Senior Specialist in American Public Law
A corporation is criminally liable for the federal crimes its employees or agents commit in its interest. Corporate officers, employees, and agents are individually liable for the crimes they commit, for the crimes they conspire to commit, for the foreseeable crimes their coconspirators commit, for the crimes whose commission they aid and abet, and for the crimes whose perpetrators they assist after the fact.
The decision whether to prosecute a corporation rests with the Justice Department. Internal guidelines identify the factors that are to be weighed: the strength of the case against the corporation; the extent and history of misconduct; the existence of a compliance program; the corporation’s cooperation with the investigation; the collateral consequences; whether the corporation has made restitution or taken other remedial measures; and the alternatives to federal prosecution. As in the case of individual defendants, corporation prosecutions rarely result in a criminal trial. More often, the corporation pleads guilty or enters into a deferred or delayed prosecution agreement.
During a criminal investigation and throughout the course of criminal proceedings, corporations enjoy many, but not all, of the constitutional rights implicated in the criminal investigation or prosecution of an individual. Corporations have no Fifth Amendment privilege against selfincrimination. On the other hand, the courts have recognized or have assumed that corporations have a First Amendment right to free speech; a Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures; a Fifth Amendment right to due process and protection against double jeopardy; Sixth Amendment rights to counsel, jury trial, speedy trial, and to confront accusers, and to subpoena witnesses; and Eighth Amendment protection against excessive fines.
Corporations cannot be jailed. Otherwise, corporations and individuals face many of the same consequences following conviction. The federal Sentencing Guidelines influence the sentencing consequences of conviction in many instances. Corporations can be fined. They can be placed on probation. They can be ordered to pay restitution. Their property can be confiscated. They can be barred from engaging in various types of commercial activity. The Guidelines speak to all of these.
For example, the corporate fine Guidelines begin with the premise that a totally corrupt corporation should be fined out of existence, if the statutory maximum permits. A corporation operated for criminal purposes or by criminal means should be fined at a level sufficient to strip it of all of its assets. In other cases, the Guidelines recommend fines and other sentencing features that reflect the nature and seriousness of the crime of conviction and the level of corporate culpability.
This report is available in an abbreviated form without the footnotes or citations and attributions to authorities that appear here. The abridged report is entitled CRS Report R43294, Corporate Criminal Liability: An Abbreviated Overview of Federal Law.
Date of Report: October 30, 2013
Number of Pages: 34
Order Number: R43293
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