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Courtroom dramas tend to downplay the power of circumstantial evidence. In the real world, juries frequently convict defendants based on inferences, rather than confessions and eyewitnesses, and appellate courts affirm those convictions.
Even in a case involving Clean Water Act violations, like today's Fifth Circuit case, circumstantial evidence can be damning.
Jeffrey Pruett, president and chief executive officer of Louisiana Land & Water Co., and LWC Management, was charged with, and convicted, of knowingly violating the Clean Water Act in 2011. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed those convictions on Tuesday, after determining that a rational fact finder could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt based on the government's evidence against Pruett.
Pruett, through LLWC and LWC Management, was responsible for the operation of 28 wastewater treatment facilities in northern Louisiana. The facilities treated and discharged wastewater, known as effluent.
Under the Clean Water Act (CWA), Pruett was required to obtain a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit for each wastewater treatment facility that he operated. Among other things, the NPDES permits imposed "effluent limitations" on the discharge of certain pollutants from treatment facilities.
Pruett was required to collect samples to ensure that effluent discharges from his facilities were within permit limits, and to regularly submit the test results, called Discharge Monitoring Reports, to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). Pruett was also required to maintain detailed records of his monitoring activities and provide inspectors access to his records.
But he didn't comply with those requirements.
In November 2007, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the DEQ began a series of inspections at Pruett's facilities. Inspectors discovered violations, and the government initiated a criminal prosecution against Pruett, LLWC, and LWC Management. The 17-count indictment charged four broad categories of offenses: (1) failure to provide proper operation and maintenance of the facilities; (2) failure to maintain monitoring results as required by the permits; (3) discharge in excess of effluent limitations; and (4) unpermitted discharge. He was convicted by a jury on eight counts.
Pruett appealed, challenging the sufficiency of the evidence, among other things. Tuesday, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that there was sufficient circumstantial evidence to support Pruett's conviction.
Evidence in a criminal trial does not need to exclude every reasonable hypothesis of innocence, so long as the totality of the evidence permits a conclusion of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Here, Pruett, LLWC and LWC concede that the government produced sufficient evidence to prove that the violations occurred, but argue that the government did not produce sufficient evidence of their intent.
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, holding that the intent necessary to support a conviction can be demonstrated by direct or circumstantial evidence that allows an inference of unlawful intent, and that prior acts may be introduced to prove intent.