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New Law Requires Mens Rea for Regulatory Crimes

Last week, Governor Rick Snyder signed Public Act 250 into law. The purpose of the Act is to prohibit the conviction of persons who have unknowingly violated the law. Now, in order to establish criminal liability, a prosecutor must demonstrate that the person accused of breaking the law acted with intent, knowledge, or recklessness.

The Legislature was moved to action based on the Supreme Court's denial of relief to the defendant in People v. Taylor. Alan Taylor, a local businessman, was convicted of violating the Wetlands Protection Act when he expanded an employee parking lot into land that had been classified as a wetland. Taylor was unaware of the land's wetland status, as the environmental engineers overseeing the project did not inform him of this fact and it was not readily apparent that the area was a wetland. Despite his lack of knowledge, Taylor was fined $8,500 for his actions, and was unable to get his conviction reversed upon appeal. Following the publicizing of Taylor's story, the Legislature drafted Public Act 250 to avoid such a result in the future.

Public Act 250 does not apply to the vehicle code or the penal code, or to statutes that specifically establish strict criminal liability for a particular crime. It does apply to regulatory crimes such as Taylor's violation. These regulatory crimes are created where an agency--such as the Department of Education or the Department of Environmental Quality--is given the power through the legislature to create laws.

Problems arose where agencies created crimes, but did not specify the mental state needed. Combined with the rise in the number of regulatory crimes, this created the potential for persons to be convicted of crimes they were not aware of and did not intend to commit. For example, Lisa Snyder faced criminal penalties for running an unlicensed child care when she offered to watch her neighbor's kids between the period of her neighbors going to work and their children's school bus arriving. Kenneth Schumacher disposed of scrap tires at an unlicensed disposal facility and, though he was not aware that it was unlicensed, was sentenced to 270 days in jail and fined $10,000. Now, following the passage of Public Act 250, prosecutors will have to prove that the defendant acted with intent, knowledge, or recklessness, protecting those who unintentionally violate a regulation from conviction.

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