Minor Environmental Violation Turns Business Owner Into Criminal

Sparta medical supplier appealing criminal conviction for disputed wetland violation

To support his growing medical supply business, Alan Taylor decided to expand his parking lot in 2006. Today, the Sparta business owner is appealing a criminal conviction because of that decision. How that came to be raises questions about the intent of Michigan’s environmental laws and whether people can be convicted of crimes for everyday activities if they unknowingly violate the state’s environmental laws.

In 2008, Taylor was found guilty of two criminal misdemeanors for violating Michigan’s environmental law. He is appealing the guilty verdicts. This week, The Mackinac Center for Public Policy filed a motion with the Court of Appeals arguing that criminal convictions for certain environmental infractions must show “criminal intent.”

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“‘Criminal intent’ has been required for centuries for almost all crimes,” said Patrick Wright, senior legal analyst for the Mackinac Center. “It should be disregarded only in extremely rare circumstances, not for everyday activity. We don’t want to be in a situation where people are convicted of crimes for cutting their grass wrong.”

In its brief, the Mackinac Center points out that the trial judge didn’t require the jury to consider during its deliberations whether Taylor had intended to break the law. 

Taylor’s dispute goes back to 2006. That’s when the Department of Environmental Quality received a complaint that a parking lot expansion at Taylor's business, Hart Enterprises, was filling a wetland.

Hart Enterprises Inc. makes medical devices and has about 100 employees. It’s located in Sparta, which is north of Grand Rapids, on a 46,000 square foot complex.

In a Mackinac Center case study on the Hart Enterprises situation, Taylor said there was no prior warning from the DEQ that the area was a wetland. The construction experts that did the work didn’t note the presence of a wetland. According to Hart Enterprises, the ground in the wetland area was only occasionally wet during the spring.

DEQ official Jim Sygo stated in the case study, “It’s difficult for any lay person to look at an area and try to decide whether it’s a wetland or not (because) there are just so many determining factors.”

DEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel said he could not comment on a case that is being litigated but would respond later Friday. He hadn’t responded as of 2 p.m. Friday.

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See also:

Mackinac Center Files Friend-of-the-Court Brief in Michigan Case That Could Become a Watershed in State Environmental Law

Hart Enterprises: A Wetland Case Study