Do not pity the negligent executive

United States v. DeCoster, Nos. 15-1890, 15-1891 (8th Cir. July 6, 2016).

Caution: potentially dangerous (credit: flickr / liz west)

Caution: potentially dangerous (credit: flickr / liz west)

In 2010, Quality Egg’s salmonella-infected eggs sickened at least 1,900 people, and perhaps as many as 56,000. An FDA inspection of its facilities later revealed live and dead rodents and frogs, manure piled to the rafters, and holes in the walls. The federal government charged both Quality Egg’s owner and its CEO with introducing contaminated eggs into interstate commerce. Both men pleaded guilty, and were sentenced to three months in prison. 

On appeal, they challenge their sentences as unconstitutional because they hadn’t knowingly distributed contaminated eggs. The majority of this Eighth Circuit panel upholds the sentences, reasoning that the record shows that the executives were criminally negligent, which is enough to justify their three-month sentences. Judge Beam dissents, outraged by what he believes to be the palpable injustice of the executives’ imprisonment.

It’s hard to sympathize with the egg executives here. Consider the relative risks of selling eggs and selling marijuana. 

The dangers associated with eggs are unnervingly common. The CDC estimates that one in fifty consumers is exposed to a salmonella-contaminated egg each year. And a salmonella infection is, at best, deeply unpleasant. At worst, it can kill the young, the old, and those with weakened immune systems. If an egg executive negligently sells contaminated eggs, a short trip to a minimum-security prison seems fitting. 

Marijuana can certainly be unpleasant, but you can’t kill yourself with an overdose, and even chronic use is not clearly associated with disease. Marijuana dependence is a genuine public-health problem, but it is relatively uncommon. And yet distributing large amounts of marijuana, apparently peacefully, can still get you imprisoned for almost five years in the Eighth Circuit. Compared to that, three months seems enviable.