Thursday, March 29, 2007

Knowledge of Jurisdictional Hook Not Necessary for CWA Conviction

US v. Cooper: Cooper was convicted on 9 counts of violating the Clean Water Act by knowingly discharging a pollutant into the waters of the United States. Cooper ran a trailer park that included a "sewage lagoon" which discharged into a nearby creek. The creek flowed, eventually, into the Roanoke River and into Albemarle Sound. While the discharge from the "lagoon" was treated in some way, but not effectively enough to meet Virginia regulatory requirements. Cooper and the Virginia equivalent of DEP went back and forth for years to resolve the situation. Finally, after Cooper failed to meet the terms of a consent agreement between the parties, DEP revoked his permit to operate the "lagoon." Undaunted, Cooper continued to use the "lagoon" and was eventually charged federally. He received a sentence of 27 months in prison.

On appeal, Cooper made two main arguments, both of which were rejected by the Fourth Circuit. First, Cooper argued that evidence of his dealings with the Virginia DEP - all of which occurred prior to the conduct charged in the federal indictment - was improperly admitted under FRE 404(b). The court concluded that FRE 404(b) was not even implicated in Cooper's case because the evidence was "intrinsic to the story of the crime." In any event, if it was 404(b) evidence it was properly admitted to show knowledge/lack of mistake on Cooper's part. Second, Cooper argued that the Government failed to prove that he knew the creek into which the "lagoon" drained was a "water of the United States" and therefore the Government failed to prove an element of the offense. The court rejected that argument, concluding that the "waters of the United States" element is purely jurisdictional and the defendant need not have knowledge of what makes the offense a federal one (in the same way that a felon in possession of a firearm doesn't need to know it travelled in interstate commerce).

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