Charging Practices in Hazardous Waste Crime Prosecutions

Posted: 23 Jul 2001

See all articles by Kathleen F. Brickey

Kathleen F. Brickey

Washington University in St. Louis - School of Law


This article provides an empirical testing ground for speculative claims about special dangers inherent in criminal enforcement of environmental laws. Critics of criminal enforcement maintain that the criminal provisions in environmental statutes lay a trap for the unwary, particularly in the context of hazardous waste violations. Apart from their concerns about the complexity of environmental law and the obscurity of regulatory standards, criminal enforcement critics are distrustful of prosecutorial discretion as a mechanism to screen out unavoidable technical violations.

This article examines how prosecutors have utilized the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) as a criminal enforcement tool. Drawing on nearly one hundred forty hazardous waste prosecutions, the article analyzes whom the government prosecutes for hazardous waste crimes, what kinds of violations culminate in criminal charges, the business contexts in which the violations occur, and the interplay between RCRA and other criminal statutes. Contrary to assumptions found in the theoretical literature, the data show that prosecutors assign priority to prosecuting knowledgeable economic actors who operate outside the regulatory system and to prosecuting those who technically operate within the system but deliberately undermine it through misrepresentation and concealment. Rather than constituting isolated and inadvertent technical violations, offenses that lead to criminal prosecution commonly involve obviously illegal -- and often pervasive -- criminal conduct.

Suggested Citation

Brickey, Kathleen F., Charging Practices in Hazardous Waste Crime Prosecutions. Available at SSRN:

Kathleen F. Brickey (Contact Author)

Washington University in St. Louis - School of Law ( email )

Campus Box 1120
St. Louis, MO 63130
United States
314-935-6482 (Phone)
314-935-8463 (Fax)

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