Federal Court in Texas Recognizes Victims of an Environmental Crime

On Friday, September 14, Professor Paul Cassell of the Utah Appellate Clinic and Paula Pierce of the Texas Legal Services Center won a victory for crime victims when the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas granted their motion to recognize 15 community members in Corpus Christi, Texas, as victims of environmental crimes committed by the petroleum refining company CITGO.  CITGO was convicted by a jury in 2007 of two counts of criminally violating the Clean Air Act by improperly releasing hazardous fumes into the Corpus Christi area from two tanks at its refinery.  U.S. District Judge John Rainey began a sentencing proceeding for CITGO on Monday, September 10, which he postponed to address the issue.  He has now ruled that the community members will have rights under the federal Crime Victims Rights Act (CVRA), including the right to make an oral statement at sentencing.

Judge Rainey had previously ruled that the community members were not “victims” of CITGO’s crimes because they did not have medically documented proof that they were suffering health injuries from the crime.  The community members’ petition argued that the Crime Victim Rights Act recognizes a wide range of harms that do not require medical testimony to be substantiated.

In his ruling, Judge Rainey agreed with the community members that they did not have to provide medical testimony to obtain crime victims’ rights. Judge Rainey explained: “The Court finds that testimony by the Community Members and other witnesses that they suffered symptoms such as burning eyes, bad taste in the mouth, nose burning, sore throat, skin rashes, shortness of breath, vomiting, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, and headaches is sufficient to constitute ‘harm’ under the CVRA.”   Judge Rainey further noted “that, had CITGO had proper emission controls on Tanks 116 and 117, the Community Members would not have suffered the aforementioned symptoms . . . . Thus, CITGO’s “commission of a Federal offense” directly and proximately harmed the Community Members on those specific days.”

Cassell believes that this case could set an important precedent: “The Court has ruled that environmental crimes are not ‘victimless crimes” but instead have real world effects on people who live close to the polluters. This ruling will help communities who have been harmed by criminal violations of the environmental laws to assert rights in the criminal justice process.”

Randall Chapman of the Texas Legal Services likewise views the case as important: “In this case, a major corporation has been convicted of criminally releasing dangerous chemicals into  the surrounding neighborhoods.  Before the judge imposes sentence in this case, he will be able to hear directly from the persons who have been harmed by that crime.”

A copy of the ruling can be found here. 

The Utah Appellate Clinic provides legal representation to underprivileged persons who are attempting to be heard in the legal system.  It also provides an opportunity for University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law students to work, under the supervision of professors and other licensed attorneys, on actual appellate litigation.

Texas Legal Services Center (TLSC) is a non-profit legal office which provides assistance and training to poverty law advocates and their clients in the areas of litigation support, education and communication. TLSC sponsors projects that assist individuals in Texas and, in some cases, nationwide.

For further comment, contact Professor Paul Cassell cassellp@law.utah.edu or Paula Pierce ppierce@tlsc.org.