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Contractor Pleads Insanity

An Idaho man convicted of storing hazardous waste on his property that cost the government almost $500,000 to clean up was unable to convince the Ninth Circuit to overturn his conviction on grounds of diminished mental capacity.

Painting Contractor Violated RCRA Loses Appeal

Max Spatig was convicted in June 2015 at age 73 of a single count of violating the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which prohibits the knowing storage or disposal of hazardous waste without a permit.

Spatig had 75 shipping containers’ worth of materials from his concrete-floor-painting business, like lacquer, thinner, stripping agents, hydrochloric acid and degreaser, stored haphazardly on his property in Rexburg, Idaho. The EPA’s eventual cleanup cost $498,000. Spatig was sentenced to 46 months, and said he suffered from diminished mental capacity.

But the insanity defense can’t be used in general-intent crimes, and the Ninth Circuit found that this was one.

Spatig’s RCRA violation “fits within a class of general-intent crimes that protect public health, safety and welfare. For these crimes, a less-exacting mental state is justified by the particularly strong countervailing interest in protecting the public at large and the defendant’s likely awareness that his actions are regulated,” the panel said.

“’Knowingly’ is not a novel or unusual term in criminal statutes. The Supreme Court teaches that the statutory term ‘knowingly’ ‘merely requires proof of knowledge of the facts that constitute the offense’ … [The statute] provides that that act be performed with the mental state of knowledge.”

The Model Penal Code identifies four mental states: purposely, knowingly, recklessly and negligently.

“We have explained that, as a general matter, ‘purpose’ corresponds to the concept of specific intent, while ‘knowledge’ corresponds to general intent,” the panel said, referring to a 2000 decision called Gracidas-Ulibarry.

A doctor had said Spatig had a “major neurocognitive disorder” and had had a “cerebrovascular accident” in 2006. The medical records in the case were sealed.

Spatig had also told the appeals court that a four-level sentencing enhancement based on the cost of the 2010 cleanup was wrongly given.

The Ninth Circuit disagreed, saying, “While we do not purport to establish a bright-line rule between substantial and insubstantial expenditures, we note that our sister circuits have determined that expenditures of $200,000 or less count as ’substantial.’”

The panel also said that the $498,000 cost figure was a lowball, as it “does not include the resources expended by the local and regional hazmat teams.”

Spatig’s run-ins with the law began in 2004 when county officials were alerted by a complaint. In 2005, they brought in state environmental officials, who carted off the majority of the waste to a hazardous-waste facility — after Spatig was found guilty of a misdemeanor. That fact was not used at trial. This first issue was at a property in Menan, Idaho, a small town in the southeast of the state, about 20 miles north of Idaho Falls. The 2005 cleanup cost the IDEQ $188,000, according to prosecutors.

Then, in 2010, complaints were made about Spatig’s property in Rexburg, 15 miles northeast of Menan. Investigators discovered 3,478 containers in July 2010, consolidated them into 75 bulk shipping containers for disposal. He was indicted in December 2012.

In opening arguments in June 2015, prosecutor Adam Cullman showed the jury pictures of the Rexburg property, saying, “You can see that the waste was overgrown with weeds. It was rusting, it was leaking, it was corroding, and it was everywhere. The defendant had piled it up throughout the property. He had piled it into abandoned vehicles, into outbuildings and sheds, and strewn it about on the ground.”

When the waste was tested for acidity and for flashpoint, the readings came back troubling — “So acidic it was essentially falling off the end of the pH scale,” and most with a dangerously low flash point, the temperature at which vapors will ignite in the presence of a spark — just 70 degrees, the prosecutor said. Anything below 140 degrees qualifies as hazardous.

Meanwhile, in the defense’s opening statement for trial, Spatig’s lawyer, Randolph Neal, said, “Max didn’t want to throw this stuff away. Max wanted to use it in the business that he had been using it for for 40 years.” It didn’t matter what the property looked like; what mattered was if a reasonable person would have thought the materials were dangerous waste, his lawyer said.

U.S. Circuit Judges Michael R. Murphy of the Tenth Circuit and M. Margaret McKeown and Jacqueline H. Nguyen of the Ninth Circuit sat on the panel for the Ninth Circuit.

The U.S. is represented by Emily Anne Polachek, Adam Cullman, Allen Brabender, Aaron Avila, John Cruden, and Michael Fica.

Spatig is represented by federal defender Steven Richert.

The case is U.S.A. v. Max Spatig, AKA John Spatig, AKA John Serge Spatig, case number 15-30322, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

By Cara Salvatore –Editing by Rebecca Flanagan

Source: law360.com