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Fiore v. White

ELR Citation: 31 ELR 20392
Nos. No. 98-942, 120 S. Ct. 469/(U.S., 01/09/2001) rev'd

The U.S. Supreme Court holds that the criminal conviction of a hazardous waste facility operator under a Pennsylvania hazardous waste statute for operating a hazardous waste facility without a permit violated the federal Due Process Clause. When the operator was convicted, he in fact had a permit, but the state argued that he deviated so dramatically from the permit's terms that he violated the statute. Subsequent to his conviction, the state supreme court reversed the conviction of the operator's partner on the grounds that deviation from a permit's terms did not constitute operating without a permit. After the operator unsuccessfully sought to have state courts set aside his conviction, he brought a federal habeas corpus action. The district court granted the operator's writ, but the Third Circuit held that in the partner's case, the state supreme court had announced a new rule of law, inapplicable to the operator's final conviction. Therefore, the state court had no obligation to apply its decision retroactively to the operator.

The Supreme Court certified to the state supreme court the question as to whether its decision in the partner's case represented a new rule of law or a clarification of the statute. The state supreme court stated that its decision in the partner's case merely clarified the statute. Therefore, the Court first holds that because the decision in the partner's case was not new law, the operator's case presents no issue of retroactivity. The question then becomes whether, consistent with the federal Due Process Clause, the operator can be convicted for conduct that the statute as properly interpreted does not prohibit. The Court then holds that the operator's conviction and continued incarceration violates due process. The Due Process Clause forbids a state to convict a person of a crime without proving the elements of that crime beyond a reasonable doubt. In this case, the failure to possess a permit is a basic element of the crime of which the operator was convicted, and the parties agree that the operator did possess a permit. The Court, therefore, reverses and remands the case.

[Prior decisions in this litigation are published at 28 ELR 21442 and decision at 30 ELR 20165 reversed.]

Counsel for Appellee
Harold Gondelman
Plowman, Siegel & Lewis
The Grant Bldg.
310 Grant St., 2d Fl., Pittsburgh PA 15219
(412) 471-8521

Counsel for Appellants
Andrea F. McKenna, Sr. Deputy Attorney General
Attorney General's Office
Strawberry Sq., 15th Fl., Harrisburg PA 17120
(717) 787-3391