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What Is White Collar Crime?

Professor Joshua Kleinfeld explains that in American law “white collar crime” can mean two different things. Individuals who commit a crime through their workplace can be prosecuted but the company itself can also face prosecution. In other countries, only people, not companies, can be held criminally liable. The United States law encourages internal corporate oversight by also holding the company accountable for crimes committed by employees. https://youtube.com/watch?v=YxBwkLnumd0


White collar crime is a colloquial way of referring to two different things in criminal law. One is corporate agent liability, the other is corporate entity liability. Corporate agent liability is prosecuting individual people for the crimes they commit at the job especially in the course of their professional jobs. Corporate entity liability is prosecuting corporations as entities, as corporations, for crimes that their employees have committed. So for example, Volkswagen recently got into a big emissions scandal. It turned out that people at Volkswagen were lying about the emissions produced by their diesel cars. The United States indicted a group of individuals who were involved in the fraud, but it also indicted Volkswagen as a company. It was a prosecution of the corporate entity, The basic rule for entity liability under US law is that if one of your employees did it, the company can be prosecuted for it. If an individual at Volkswagen lied about the vehicle emissions of its diesel vehicles, Volkswagen can be prosecuted for that lie. Now I hasten to add - that is an oversimplification, and there's a lot of nuances in the law in this area. But painting with a broad brush, that's basically how this area of law works. It's sort of like the flip side of the legal personhood of corporations. If they have some of the rights of individuals, they can be prosecuted for crimes like individuals. This structure is unique to American law. In Germany for example, it isn't possible to punish corporate entities as entities to prosecute them. You can indict individuals and indeed, Germany did indict individuals involved with the Volkswagen scandal. But you cannot indict Volkswagen as a company. Why? The basic answer is that American criminal law is a lot more instrumental than German criminal law. German criminal law is very focused on the core concept of condemnatory wrongdoing, and well, Volkswagen has no will as an entity. It's an artificial person. So it doesn't make sense to say Volkswagen did an evil, did a wrong as an entity. The United States is primarily focused on deterrents and prosecuting Volkswagen and other companies makes a lot of sense from a deterrent stand point. It makes sure that the companies self enforce the law against their employees. It gives the companies an incentive to monitor themselves.

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