant than it sounds, because it also applies to the accomplices of one who does the killing. Thus the driver of a getaway car stationed a block away from the scene of the robbery can be convicted of murder if a gun accidentally fires during the robbery and someone is killed. Manslaughter is an act of killing that does not amount to murder. Voluntary manslaughter is an intentional killing, but one carried out in the “sudden heat of passion” as the result of some provocation. An example is a fight that gets out of hand. Involuntary manslaughter entails a lesser degree of willfulness; it usually occurs when someone has taken a reckless action that results in death (e.g., a death resulting from a traffic accident in which one driver recklessly runs a red light).

Assault and Battery

Ordinarily, we would say that a person who has struck another has “assaulted” him. Technically, that is a batteryThe unlawful application of force to another person. The force need not be violent.—the unlawful application of force to another person. The force need not be violent. Indeed, a man who kisses a woman is guilty of a battery if he does it against her will. The other person may consent to the force. That is one reason why surgeons require patients to sign consent forms, giving the doctor permission to operate. In the absence of such a consent, an operation is a battery. That is also why football players are not constantly being charged with battery. Those who agree to play football agree to submit to the rules of the game, which of course include the right to tackle. But the consent does not apply to all acts of physical force: a hockey player who hits an opponent over the head with his stick can be prosecuted for the crime of battery.

Criminal assaultAn attempt to commit a battery, or the deliberate placing of another in fear of receiving an immediate battery. is an attempt to commit a battery or the deliberate placing of another in fear of receiving an immediate battery. If you throw a rock at a friend, but he manages to dodge it, you have committed an assault. Some states limit an assault to an attempt to commit a battery by one who has a “present ability” to do so. Pointing an unloaded gun and threatening to shoot would not be an assault, nor, of course, could it be a battery. The modem tendency, however, is to define an assault as an attempt to commit a battery by one with an apparent ability to do so.

Assault and battery may be excused. For example, a bar owner (or her agent, the bouncer) may use reasonable force to remove an unruly patron. If the use of force is excessive, the bouncer can be found guilty of assault and battery, and a civil action could arise against the bar owner as well.

Offenses against Property

Theft: Larceny, Robbery, Embezzlement, False Pretenses

The concept of theft is familiar enough. Less familiar is the way the law has treated various aspects of the act of stealing. Criminal law distinguishes among many different crimes that are popularly known as theft. Many technical words have entered the language—burglary, larceny, robbery—but are often used inaccurately. Brief definitions of the more common terms are discussed here.

The basic crime of stealing personal property is larcenyThe wrongful taking and carrying away of the personal property of another with intent to steal the same.. By its old common-law definition, still in use today, larceny is the wrongful “taking and carrying away of the personal property of another with intent to steal the same.”

The separate elements of this offense have given rise to all kinds of difficult cases. Take the theft of fruit, for example, with regard to the essential element of “personal property.” If a man walking through an orchard plucks a peach from a tree and eats it, he is not guilty of larceny because he has not taken away personal property (the peach is part of the land, being connected to the tree). But if he picks up a peach lying on the ground, he is guilty of larceny. Or consider the element of “taking” or “carrying away.” Sneaking into a movie theater without paying is not an act of larceny (though in most states it is a criminal act). Taking electricity by tapping into the power lines of an electric utility was something that baffled judges late in the nineteenth century because it was not clear whether electricity is a “something” that can be taken. Modern statutes have tended to make clear that electricity can be the object of larceny. Or consider the element of an “intent to steal the same.” If you borrow your friend’s BMW without his permission in order to go to the grocery store, intending to return it within a few minutes and then do return it, you have not committed larceny. But if you meet another friend at the store who convinces you to take a long joyride with the car and you return hours later, you may have committed larceny.

A particular form of larceny is robberyLarceny from a person by means of violence or intimidation., which is defined as larceny from a person by means of violence or intimidation.

Larceny involves the taking of property from the possession of another. Suppose that a person legitimately comes to possess the property of another and wrongfully appropriates it—for example, an automobile mechanic entrusted with your car refuses to return it, or a bank teller who is entitled to temporary possession of cash in his drawer takes it home with him. The common law had trouble with such cases because the thief in these cases already had possession; his crime was in assuming ownership. Today, such wrongful conversion, known as embezzlementA form of larceny in which a person entrusted with someone else’s property wrongfully takes sole possession or has the intent to take sole possession., has been made a statutory offense in all states.

Statutes against larceny and embezzlement did not cover all the gaps in the law. A conceptual problem arises in the case of one who is tricked into giving up his title to property. In larceny and embezzlement, the thief gains possession or ownership without any consent of the owner or custodian of the property. Suppose, however, that an automobile dealer agrees to take his customer’s present car as a trade-in. The customer says that he has full title to the car. In fact, the customer is still paying off an installment loan and the finance company has an interest in the old car. If the finance company repossesses the car, the customer—who got a new car at a discount because of his false representation—cannot be said to have taken the new car by larceny or embezzlement. Nevertheless, he tricked the dealer into selling, and the dealer will have lost the value of the repossessed car. Obviously, the customer is guilty of a criminal act; the statutes outlawing it refer to this trickery as the crime of false pretensesA form of larceny in which the rightful owner is tricked into giving up title to his or her property., defined as obtaining ownership of the property of another by making untrue representations of fact with intent to defraud.

A number of problems have arisen in the judicial interpretation of false-pretense statutes. One concerns whether the taking is permanent or only temporary. The case of State v. Mills (Section 6.7 "Cases") shows the subtle questions that can be presented and the dangers inherent in committing “a little fraud.”

In the Mills case, the claim was that a mortgage instrument dealing with one parcel of land was used instead for another. This is a false representation of fact. Suppose, by contrast, that a person misrepresents his state of mind: “I will pay you back tomorrow,” he says, knowing full well that he does not intend to. Can such a misrepresentation amount to false pretenses punishable as a criminal offense? In most jurisdictions it cannot. A false-pretense violation relates to a past event or existing fact, not to a statement of intention. If it were otherwise, anyone failing to pay a debt might find himself facing criminal prosecution, and business would be less prone to take risks.

The problem of proving intent is especially difficult when a person has availed himself of the services of another without paying. A common example is someone leaving a restaurant without paying for the meal. In most states, this is specifically defined in the statutes as theft of services.

Receiving Stolen Property

One who engages in receiving stolen propertyDepending on the value of the property, if you receive property from another person, knowing that it has been stolen, you have committed either a misdemeanor or a felony. with knowledge that it is stolen is guilty of a felony or misdemeanor, depending on the value of the property. The receipt need not be personal; if the property is delivered to a place under the control of the receiver, then he is deemed to have received it. “Knowledge” is construed broadly: not merely actual knowledge, but (correct) belief and suspicion (strong enough not to investigate for fear that the property will turn out to have been stolen) are sufficient for conviction.


ForgeryFalse writing of a document of legal significance (or apparent legal significance) with intent to defraud. is false writing of a document of legal significance (or apparent legal significance!) with intent to defraud. It includes the making up of a false document or the alteration of an existing one. The writing need not be done by hand but can be by any means—typing, printing, and so forth. Documents commonly the subject of forgery are negotiable instruments (checks, money orders, and the like), deeds, receipts, contracts, and bills of lading. The forged instrument must itself be false, not merely contain a falsehood. If you fake your neighbor’s signature on one of his checks made out to cash, you have committed forgery. But if you sign a check of your own that is made out to cash, knowing that there is no money in your checking account, the instrument is not forged, though the act may be criminal if done with the intent to defraud.

The mere making of a forged instrument is unlawful. So is the “uttering” (or presentation) of such an instrument, whether or not the one uttering it actually forged it. The usual example of a false signature is by no means the only way to commit forgery. If done with intent to defraud, the backdating of a document, the modification of a corporate name, or the filling in of lines left blank on a form can all constitute forgery.


Under common law, extortionThe wrongful collection of money or something else of value by anyone by means of a threat. could only be committed by a government official, who corruptly collected an unlawful fee under color of office. A common example is a salaried building inspector who refuses to issue a permit unless the permittee pays him. Under modern statutes, the crime of extortion has been broadened to include the wrongful collection of money or something else of value by anyone by means of a threat (short of a threat of immediate physical violence, for such a threat would make the demand an act of robbery). This kind of extortion is usually called blackmail. The blackmail threat commonly is to expose some fact of the victim’s private life or to make a false accusation about him.

Offenses against Habitation and Other Offenses


BurglaryThe crime of breaking and entering the dwelling place of another with intent to commit a felony therein. is not a crime against property. It is defined as “the breaking and entering of the dwelling of another in the nighttime with intent to commit a felony.” The intent to steal is not an issue: a man who sneaks into a woman’s home intent on raping her has committed a burglary, even if he does not carry out the act. The student doing critical thinking will no doubt notice that the definition provides plenty of room for argument. What is “breaking”? (The courts do not require actual destruction; the mere opening of a closed door, even if unlocked, is enough.) What is entry? When does night begin? What kind of intent? Whose dwelling? Can a landlord burglarize the dwelling of his tenant? (Yes.) Can a person burglarize his own home? (No.)


Under common law, arsonThe intentional setting of a fire to any building, whether commercial or residential, and whether or not for the purpose of collecting insurance proceeds. was the malicious burning of the dwelling of another. Burning one’s own house for purposes of collecting insurance was not an act of arson under common law. The statutes today make it a felony intentionally to set fire to any building, whether or not it is a dwelling and whether or not the purpose is to collect insurance.


BriberyA secret payment to another to get them to favor the payer of the bribe, or his business organization. A bribe could offered in a commercial transaction, which usually raises ethical issues, or could be offered to get a public official to act (or ignore a criminal act) in favor of the person or firm paying. Bribery of a state or federal public official is generally a criminal offense, both for the bribe payer and the official accepting the bribe. is a corrupt payment (or receipt of such a payment) for official action. The payment can be in cash or in the form of any goods, intangibles, or services that the recipient would find valuable. Under common law, only a public official could be bribed. In most states, bribery charges can result from the bribe of anyone performing a public function.

Bribing a public official in government procurement (contracting) can result in serious criminal charges. Bribing a public official in a foreign country to win a contract can result in charges under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.


PerjuryThe crime of giving a false oath, either orally or in writing, in a judicial or other official proceeding. is the crime of giving a false oath, either orally or in writing, in a judicial or other official proceeding (lies made in proceedings other than courts are sometimes termed “false swearing”). To be perjurious, the oath must have been made corruptly—that is, with knowledge that it was false or without sincere belief that it was true. An innocent mistake is not perjury. A statement, though true, is perjury if the maker of it believes it to be false. Statements such as “I don’t remember” or “to the best of my knowledge” are not sufficient to protect a person who is lying from conviction for perjury. To support a charge of perjury, however, the false statement must be “material,” meaning that the statement is relevant to whatever the court is trying to find out.

White-Collar Crime

White-collar crimeAny number of crimes, usually involving a business context; any illegal act committed by nonviolent means to obtain a personal or business advantage., as distinguished from “street crime,” refers generally to fraud-related acts carried out in a nonviolent way, usually connected with business. Armed bank robbery is not a white-collar crime, but embezzlement by a teller or bank officer is. Many white-collar crimes are included within the statutory definitions of embezzlement and false pretenses. Most are violations of state law. Depending on how they are carried out, many of these same crimes are also violations of federal law.

Any act of fraud in which the United States postal system is used or which involves interstate phone calls or Internet connections is a violation of federal law. Likewise, many different acts around the buying and selling of securities can run afoul of federal securities laws. Other white-collar crimes include tax fraud; price fixing; violations of food, drug, and environmental laws; corporate bribery of foreign companies; and—the newest form—computer fraud. Some of these are discussed here; others are covered in later chapters.

Mail and Wire Fraud

Federal law prohibits the use of the mails or any interstate electronic communications medium for the purpose of furthering a “scheme or artifice to defraud.” The statute is broad, and it is relatively easy for prosecutors to prove a violation. The law also bans attempts to defraud, so the prosecutor need not show that the scheme worked or that anyone suffered any losses. “Fraud” is broadly construed: anyone who uses the mails or telephone to defraud anyone else of virtually anything, not just of money, can be convicted under the law. In one case, a state governor was convicted of mail fraud when he took bribes to influence the setting of racing dates. The court’s theory was that he defrauded the citizenry of its right to his “honest and faithful services” as governor.United States v. Isaacs, 493 F.2d 1124 (7th Cir. 1974), cert. denied, 417 US 976 (1974).

Violations of Antitrust Law

In Chapter 48 "Antitrust Law" we consider the fundamentals of antitrust law, which for the most part affects the business enterprise civilly. But violations of Section 1 of the Sherman Act, which condemns activities in “restraint of trade” (including price fixing), are also crimes.

Violations of the Food and Drug Act

The federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act prohibits any person or corporation from sending into interstate commerce any adulterated or misbranded food, drug, cosmetics, or related device. For example, in a 2010 case, Allergen had to pay a criminal fine for marketing Botox as a headache or pain reliever, a use that had not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Unlike most criminal statutes, willfulness or deliberate misconduct is not an element of the act. As the United States v. Park case (Section 6.7 "Cases") shows, an executive can be held criminally liable even though he may have had no personal knowledge of the violation.

Environmental Crimes

Many federal environmental statutes have criminal provisions. These include the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (commonly called the Clean Water Act); the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899 (the Refuse Act); the Clean Air Act; the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA); the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA); and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Under the Clean Water Act, for example, wrongful discharge of pollutants into navigable waters carries a fine ranging from $2,500 to $25,000 per day and imprisonment for up to one year. “Responsible corporate officers” are specifically included as potential defendants in criminal prosecutions under the act. They can include officers who have responsibility over a project where subcontractors and their employees actually caused the discharge.U.S. v. Hanousek, 176 F.3d 1116 (9th Cir. 1999).

Violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act

As a byproduct of Watergate, federal officials at the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Internal Revenue Service uncovered many instances of bribes paid by major corporations to officials of foreign governments to win contracts with those governments. Congress responded in 1977 with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which imposed a stringent requirement that the disposition of assets be accurately and fairly accounted for in a company’s books and records. The act also made illegal the payment of bribes to foreign officials or to anyone who will transmit the money to a foreign official to assist the payor (the one offering and delivering the money) in getting business.

Violations of the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act

In 1970 Congress enacted the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), aimed at ending organized crime’s infiltration into legitimate business. The act tells courts to construe its language broadly “to effectuate its remedial purpose,” and many who are not part of organized crime have been successfully prosecuted under the act. It bans a “pattern of racketeering,” defined as the commission of at least two acts within ten years of any of a variety of already-existing crimes, including mail, wire, and securities fraud. The act thus makes many types of fraud subject to severe penalties.

Computer Crime

Computer crimeAny crime (usually theft of some sort, or sabotage) committed with the aid of a computer. generally falls into four categories: (1) theft of money, financial instruments, or property; (2) misappropriation of computer time; (3) theft of programs; and (4) illegal acquisition of information. The main federal statutory framework for many computer crimes is the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA; see Table 6.1 "Summary of Provisions of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act"). Congress only prohibited computer fraud and abuse where there was a federal interest, as where computers of the government were involved or where the crime was interstate in nature.

Table 6.1 Summary of Provisions of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act

Obtaining national security information Sec. (a)(1) 10 years maximum (20 years second offense)
Trespassing in a government computer Sec. (a)(3) 1 year (5)
Compromising the confidentiality of a computer Sec. (a)(2) 1 year (10)
Accessing a computer to defraud and obtain value Sec. (a)4 5 years (10)
Intentional access and reckless damage (a)(5)(A)(ii) 5 years (20)
Trafficking in passwords (a)(6) 1 year (10)

Key Takeaway

Offenses can be against persons, against property, or against public policy (as when you bribe a public official, commit perjury, or use public goods such as the mails or the Internet to commit fraud, violate antitrust laws, or commit other white-collar crimes).


  1. Which does more serious harm to society: street crimes or white-collar crimes?
  2. Why are various crimes so difficult to define precisely?
  3. Hungry Harold goes by the home of Juanita Martinez. Juanita has just finished baking a cherry pie and sets it in the open windowsill to cool. Harold smells the pie from the sidewalk. It is twilight; while still light, the sun has officially set. Harold reaches into the window frame and removes the pie. Technically, has Harold committed burglary? What are the issues here based on the definition of burglary?
  4. What is fraud? How is it different from dishonesty? Is being dishonest a criminal offense? If so, have you been a criminal already today?

6.3 The Nature of a Criminal Act

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand how it is possible to commit a criminal act without actually doing anything that you think might be criminal.
  2. Analyze and explain the importance of intention in criminal law and criminal prosecutions.
  3. Explain how a corporation can be guilty of a crime, even though it is a corporation’s agents that commit the crime.

To be guilty of a crime, you must have acted. Mental desire or intent to do so is insufficient. But what constitutes an act? This question becomes important when someone begins to commit a crime, or does so in association with others, or intends to do one thing but winds up doing something else.


It is not necessary to commit the intended crime to be found guilty of a criminal offense. An attempt to commit the crime is punishable as well, though usually not as severely. For example, Brett points a gun at Ashley, intending to shoot her dead. He pulls the trigger but his aim is off, and he misses her heart by four feet. He is guilty of an attempt to murder. Suppose, however, that earlier in the day, when he was preparing to shoot Ashley, Brett had been overheard in his apartment muttering to himself of his intention, and that a neighbor called the police. When they arrived, he was just snapping his gun into his shoulder holster.

At that point, courts in most states would not consider him guilty of an attempt because he had not passed beyond the stage of preparation. After having buttoned his jacket he might have reconsidered and put the gun away. Determining when the accused has passed beyond mere preparation and taken an actual step toward perpetrating the crime is often difficult and is usually for the jury to decide.


What if a defendant is accused of attempting a crime that is factually impossible? For example, suppose that men believed they were raping a drunken, unconscious woman, and were later accused of attempted rape, but defended on the grounds of factual impossibility because the woman was actually dead at the time sexual intercourse took place? Or suppose that a husband intended to poison his wife with strychnine in her coffee, but put sugar in the coffee instead? The “mens rea” or criminal intent was there, but the act itself was not criminal (rape requires a live victim, and murder by poisoning requires the use of poison). States are divided on this, but thirty-seven states have ruled out factual impossibility as a defense to the crime of attempt.

Legal impossibility is different, and is usually acknowledged as a valid defense. If the defendant completes all of his intended acts, but those acts do not fulfill all the required elements of a crime, there could be a successful “impossibility” defense. If Barney (who has poor sight), shoots at a tree stump, thinking it is his neighbor, Ralph, intending to kill him, has he committed an attempt? Many courts would hold that he has not. But the distinction between factual impossibility and legal impossibility is not always clear, and the trend seems to be to punish the intended attempt.


Under both federal and state laws, it is a separate offense to work with others toward the commission of a crime. When two or more people combine to carry out an unlawful purpose, they are engaged in a conspiracy. The law of conspiracy is quite broad, especially when it is used by prosecutors in connection with white-collar crimes. Many people can be swept up in the net of conspiracy, because it is unnecessary to show that the actions they took were sufficient to constitute either the crime or an attempt. Usually, the prosecution needs to show only (1) an agreement and (2) a single overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy. Thus if three people agree to rob a bank, and if one of them goes to a store to purchase a gun to be used in the holdup, the three can be convicted of conspiracy to commit robbery. Even the purchase of an automobile to be used as the getaway car could support a conspiracy conviction.

The act of any one of the conspirators is imputed to the other members of the conspiracy. It does not matter, for instance, that only one of the bank robbers fired the gun that killed a guard. All can be convicted of murder. That is so even if one of the conspirators was stationed as a lookout several blocks away and even if he specifically told the others that his agreement to cooperate would end “just as soon as there is shooting.”

Agency and Corporations

A person can be guilty of a crime if he acts through another. Again, the usual reason for “imputing” the guilt of the actor to another is that both were engaged in a conspiracy. But imputation of guilt is not limited to a conspiracy. The agent may be innocent even though he participates. A corporate officer directs a junior employee to take a certain bag and deliver it to the officer’s home. The employee reasonably believes that the officer is entitled to the bag. Unbeknownst to the employee, the bag contains money that belongs to the company, and the officer wishes to keep it. This is not a conspiracy. The employee is not guilty of larceny, but the officer is, because the agent’s act is imputed to him.

Since intent is a necessary component of crime, an agent’s intent cannot be imputed to his principal if the principal did not share the intent. The company president tells her sales manager, “Go make sure our biggest customer renews his contract for next year”—by which she meant, “Don’t ignore our biggest customer.” Standing before the customer’s purchasing agent, the sales manager threatens to tell the purchasing agent’s boss that the purchasing agent has been cheating on his expense account, unless he signs a new contract. The sales manager could be convicted of blackmail, but the company president could not.

Can a corporation be guilty of a crime? For many types of crimes, the guilt of individual employees may be imputed to the corporation. Thus the antitrust statutes explicitly state that the corporation may be convicted and fined for violations by employees. This is so even though the shareholders are the ones who ultimately must pay the price—and who may have had nothing to do with the crime nor the power to stop it. The law of corporate criminal responsibility has been changing in recent years. The tendency is to hold the corporation liable under criminal law if the act has been directed by a responsible officer or group within the corporation (the president or board of directors).

Key Takeaway

Although proving the intent to commit a crime (the mens rea) is essential, the intent can be established by inference (circumstantially). Conspirators may not actually commit a crime, for example, but in preparing for a criminal act, they may be guilty of the crime of conspiracy. Certain corporate officers, as well, may not be directly committing criminal acts but may be held criminally responsible for acts of their agents and contractors.


  1. Give an example of how someone can intend to commit a crime but fail to commit one.
  2. Describe a situation where there is a conspiracy to commit a crime without the crime actually taking place.
  3. Create a scenario based on current events where a corporation could be found guilty of committing a crime even though the CEO, the board of directors, and the shareholders have not themselves done a criminal act.

6.4 Responsibility

Learning Objectives

  1. Explain why criminal law generally requires that the defendant charged with a crime have criminal "intent."
  2. Know and explain the possible excuses relating to responsibility that are legally recognized by courts, including lack of capacity.

In General

The mens rea requirement depends on the nature of the crime and all the circumstances surrounding the act. In general, though, the requirement means that the accused must in some way have intended the criminal consequences of his act. Suppose, for example, that Charlie gives Gabrielle a poison capsule to swallow. That is the act. If Gabrielle dies, is Charlie guilty of murder? The answer depends on what his state of mind was. Obviously, if he gave it to her intending to kill her, the act was murder.

What if he gave it to her knowing that the capsule was poison but believing that it would only make her mildly ill? The act is still murder, because we are all liable for the consequences of any intentional act that may cause harm to others. But suppose that Gabrielle had asked Harry for aspirin, and he handed her two pills that he reasonably believed to be aspirin (they came from the aspirin bottle and looked like aspirin) but that turned out to be poison, the act would not be murder, because he had neither intent nor a state of knowledge from which intent could be inferred.

Not every criminal law requires criminal intent as an ingredient of the crime. Many regulatory codes dealing with the public health and safety impose strict requirements. Failure to adhere to such requirements is a violation, whether or not the violator had mens rea. The United States v. Park case, Section 6.7 "Cases", a decision of the US Supreme Court, shows the different considerations involved in mens rea.

Excuses That Limit or Overcome Responsibility

Mistake of Fact and Mistake of Law

Ordinarily, ignorance of the law is not an excuse. If you believe that it is permissible to turn right on a red light but the city ordinance prohibits it, your belief, even if reasonable, does not excuse your violation of the law. Under certain circumstances, however, ignorance of law will be excused. If a statute imposes criminal penalties for an action taken without a license, and if the government official responsible for issuing the license formally tells you that you do not need one (though in fact you do), a conviction for violating the statute cannot stand. In rare cases, a lawyer’s advice, contrary to the statute, will be held to excuse the client, but usually the client is responsible for his attorney’s mistakes. Otherwise, as it is said, the lawyer would be superior to the law.

Ignorance or mistake of fact more frequently will serve as an excuse. If you take a coat from a restaurant, believing it to be yours, you cannot be convicted of larceny if it is not. Your honest mistake of fact negates the requisite intent. In general, the rule is that a mistaken belief of fact will excuse criminal responsibility if (1) the belief is honestly held, (2) it is reasonable to hold it, and (3) the act would not have been criminal if the facts were as the accused supposed them to have been.


One common technique of criminal investigation is the use of an undercover agent or decoy—the policeman who poses as a buyer of drugs from a street dealer or the elaborate “sting” operations in which ostensibly stolen goods are “sold” to underworld “fences.” Sometimes these methods are the only way by which certain kinds of crime can be rooted out and convictions secured.

But a rule against entrapmentWhen a police officer or other government agent entices people to commit crimes they were not disposed to commit without the government agent’s suggestions and inducements. limits the legal ability of the police to play the role of criminals. The police are permitted to use such techniques to detect criminal activity; they are not permitted to do so to instigate crime. The distinction is usually made between a person who intends to commit a crime and one who does not. If the police provide the former with an opportunity to commit a criminal act—the sale of drugs to an undercover agent, for example—there is no defense of entrapment. But if the police knock on the door of one not known to be a drug user and persist in a demand that he purchase drugs from them, finally overcoming his will to resist, a conviction for purchase and possession of drugs can be overturned on the ground of entrapment.

Other Excuses

A number of other circumstances can limit or excuse criminal liability. These include compulsion (a gun pointed at one’s head by a masked man who apparently is unafraid to use the weapon and who demands that you help him rob a store), honest consent of the “victim” (the quarterback who is tackled), adherence to the requirements of legitimate public authority lawfully exercised (a policeman directs a towing company to remove a car parked in a tow-away zone), the proper exercise of domestic authority (a parent may spank a child, within limits), and defense of self, others, property, and habitation. Each of these excuses is a complex subject in itself.

Lack of Capacity

A further defense to criminal prosecution is the lack of mental capacity to commit the crime. Infants and children are considered incapable of committing a crime; under common law any child under the age of seven could not be prosecuted for any act. That age of incapacity varies from state to state and is now usually defined by statutes. Likewise, insanity or mental disease or defect can be a complete defense. Intoxication can be a defense to certain crimes, but the mere fact of drunkenness is not ordinarily sufficient.

Key Takeaway

In the United States, some crimes can be committed by not following strict regulatory requirements for health, safety, or the environment. The law does provide excuses from criminal liability for mistakes of fact, entrapment, and lack of capacity.


  1. Describe several situations in which compulsion, consent, or other excuses take away criminal liability.
  2. Your employee is drunk on the job and commits the crime of assault and battery on a customer. He claims lack of capacity as an excuse. Should the courts accept this excuse? Why or why not?

6.5 Procedure

Learning Objectives

  1. Describe the basic steps in pretrial criminal procedure that follow a government's determination to arrest someone for an alleged criminal act.
  2. Describe the basic elements of trial and posttrial criminal procedure.

The procedure for criminal prosecutions is complex. Procedures will vary from state to state. A criminal case begins with an arrest if the defendant is caught in the act or fleeing from the scene; if the defendant is not caught, a warrant for the defendant’s arrest will issue. The warrant is issued by a judge or a magistrate upon receiving a complaint detailing the charge of a specific crime against the accused. It is not enough for a police officer to go before a judge and say, “I’d like you to arrest Bonnie because I think she’s just murdered Clyde.” She must supply enough information to satisfy the magistrate that there is probable cause (reasonable grounds) to believe that the accused committed the crime. The warrant will be issued to any officer or agency that has power to arrest the accused with warrant in hand.

The accused will be brought before the magistrate for a preliminary hearing. The purpose of the hearing is to determine whether there is sufficient reason to hold the accused for trial. If so, the accused can be sent to jail or be permitted to make bail. Bail is a sum of money paid to the court to secure the defendant’s attendance at trial. If he fails to appear, he forfeits the money. Constitutionally, bail can be withheld only if there is reason to believe that the accused will flee the jurisdiction.

Once the arrest is made, the case is in the hands of the prosecutor. In the fifty states, prosecution is a function of the district attorney’s office. These offices are usually organized on a county-by-county basis. In the federal system, criminal prosecution is handled by the office of the US attorney, one of whom is appointed for every federal district.

Following the preliminary hearing, the prosecutor must either file an informationA formal charge that a less serious crime has been committed. (a document stating the crime of which the person being held is accused) or ask the grand juryA group of citizens that hear the state’s evidence and determine whether a reasonable basis (probable cause) exists for believing that a crime has been committed and thus that a criminal proceeding should be brought against a defendant. for an indictmentA formal charge that a serious crime has been committed; where a grand jury is convened, an indictment may issue if probable cause is found.. The grand jury consists of twenty-three people who sit to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to warrant a prosecution. It does not sit to determine guilt or innocence. The indictment is the grand jury’s formal declaration of charges on which the accused will be tried. If indicted, the accused formally becomes a defendant.

The defendant will then be arraigned, that is, brought before a judge to answer the accusation in the indictment. The defendant may plead guilty or not guilty. If he pleads not guilty, the case will be tried before a jury (sometimes referred to as a petit jury). The jury cannot convict unless it finds the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubtThe prosecutor must prove how each element of the offense charged is “beyond a reasonable doubt.”.

The defendant might have pleaded guilty to the offense or to a lesser charge (often referred to as a “lesser included offense”—simple larceny, for example, is a lesser included offense of robbery because the defendant may not have used violence but nevertheless stole from the victim). Such a plea is usually arranged through plea bargainingA defendant’s plea of guilty, given in exchange for a recommendation from the prosecutor to the judge for a limited or lesser sentence for the defendant. with the prosecution. In return for the plea, the prosecutor promises to recommend to the judge that the sentence be limited. The judge most often, but not always, goes along with the prosecutor’s recommendation.

The defendant is also permitted to file a plea of nolo contendere (no contest) in prosecutions for certain crimes. In so doing, he neither affirms nor denies his guilt. He may be sentenced as though he had pleaded guilty, although usually a nolo plea is the result of a plea bargain. Why plead nolo? In some offenses, such as violations of the antitrust laws, the statutes provide that private plaintiffs may use a conviction or a guilty plea as proof that the defendant violated the law. This enables a plaintiff to prove liability without putting on witnesses or evidence and reduces the civil trial to a hearing about the damages to plaintiff. The nolo plea permits the defendant to avoid this, so that any plaintiff will have to not only prove damages but also establish civil liability.

Following a guilty plea or a verdict of guilt, the judge will impose a sentence after presentencing reports are written by various court officials (often, probation officers). Permissible sentences are spelled out in statutes, though these frequently give the judge a range within which to work (e.g., twenty years to life). The judge may sentence the defendant to imprisonment, a fine, or both, or may decide to suspend sentence (i.e., the defendant will not have to serve the sentence as long as he stays out of trouble).

Sentencing usually comes before appeal. As in civil cases, the defendant, now convicted, has the right to take at least one appeal to higher courts, where issues of procedure and constitutional rights may be argued.

Key Takeaway

Criminal procedure in US courts is designed to provide a fair process to both criminal defendants and to society. The grand jury system, prosecutorial discretion, plea bargains, and appeals for lack of a fair trial are all part of US criminal procedure.


  1. Harold is charged with the crime of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill or inflict serious bodily injury. It is a more serious crime than simple assault. Harold’s attorney wants the prosecutor to give Harold a break, but Harold is guilty of at least simple assault and may also have had the intent to kill. What is Harold’s attorney likely to do?
  2. Kumar was driving his car, smoking marijuana, and had an accident with another vehicle. The other driver was slightly injured. When the officer arrived, she detected a strong odor of marijuana in Kumar’s car and a small amount of marijuana in the glove compartment. The other driver expects to bring a civil action against Kumar for her injuries after Kumar’s criminal case. What should Kumar plead in the criminal case—careless driving or driving under the influence?

6.6 Constitutional Rights of the Accused

Learning Objectives

  1. Describe the most significant constitutional rights of defendants in US courts, and name the source of these rights.
  2. Explain the Exclusionary rule and the reason for its existence.

Search and Seizure

The rights of those accused of a crime are spelled out in four of the ten constitutional amendments that make up the Bill of Rights (Amendments Four, Five, Six, and Eight). For the most part, these amendments have been held to apply to both the federal and the state governments. The Fourth Amendment says in part that “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” Although there are numerous and tricky exceptions to the general rule, ordinarily the police may not break into a person’s house or confiscate his papers or arrest him unless they have a warrant to do so. This means, for instance, that a policeman cannot simply stop you on a street corner and ask to see what is in your pockets (a power the police enjoy in many other countries), nor can your home be raided without probable cause to believe that you have committed a crime. What if the police do search or seize unreasonably?

The courts have devised a remedy for the use at trial of the fruits of an unlawful search or seizure. Evidence that is unconstitutionally seized is excluded from the trial. This is the so-called exclusionary rule, first made applicable in federal cases in 1914 and brought home to the states in 1961. The exclusionary ruleEvidence obtained in violation of constitutional rights from the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments are generally not admissible at trial. is highly controversial, and there are numerous exceptions to it. But it remains generally true that the prosecutor may not use evidence willfully taken by the police in violation of constitutional rights generally, and most often in the violation of Fourth Amendment rights. (The fruits of a coerced confession are also excluded.)

Double Jeopardy

The Fifth Amendment prohibits the government from prosecuting a person twice for the same offense. The amendment says that no person shall be “subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.” If a defendant is acquitted, the government may not appeal. If a defendant is convicted and his conviction is upheld on appeal, he may not thereafter be reprosecuted for the same crime.


The Fifth Amendment is also the source of a person’s right against self-incrimination (no person “shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself”). The debate over the limits of this right has given rise to an immense literature. In broadest outline, the right against self-incrimination means that the prosecutor may not call a defendant to the witness stand during trial and may not comment to the jury on the defendant’s failure to take the stand. Moreover, a defendant’s confession must be excluded from evidence if it was not voluntarily made (e.g., if the police beat the person into giving a confession). In Miranda v. Arizona, the Supreme Court ruled that no confession is admissible if the police have not first advised a suspect of his constitutional rights, including the right to have a lawyer present to advise him during the questioning.Miranda v. Arizona, 384 US 436 (1966). These so-called Miranda warnings have prompted scores of follow-up cases that have made this branch of jurisprudence especially complex.

Speedy Trial

The Sixth Amendment tells the government that it must try defendants speedily. How long a delay is too long depends on the circumstances in each case. In 1975, Congress enacted the Speedy Trial Act to give priority to criminal cases in federal courts. It requires all criminal prosecutions to go to trial within seventy-five days (though the law lists many permissible reasons for delay).


The Sixth Amendment also says that the defendant shall have the right to confront witnesses against him. No testimony is permitted to be shown to the jury unless the person making it is present and subject to cross-examination by the defendant’s counsel.

Assistance of Counsel

The Sixth Amendment guarantees criminal defendants the right to have the assistance of defense counsel. During the eighteenth century and before, the British courts frequently refused to permit defendants to have lawyers in the courtroom during trial. The right to counsel is much broader in this country, as the result of Supreme Court decisions that require the state to pay for a lawyer for indigent defendants in most criminal cases.

Cruel and Unusual Punishment

Punishment under the common law was frequently horrifying. Death was a common punishment for relatively minor crimes. In many places throughout the world, punishments still persist that seem cruel and unusual, such as the practice of stoning someone to death. The guillotine, famously in use during and after the French Revolution, is no longer used, nor are defendants put in stocks for public display and humiliation. In pre-Revolutionary America, an unlucky defendant who found himself convicted could face brutal torture before death.

The Eighth Amendment banned these actions with the words that “cruel and unusual punishments [shall not be] inflicted.” Virtually all such punishments either never were enacted or have been eliminated from the statute books in the United States. Nevertheless, the Eighth Amendment has become a source of controversy, first with the Supreme Court’s ruling in 1976 that the death penalty, as haphazardly applied in the various states, amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. Later Supreme Court opinions have made it easier for states to administer the death penalty. As of 2010, there were 3,300 defendants on death row in the United States. Of course, no corporation is on death row, and no corporation’s charter has ever been revoked by a US state, even though some corporations have repeatedly been indicted and convicted of criminal offenses.

Presumption of Innocence

The most important constitutional right in the US criminal justice system is the presumption of innocence. The Supreme Court has repeatedly cautioned lower courts in the United States that juries must be properly instructed that the defendant is innocent until proven guilty. This is the origin of the “beyond all reasonable doubt” standard of proof and is an instruction given to juries in each criminal case. The Fifth Amendment notes the right of “due process” in federal proceedings, and the Fourteenth Amendment requires that each state provide “due process” to defendants.

Key Takeaway

The US Constitution provides several important protections for criminal defendants, including a prohibition on the use of evidence that has been obtained by unconstitutional means. This would include evidence seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment and confessions obtained in violation of the Fifth Amendment.


  1. Do you think it is useful to have a presumption of innocence in criminal cases? What if there were not a presumption of innocence in criminal cases?
  2. Do you think public humiliation, public execution, and unusual punishments would reduce the amount of crime? Why do you think so?
  3. “Due process” is another phrase for “fairness.” Why should the public show fairness toward criminal defendants?

6.7 Cases

False Pretenses

State v. Mills

96 Ariz. 377, 396 P.2d 5 (Ariz. 1964)


Defendants appeal from a conviction on two counts of obtaining money by false pretenses in violation of AR.S. §§ 13-661.A3. and 13-663.A1. The material facts, viewed “…in the light most favorable to sustaining the conviction,” are as follows: Defendant William Mills was a builder and owned approximately 150 homes in Tucson in December, 1960. Mills conducted his business in his home. In 1960 defendant Winifred Mills, his wife, participated in the business generally by answering the telephone, typing, and receiving clients who came to the office.

In December 1960, Mills showed the complainant, Nathan Pivowar, a house at 1155 Knox Drive and another at 1210 Easy Street, and asked Pivowar if he would loan money on the Knox Drive house. Pivowar did not indicate at that time whether he would agree to such a transaction. Later in the same month Nathan Pivowar told the defendants that he and his brother, Joe Pivowar, would loan $5,000 and $4,000 on the two houses. Three or four days later Mrs. Mills, at Pivowar’s request, showed him these homes again.

Mills had prepared two typed mortgages for Pivowar. Pivowar objected to the wording, so in Mills’ office Mrs. Mills retyped the mortgages under Pivowar’s dictation. After the mortgages had been recorded on December 31, 1960, Pivowar gave Mills a bank check for $5,791.87, some cash, and a second mortgage formerly obtained from Mills in the approximate sum of $3,000. In exchange Mills gave Pivowar two personal notes in the sums of $5,250.00 and $4,200.00 and the two mortgages as security for the loan.

Although the due date for Mills’ personal notes passed without payment being made, the complainant did not present the notes for payment, did not demand that they be paid, and did not sue upon them. In 1962 the complainant learned that the mortgages which he had taken as security in the transaction were not first mortgages on the Knox Drive and Easy Street properties. These mortgages actually covered two vacant lots on which there were outstanding senior mortgages. On learning this, Pivowar signed a complaint charging the defendants with the crime of theft by false pretenses.

On appeal defendants contend that the trial court erred in denying their motion to dismiss the information. They urge that a permanent taking of property must be proved in order to establish the crime of theft. Since the complainant had the right to sue on the defendants’ notes, the defendants assert that complainant cannot be said to have been deprived of his property permanently. Defendants misconceive the elements of the crime of theft by false pretenses. Stated in a different form, their argument is that although the complainant has parted with his cash, a bank check, and a second mortgage, the defendants intend to repay the loan.

Defendants admit that the proposition of law which they assert is a novel one in this jurisdiction. Respectable authority in other states persuades us that their contention is without merit. A creditor has a right to determine for himself whether he wishes to be a secured or an unsecured creditor. In the former case, he has a right to know about the security. If he extends credit in reliance upon security which is falsely represented to be adequate, he has been defrauded even if the debtor intends to repay the debt. His position is now that of an unsecured creditor. At the very least, an unreasonable risk of loss has been forced upon him by reason of the deceit. This risk which he did not intend to assume has been imposed upon him by the intentional act of the debtor, and such action constitutes an intent to defraud.

* * *

The cases cited by defendants in support of their contention are distinguishable from the instant case in that they involved theft by larceny. Since the crime of larceny is designed to protect a person’s possessory interest in property whereas the crime of false pretenses protects one’s title interest, the requirement of a permanent deprivation is appropriate to the former. Accordingly, we hold that an intent to repay a loan obtained on the basis of a false representation of the security for the loan is no defense.

* * *

Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded for resentencing.

Case Questions

  1. False pretenses is a crime of obtaining ownership of property of another by making untrue representations of fact with intent to defraud. What were the untrue representations of fact made by Mills?
  2. Concisely state the defendant’s argument as to why Pivowar has not been deprived of any property.
  3. If Pivowar had presented the notes and Mills had paid, would a crime have been committed?

White-Collar Crimes

United States v. Park

421 U.S. 658 (1975)

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari to consider whether the jury instructions in the prosecution of a corporate officer under § 301 (k) of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, 52 Stat. 1042, as amended, 21 U.S.C. § 331 (k), were appropriate under United States v. Dotterweich, 320 U.S. 277 (1943). Acme Markets, Inc., is a national retail food chain with approximately 36,000 employees, 874 retail outlets, 12 general warehouses, and four special warehouses. Its headquarters, including the office of the president, respondent Park, who is chief executive officer of the corporation, are located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In a five-count information filed in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, the Government charged Acme and respondent with violations of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. Each count of the information alleged that the defendants had received food that had been shipped in interstate commerce and that, while the food was being held for sale in Acme’s Baltimore warehouse following shipment in interstate commerce, they caused it to be held in a building accessible to rodents and to be exposed to contamination by rodents. These acts were alleged to have resulted in the food’s being adulterated within the meaning of 21 U.S.C. §§ 342 (a)(3) and (4), in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 331 (k).

Acme pleaded guilty to each count of the information. Respondent pleaded not guilty. The evidence at trial demonstrated that in April 1970 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advised respondent by letter of insanitary conditions in Acme’s Philadelphia warehouse. In 1971 the FDA found that similar conditions existed in the firm’s Baltimore warehouse. An FDA consumer safety officer testified concerning evidence of rodent infestation and other insanitary conditions discovered during a 12-day inspection of the Baltimore warehouse in November and December 1971. He also related that a second inspection of the warehouse had been conducted in March 1972. On that occasion the inspectors found that there had been improvement in the sanitary conditions, but that “there was still evidence of rodent activity in the building and in the warehouses and we found some rodent-contaminated lots of food items.”

The Government also presented testimony by the Chief of Compliance of the FDA’s Baltimore office, who informed respondent by letter of the conditions at the Baltimore warehouse after the first inspection. There was testimony by Acme’s Baltimore division vice president, who had responded to the letter on behalf of Acme and respondent and who described the steps taken to remedy the insanitary conditions discovered by both inspections. The Government’s final witness, Acme’s vice president for legal affairs and assistant secretary, identified respondent as the president and chief executive officer of the company and read a bylaw prescribing the duties of the chief executive officer. He testified that respondent functioned by delegating “normal operating duties” including sanitation, but that he retained “certain things, which are the big, broad, principles of the operation of the company and had “the responsibility of seeing that they all work together.”

At the close of the Government’s case in chief, respondent moved for a judgment of acquittal on the ground that “the evidence in chief has shown that Mr. Park is not personally concerned in this Food and Drug violation.” The trial judge denied the motion, stating that United States v. Dotterweich, 320 U.S. 277 (1943), was controlling.

Respondent was the only defense witness. He testified that, although all of Acme’s employees were in a sense under his general direction, the company had an “organizational structure for responsibilities for certain functions” according to which different phases of its operation were “assigned to individuals who, in turn, have staff and departments under them.” He identified those individuals responsible for sanitation, and related that upon receipt of the January 1972 FDA letter, he had conferred with the vice president for legal affairs, who informed him that the Baltimore division vice president “was investigating the situation immediately and would be taking corrective action and would be preparing a summary of the corrective action to reply to the letter.” Respondent stated that he did not “believe there was anything [he] could have done more constructively than what [he] found was being done.”

On cross-examination, respondent conceded that providing sanitary conditions for food offered for sale to the public was something that he was “responsible for in the entire operation of the company” and he stated that it was one of many phases of the company that he assigned to “dependable subordinates.” Respondent was asked about and, over the objections of his counsel, admitted receiving, the April 1970 letter addressed to him from the FDA regarding insanitary conditions at Acme’s Philadelphia warehouse. He acknowledged that, with the exception of the division vice president, the same individuals had responsibility for sanitation in both Baltimore and Philadelphia. Finally, in response to questions concerning the Philadelphia and Baltimore incidents, respondent admitted that the Baltimore problem indicated the system for handling sanitation “wasn’t working perfectly” and that as Acme’s chief executive officer he was “responsible for any result which occurs in our company.”

At the close of the evidence, respondent’s renewed motion for a judgment of acquittal was denied. The relevant portion of the trial judge’s instructions to the jury challenged by respondent is set out in the margin. Respondent’s counsel objected to the instructions on the ground that they failed fairly to reflect our decision in United States v. Dotterweich supra, and to define “‘responsible relationship.’” The trial judge overruled the objection. The jury found respondent guilty on all counts of the information, and he was subsequently sentenced to pay a fine of $50 on each count. The Court of Appeals reversed the conviction and remanded for a new trial.

* * *

The question presented by the Government’s petition for certiorari in United States v. Dotterweich, and the focus of this Court’s opinion, was whether the manager of a corporation, as well as the corporation itself, may be prosecuted under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938 for the introduction of misbranded and adulterated articles into interstate commerce. In Dotterweich, a jury had disagreed as to the corporation, a jobber purchasing drugs from manufacturers and shipping them in interstate commerce under its own label, but had convicted Dotterweich, the corporation’s president and general manager. The Court of Appeals reversed the conviction on the ground that only the drug dealer, whether corporation or individual, was subject to the criminal provisions of the Act, and that where the dealer was a corporation, an individual connected therewith might be held personally only if he was operating the corporation as his ‘alter ego.’

In reversing the judgment of the Court of Appeals and reinstating Dotterweich’s conviction, this Court looked to the purposes of the Act and noted that they “touch phases of the lives and health of people which, in the circumstances of modern industrialism, are largely beyond self-protection. It observed that the Act is of “a now familiar type” which “dispenses 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. Central to the Court’s conclusion that individuals other than proprietors are subject to the criminal provisions of the Act was the reality that the only way in which a corporation can act is through the individuals, who act on its behalf.

* * *

The Court recognized that, because the Act dispenses with the need to prove “consciousness of wrongdoing,” it may result in hardship even as applied to those who share “responsibility in the business process resulting in” a violation.…The rule that corporate employees who have “a responsible share in the furtherance of the transaction which the statute outlaws” are subject to the criminal provisions of the Act was not formulated in a vacuum. Cf. Morissette v. United States, 342 U.S. 246, 258 (1952). Cases under the Federal Food and Drugs Act of 1906 reflected the view both that knowledge or intent were not required to be proved in prosecutions under its criminal provisions, and that responsible corporate agents could be subjected to the liability thereby imposed.

* * *

The rationale of the interpretation given the Act in Dotterweich…has been confirmed in our subsequent cases. Thus, the Court has reaffirmed the proposition that the public interest in the purity of its food is so great as to warrant the imposition of the highest standard of care on distributors.

Thus Dotterweich and the cases which have followed reveal that in providing sanctions which reach and touch the individuals who execute the corporate mission—and this is by no means necessarily confined to a single corporate agent or employee—the Act imposes not only a positive duty to seek out and remedy violations when they occur but also, and primarily, a duty to implement measures that will insure that violations will not occur. The requirements of foresight and vigilance imposed on responsible corporate agents are beyond question demanding, and perhaps onerous, but they are no more stringent than the public has a right to expect of those who voluntarily assume positions of authority in business enterprises whose services and products affect the health and well-being of the public that supports them.

* * *

Reading the entire charge satisfies us that the jury’s attention was adequately focused on the issue of respondent’s authority with respect to the conditions that formed the basis of the alleged violations. Viewed as a whole, the charge did not permit the jury to find guilt solely on the basis of respondent’s position in the corporation; rather, it fairly advised the jury that to find guilt it must find respondent “had a responsible relation to the situation,” and “by virtue of his position…had…authority and responsibility” to deal with the situation.

The situation referred to could only be “food…held in unsanitary conditions in a warehouse with the result that it consisted, in part, of filth or…may have been contaminated with filth.”

Our conclusion that the Court of Appeals erred in its reading of the jury charge suggests as well our disagreement with that court concerning the admissibility of evidence demonstrating that respondent was advised by the FDA in 1970 of insanitary conditions in Acme’s Philadelphia warehouse. We are satisfied that the Act imposes the highest standard of care and permits conviction of responsible corporate officials who, in light of this standard of care, have the power to prevent or correct violations of its provisions.

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Case Questions

  1. Did Park have criminal intent to put adulterated food into commerce? If not, how can Park’s conduct be criminalized?
  2. To get a conviction, what does the prosecutor have to show, other than that Park was the CEO of Acme and therefore responsible for what his company did or didn’t do?

6.8 Summary and Exercises


Criminal law is that branch of law governing offenses against society. Most criminal law requires a specific intent to commit the prohibited act (although a very few economic acts, made criminal by modern legislation, dispense with the requirement of intent). In this way, criminal law differs from much of civil law—for example, from the tort of negligence, in which carelessness, rather than intent, can result in liability.

Major crimes are known as felonies. Minor crimes are known as misdemeanors. Most people have a general notion about familiar crimes, such as murder and theft. But conventional knowledge does not suffice for understanding technical distinctions among related crimes, such as larceny, robbery, and false pretenses. These distinctions can be important because an individual can be found guilty not merely for committing one of the acts defined in the criminal law but also for attempting or conspiring to commit such an act. It is usually easier to convict someone of attempt or conspiracy than to convict for the main crime, and a person involved in a conspiracy to commit a felony may find that very little is required to put him into serious trouble.

Of major concern to the business executive is white-collar crime, which encompasses a host of offenses, including bribery, embezzlement, fraud, restraints of trade, and computer crime. Anyone accused of crime should know that they always have the right to consult with a lawyer and should always do so.


  1. Bill is the chief executive of a small computer manufacturing company that desperately needs funds to continue operating. One day a stranger comes to Bill to induce him to take part in a cocaine smuggling deal that would net Bill millions of dollars. Unbeknownst to Bill, the stranger is an undercover policeman. Bill tells the stranger to go away. The stranger persists, and after five months of arguing and cajoling, the stranger wears down Bill’s will to resist. Bill agrees to take delivery of the cocaine and hands over a down payment of $10,000 to the undercover agent, who promptly arrests him for conspiracy to violate the narcotics laws. What defenses does Bill have?
  2. You are the manager of a bookstore. A customer becomes irritated at having to stand in line and begins to shout at the salesclerk for refusing to wait on him. You come out of your office and ask the customer to calm down. He shouts at you. You tell him to leave. He refuses. So you and the salesclerk pick him up and shove him bodily out the door. He calls the police to have you arrested for assault. Should the police arrest you? Assuming that they do, how would you defend yourself in court?
  3. Marilyn is arrested for arson against a nuclear utility, a crime under both state and federal law. She is convicted in state court and sentenced to five years in jail. Then the federal government decides to prosecute her for the same offense. Does she have a double-jeopardy defense against the federal prosecution?
  4. Tectonics, a US corporation, is bidding on a project in Nigeria, and its employee wins the bid by secretly giving $100,000 to the Nigerian public official that has the most say about which company will be awarded the contract. The contract is worth $80 million, and Tectonics expects to make at least $50 million on the project. Has a crime under US law been committed?
  5. Suppose that the CEO of Tectonics, Ted Nelson, is not actually involved in bribery of the Nigerian public official Adetutu Adeleke. Instead, suppose that the CFO, Jamie Skillset, is very accomplished at insulating both top management and the board of directors from some of the “operational realities” within the company. Skillset knows that Whoopi Goldmine, a Nigerian employee of Tectonics, has made the deal with Adeleke and secured the contract for Tectonics. Is it possible that Nelson, as well as Skillset, can be found guilty of a crime?
  6. You have graduated from college and, after working hard for ten years, have scraped enough money together to make a down payment on a forty-acre farm within driving distance to the small city where you work in Colorado. In town at lunch one day, you run into an old friend from high school, Hayley Mills, who tells you that she is saving her money to start a high-end consignment shop in town. You allow her to have a room in your house for a few months until she has enough money to go into business. Over the following weeks, however, you realize that old acquaintances from high school are stopping by almost daily for short visits. When you bring this up to Hayley, she admits that many old friends are now relying on her for marijuana. She is not a licensed caregiver in Colorado and is clearly violating the law. Out of loyalty, you tell her that she has three weeks to move out, but you do not prevent her from continuing sales while she is there. What crime have you committed?
  7. The Center Art Galleries—Hawaii sells artwork, and much of it involves art by the famous surrealist painter Salvador Dali. The federal government suspected the center of selling forged Dali artwork and obtained search warrants for six locations controlled by the center. The warrants told the executing officer to seize any items that were “evidence of violations of federal criminal law.” The warrants did not describe the specific crime suspected, nor did the warrants limit the seizure of items solely to Dali artwork or suspected Dali forgeries. Are these search warrants valid?Center Art Galleries—Hawaii, Inc. v. United States, 875 F.2d 747 (9th Cir. 1989).

Self-Test Questions

  1. Jared has made several loans to debtors who have declared bankruptcy. These are unsecured claims. Jared “doctors” the documentation to show amounts owed that are higher than the debtors actually owe. Later, Jared is charged with the federal criminal offense of filing false claims. The standard (or “burden”) of proof that the US attorney must meet in the prosecution is

    1. beyond all doubt
    2. beyond a reasonable doubt
    3. clear and convincing evidence
    4. a preponderance of the evidence
  2. Jethro, a businessman who resides in Atlanta, creates a disturbance at a local steakhouse and is arrested for being drunk and disorderly. Drunk and disorderly is a misdemeanor under Georgia law. A misdemeanor is a crime punishable by imprisonment for up to

    1. one year
    2. two years
    3. five years
    4. none of the above
  3. Yuan is charged with a crime. To find him guilty, the prosecutor must show

    1. actus reus and mens rea
    2. mens rea only
    3. the performance of a prohibited act
    4. none of the above
  4. Kira works for Data Systems Ltd. and may be liable for larceny if she steals

    1. a competitor’s trade secrets
    2. company computer time
    3. the use of Data Systems’ Internet for personal business
    4. any of the above
  5. Candace is constructing a new office building that is near its completion. She offers Paul $500 to overlook certain things that are noncompliant with the city’s construction code. Paul accepts the money and overlooks the violations. Later, Candace is charged with the crime of bribery. This occurred when

    1. Candace offered the bribe.
    2. Paul accepted the bribe.
    3. Paul overlooked the violations.
    4. none of the above

Self-Test Answers

  1. b
  2. a
  3. a
  4. d
  5. a