“A corporation cannot go to prison.”
Those six words from Federal District Court Judge William Alsup lay bare how difficult it can be to meaningfully punish a corporation when it commits a crime.
When it was convicted of six federal felonies connected to the deadly 2010 San Bruno gas explosion, PG&E got the maximum possible punishment: a fine, community service, court monitoring, and five years of probation.
Alsup recently ruled PG&E violated the terms of its probation and said in court that he’s considering adding a sixth year of probation to PG&E’s sentence.
PG&E argues that the court can’t legally do that.
The prosecutors who convicted the company agree that the move would be on shaky legal ground and advised the judge against it.
But they also pointed out a possible workaround: do the sentencing all over again and reset the clock.
“The court may have the authority to revoke PG&E’s probation and impose a new probation term of up to five years,” prosecutors wrote in a court filing.
However, prosecutors pointed out that such a tactic has yet to be tested in a court case, leading to “uncertainty” about whether re-starting PG&E’s probation would hold up if the company appeals.
The prosecutors asked the judge to hold off on trying to add time to PG&E’s sentence, but leave the option open “if PG&E violates the conditions of its probation again.”
The judge has already added a creative new set of conditions to the company's probation, banning PG&E from paying dividends to shareholders until it improves the fire safety of its power lines.
But the judge has not yet held a sentencing hearing for the probation violation, which ironically involved the company’s efforts to avoid being charged with a new crime.
The company was supposed to inform its probation officer of new legal problems but failed to report that it paid a $1.5 million settlement to Butte County to avoid being prosecuted for starting the 2017 Honey Fire.
A month after reaching that settlement, the Camp Fire started in Butte County, killing 85 people in the deadliest and most destructive wildfire ever to burn in California. PG&E believes its equipment will be found responsible for starting it.
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