Receiving a Notice of Violation or other formal enforcement action from a state agency is not fun. In fact, clients are never happy about it. Environmental law violations can be serious, depending on a few different factors. Bottom line, though? If you receive a notice from the government and it contains a penalty assessment, you should be proactive in your next steps.
As with any law in this country, environmental law violations are subject to a fine or penalty. The government will issue the notice to any party it finds responsible. The burden of proof is on the government to provide sufficient evidence to justify the violation and the penalty. Despite the burden of proof, a defendant to a case like this still has to bear the cost of defending it.
On top of the costs associated with hiring an attorney, defendants in an environmental law violations matter may elect to hire their own expert witnesses. These witnesses can refute the government experts and witnesses. Defendants may also be called to testify in an administrative or civil hearing. Most clients find this to be stressful. Testifying means going through witness testimony preparation, time out of work, and being subject to cross examination.
Ignorance is not a Defense
Most people are unaware that ignorance of the law is not a defense or an excuse. During hearings on environmental law violations, the government need only demonstrate that the defendant is liable for the act. It does not matter that the defendant had no idea that their action was illegal. The most common example of this relates to alterations of freshwater wetlands or coastal wetlands.
Both the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council issue enforcement actions for alterations to wetlands. These types of environmental law violations carry penalties and are appealable within the agency and then to the Superior Court.
When buying a property, it is always a good idea to review public records maintained by the state to determine permitting history and/or past enforcement actions. That way, you can educate yourself about where the physical edges are for wetlands on the property. Avoiding an enforcement action is always the best option!
In some cases, even if you bought a piece of property with wetlands that were previously altered, the government may still issue an enforcement action to you. These types of environmental law violations are frustrating because time and money are spent on defending an action that you are not responsible for. Again, I recommend reviewing public records to determine if there is an existing violation on a property before you buy it.
You Need an Experienced Attorney
Besides wetlands matters, environmental law violations occur in many other media. This includes laws and regulations that apply to soil, groundwater, air, solid waste, and stormwater (to name a few). Working with an experienced environmental attorney is invaluable for any of these areas.
Call us today to talk to one of our knowledgeable attorneys about how Desautel Law can assist with your environmental law violations: 401.477.0023.