Ninth Circuit Rejects Mental Capacity Defense for RCRA Permit Violations

The Ninth Circuit in United States v Spatig, 870 F.3d 1079 (9th Cir. 2017) recently held that defendants may not escape conviction under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act’s (RCRA) criminal enforcement provisions by invoking the “lack of mental” capacity defense. Because RCRA’s criminal provisions require only a showing that the defendant “knowingly” committed the acts giving rise to the criminal allegations (as opposed to specifically intending the result), the defendant’s conviction for storing hazardous materials at an unpermitted location was upheld.

The defendant in Spatig was a contractor who specialized in coatings for cement floors. As part of the business, he purchased mass volumes of paints and paint-related materials. Upon ceasing operations due to a family illness, he began storing paints and related materials at his residence. While investigating a nuisance complaint by a neighbor, county officials discovered the coating materials which in turn resulted in a cleanup effort led by the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality. Most of the materials were destroyed or removed by IDEQ.

Five years later, officials again discovered paint canisters and piles of rusted containers with hazardous coating materials and waste strewn across the defendant’s yard and or packed into vehicles and trailers. The cleanup effort was intensive, requiring EPA to deploy a special unit to remove the hazardous materials at an ultimate cost of ~$500,000. The defendant was charged criminally under RCRA for knowingly treating, storing, or disposing hazardous waste without a permit under 42 U.S.C. § 6928(d)). He was convicted and sentenced to nearly four years in prison.

The defendant appealed, citing his diminished mental capacity. In rejecting that argument, the Ninth Circuit observed that whereas defendants may assert lack of mental capacity for specific intent crimes, the culpability standard under RCRA’s criminal enforcement provisions (42 U.S.C. § 6928(d)) requires only a showing of general intent – i.e. that the defendant “knowingly” committed the acts giving rise to the criminal allegations. Because the defendant in Spatig was convicted of knowingly treating, storing, or disposing of hazardous materials without a permit, the capacity defense was not available.

Spatig’s firm guidance as it relates to the capacity defense, underscores the importance of maintaining a proactive compliance regime to ensure that unused or discarded materials are regularly accounted for and properly removed. This is particularly so for clients with declining health who retain ownership of former manufacturing or storage facilities.