A federal court in Texas has ruled that community service requirements imposed as a condition of probation for a defendant convicted of an environmental crime may not exceed the maximum statutory fine for the offense. United States v. Citgo Petroleum Corp., No. 06-563 (S.D. Tex. 9/18/12).

Defendants Citgo Petroleum Corp. and Citgo Refining and Chemicals Co. LP were convicted of two felony counts each for operating an oil-water separator without proper emission control devices in violation of the Clean Air Act (CAA), and three misdemeanor counts each under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA). The total fine that could be imposed under the CAA is $2 million and under the MBTA is $90,000. The government recommended the maximum penalty and also recommended a maximum probation term of five years, including a condition that defendants contribute $44 million to community service projects. Defendants filed a motion to block a penalty in excess of the statutory maximum.

The court ruled that while the government has authority to compel defendants to work in community service as a condition of probation, it does not have authority to compel a monetary penalty in excess of the statutory maximum fine. Citing United States v. John Scher Presents Inc., 746 F.2d 959 (3d Cir. 1984), the court held that the only difference between a monetary payment to charity and a criminal fine is that the payee would be a charitable organization rather than the U.S. Treasury. According to the court, “[a] requirement to pay a penalty in excess of the maximum fine is illegal.”