A rare coalition of liberal groups and libertarian-minded conservatives has been pushing along with the Obama administration for a liberalization of U.S. criminal justice laws, but that effort is facing a test over a House bill that Koch Industries says would make the criminal justice system fairer, but that the Justice Department says would make it significantly harder to prosecute corporate polluters, producers of tainted food and other white-collar criminals, reports the New York Times. Tension among the unlikely allies emerged as the House Judiciary Committee approved a package of bills intended to simplify the criminal code and reduce unnecessarily severe sentences.
One bill with support from Koch Industries, libertarians and business groups would make wholesale changes to certain federal criminal laws, requiring prosecutors to prove that suspects “knew, or had reason to believe, the conduct was unlawful,” and did not simply unknowingly violate the law. Many laws already carry such a “mens rea” requirement but Congress left it out of many others, and libertarians say that has made it too easy to violate obscure laws unknowingly. Some environmentalists argue that the real motive of Charles Koch in supporting the legislation is to block federal regulators from pursuing potential criminal actions against his family's network of industrial and energy companies, a charge the company denies. If the bill passes, the result will be clear, said Justice Department spokeswoman Melanie Newman: “Countless defendants who caused harm would escape criminal liability by arguing that they did not know their conduct was illegal.”