The Georgetown Institute for the Study of Markets and Ethics (GISME) hosted a unique symposium on criminal law at the Georgetown Law Center on March 31.

The symposium, "Crime Without Fault: The Justifiability of Public Welfare Offenses and the Responsible Corporate Officer Doctrine" brought together 12 of the nation’s leading criminal law scholars to discuss the justifiability of punishing those who commit "public welfare offenses"– crimes that require no intent or knowledge that one is breaking the law. The concept of public welfare offenses stems from the belief that it would be in the public interest to prosecute crimes even when there is no evil intent behind the action.

Originally, public welfare offenses were limited to regulatory offenses that carried only small penalties, but over the decades the scope of what falls within the ambit of such strict liability crimes has expanded. In addition, the Responsible Corporate Officer Doctrine allows those who stand in a responsible relationship to a violation of law to be convicted of crimes committed by those that they supervise.

The symposium explored whether the prosecution of such crimes of strict and vicarious liability is consistent with the underlying purposes of the criminal law. The scholars addressed a variety of important questions. For example, if a person breaks the law unintentionally, with no knowledge of wrongdoing, how should they be held accountable? How does society benefit from prosecuting cases in which criminal action occurred without intent? And what should be the extent of the law’s reach over such crimes.

Samuel Buell, the Bernard M. Fishman Professor of Law at Duke University School of Law praised the event as “an exceptionally productive symposium.” He noted that because the participants had thought about the problem in some depth, they were able to produce “excellent draft papers that spoke clearly to each other’s ideas.”  Buell’s encouragement is indicative of the success the institute has had in producing novel events with high impact: “This is a model for such events, and quite rare.”

Lawrence Alexander, the Warren Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of San Diego School of Law said, “This conference was useful in having both general theoretical papers and specific case study papers, and in distinguishing among strict liability, vicarious liability, and omission liability in ways that will benefit other scholars.”

The 12 papers presented at the event will be published as articles in a forthcoming issue of the journal, Criminal Law and Philosophy.

Vera Bergelson, professor of law at the Rutgers Law School, described the forthcoming publication of the symposium’s papers as providing “a comprehensive account of public welfare offenses and the doctrinal and practical problems associated with criminal strict liability.” 

Michael Moore, the Charles R. Walgreen Jr. Chair in Law at the University of Illinois College of Law, explained that the collection of papers produced at the symposium should have real policy impact. 

“The collection will serve as a much needed antidote to the current temptation of legislators to overuse and misuse the criminal law to serve various regulatory ends.  In their rush to promote various social policies, such as the reining in of risky investments by banking officials, legislators often forget the limitations on the proper use of the criminal law, limitations based on culpability that are explored in the essays in this collection.”

The Georgetown Institute for the Study of Markets and Ethics brings together the finest scholars and best teachers from different fields to advance understanding of the ethical issues inherent in the functioning of the market society. The institute’s comprehensive approach to the study of markets and ethics extends beyond the exploration of ethical questions related to business people functioning in the organizational setting to include issues surrounding law and law enforcement policy and the pressures of conducting business in a political environment with rules that are subject to change.