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Bad Neighbor Claiming No Bad Intentions Loses Appeal

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By George Khoury, Esq. on September 15, 2017 2:00 PM

Some judges were just born to write. Take Judge M. Margaret McKeown's recent opinion in the USA v. Max Spatig case. The opinion opens with this humdinger of a zinger:

As the saying goes, fences make good neighbors. But when the neighbor collects thousands of containers of hazardous and combustible chemicals in his yard that could explode at any moment, a fence may not be enough to save the neighborly relationship. Instead, the authorities need to get involved.

What's This Case About?

The short, catchy opener actually does a good job of summarizing the case. Basically, Max Spatig ran a business that required him to have a large amount of paint and other chemicals on hand. At one point, personal matters required him to stop running his business, and he ended up bringing home quite a bit of these hazardous materials to store in his yard. However, like most folk that store things in the yard, the containers that held the waste appeared in to be in poor condition and were "haphazardly strewn across the property."

In short, the EPA had to be called in to conduct the cleanup. And at the end of the day, Spatig was charged and convicted criminally under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Due to the high cost of the cleanup, nearly half a million dollars, during sentencing, an enhancement was added, and he received just under four years in jail.

What Was Appealed?

On Appeal Spatig challenged the sentencing enhancement, as well as the knowledge requirement of the statute.

Unfortunately for Spatig, the court was unwilling to accept a diminished capacity argument to negate the knowledge element of his crime. In fact, the court found that because the crime is a general intent crime, rather than a specific intent crime, this argument was not even remotely persuasive.

In regards to the sentence enhancement, Spatig attempted to argue that the half million dollar cleanup effort did not amount to a "substantial expenditure" (which is the element that triggered the sentencing enhancement). The court noted that while there is no bright line rule, prior precedent has set that characterizing a $100,000 cleanup as not a "substantial expenditure" constitutes reversible error.

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