Sunday, October 08, 2017

Case o' The Week: A Stitch in Twine Saves Nine (from reversing) - Spatig and Mens Rea in "Knowingly" Statutes

  Mens rea, frayed Twine, on Ninth's mind.
 United States v. Spatig, 2017 WL 4018398 (9th Cir. Sept. 13, 2017), decision available here.

Players: Decision by Judge McKeown, joined by Judge Nguyen and visiting 10th  Circuit Judge Murphy.
 Hard fought appeal by AFD Steven Richert, Federal Defenders Services of Idaho.

Facts: Spatig ran a company that ended up with lots of bulk paint and paint-related materials. Id. at *1. When Spatig’s wife became ill he stopped working and decided to store these materials at his Idaho residence (with no EPA permit). Id. County officials found the stuff in 2005 and destroyed much of it. Id.
  However, in 2010, hazardous materials were again found strewn across the property: corroded, rusted, and not stored safely. Id. An EPA team came in, removed over 3,000 containers, and spent almost half a million dollars on the clean-up. Id.
  Spatig was charged with knowingly storing and disposing hazardous waste, without a permit, in violation of 42 USC § 6928(d)(2)(A) (the “Resource Conservation and Recovery Act,” or “RCRA.”) Id.
  The government won an in limine motion to preclude evidence on Spatig’s diminished capacity, arguing the offense was a general-intent crime. Id. Spatig was convicted after trial.

Issue(s): “The key issue on appeal is whether § 6928(d)(2)(A) defines a crime of general or specific intent, as that decision dictates whether Spatig can advance a diminished-capacity defense. We have consistently held that diminished capacity defenses are not available to defendants who are accused of general intent crimes.” Id. at *2 (quotations and citations omitted).

Held: “[W]e affirm because § 6928(d)(2)(A) defines a general-intent crime.” Id. “Because § 6928(d)(2)(A) defines a crime of general intent, the district court did not err in excluding evidence of Spatig’s diminished capacity.” Id. *4.

Of Note: “But wait,” you protest, “what about Twine?” In that 1988 decision, Judge Brunetti looked at a pair of statutes that prohibited knowingly conveying a threat – the same operative verb in the charge facing Spatig. See United States v. Twine, 853 F.2d 676 (9th Cir. 1988). The Court held that those statutes required an “intent to threaten,” and thus required “specific intent.” Id. at 680.
  Judge McKeown is unpersuaded.
  Twine, Judge McKeown concludes, covers offenses that are “akin to ‘classic’ specific-intent crimes,” while the hazardous waste statute in Spatig is “agnostic” as to the defendant’s aim. Id. at 2017 WL 4018398 at *3.
  The Court also takes a swipe at Twine, opining that the Ninth has “softened on the reasoning” of the decision and reporting the circuit split engendered by the case. Id. at *3 & n.2.
  It is a disheartening discussion for those on all sides of the political spectrum who worry about federal prosecutions in a strict liability world, checked only by prosecutorial discretion.   

How to Use: Good Conservatives (well, at least, good Federalists) distrust the regulatory state and worry about the constant erosion of mens rea requirements in federal criminal statutes and regs. As President Trump’s judicial appointees join the district courts and Ninth (and more Justices join the Supreme Court), the time is ripe for a renewed mens rea effort by the federal defense bar.
   More immediately, and despite the discounting of the Spatig panel, note that Twine remains good law. Spatig’s “akin to classic specific-intent” distinction of Twine feels like an awfully fuzzy test. When advocating for specific intent for a “knowingly” statute, brush off your copy of Reading Law, channel Justice Scalia’s originalism vibe, and root about old common law for “classic” specific-intent analogues that are arguably “akin” to offenses in “knowingly” statutes.   
For Further Reading: “The Supreme Court has long recognized a ‘presumption’ grounded in our common law tradition that a mens rea requirement attaches to ‘each of the statutory elements that criminalize otherwise innocent conduct.’”
  Who penned these wise words?  Then-Judge, now-Justice Gorsuch. See Neil Gorsuch on criminal defendants and the rule of law, available here

Steven Kalar, Federal Public Defender, Northern District of California. Website available at


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