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Businesses pay large fines to avoid prison time

Recently, a trend has been noted of corporations that are able to pay gigantic fines in order to avoid criminal prosecution. Many executives of these companies pay settlements to the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) in order to avoid prosecution for white collar felonies. For example, Ralph Lauren, the U.S. fashion company, paid $1.6 million in fines to avoid prosecution for allegations that it bribed Argentinian officials to avoid customs inspections of its products entering into that country. Prosecutors in white collar crimes have used two main tools to pursue alleged offenders: non prosecution agreements (NPAs) and deferred prosecution agreements (DPAs). Both of these involve a statement of facts agreed to by both parties, a cash fine, and the appointment of a probation officer to prevent further criminal conduct in the future. Also, SEC Enforcement Division lawyers grant "consent decrees," which allow corporations to neither admit to nor deny wrongdoing. Critics allege that these tools allow corporations to buy their way out of criminal prosecutions.

However, more recently, authorities have been cracking down on white collar crime. For example, a judge rejected a $285 million settlement between Citibank and the SEC, stating that the settlement would allow Citibank to escape accountability for its role in the financial crisis. In addition, a new law has been passed that would give whistleblowers a stronger financial incentive, or up to 30 percent of the restitution money, for turning in corporations who violate the law. These new tools have led to an uptick in reporting white collar offenses; as many as 3,000 tips have been sent to a SEC office dedicated to combatting white collar crime.

This case demonstrates the difficulty in prosecuting white collar crime. Offenders are typically better educated than common criminals, and have access to better legal counsel, so they are able to navigate the legal system better. Because they have more money, they are able to pay the fines and avoid jail time. According to critics, this amounts to buying their way out of jail.

Anyone accused of a white collar crime is entitled to a presumption of innocence until guilt is proven beyond a reasonable doubt and a strong criminal defense. He or she is entitled to exercise rights such as questioning witnesses and challenging the admissibility of evidence in order to vindicate him or herself in the court of law. It is essential to exercise these rights, given the potential consequences of a white collar crime conviction.

Source: PressTV, "Big business paid US $36 billion to avoid jail," Pratap Chatterjee, May 7, 2013.

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