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5 N.Y.U. Envtl. L.J. 600 (1996)
Strict Construction of the Rule of Lenity in the Interpretation of Environmental Crimes

handle is hein.journals/nyuev5 and id is 608 raw text is: STRICT CONSTRUCTION OF THE RULE
The rule of lenity-a substantive canon of statutory inter-
pretation-requires a court to resolve statutory1 and regulatory2
ambiguities in favor of criminal defendants.3 If a criminal statute
or regulation does not clearly outlaw conduct, the defendant can-
not be penalized.4 This rule ensures that a court does not extend
the scope of a statute beyond clear legislative intent, and thus
follows the separation of powers doctrine which mandates func-
* Associate, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, New York, New York.
B.A., magna cum laude, 1993, Brown University; J.D., 1996, New York Univer-
sity School of Law. The author was Executive Editor of the N.Y.U. Environ-
mental Law Journal during the 1995-96 academic year. The author thanks
Professor David L. Shapiro of Harvard Law School for his comments on earlier
drafts of this Student Article.
1 See, e.g., Liparota v. United States, 471 U.S. 419, 427 (1985) (stating that
ambiguity concerning the scope of a criminal statute should be resolved in favor
of lenity); Whalen v. United States, 445 U.S. 684, 695 n.10 (1980) (stating that
'ambiguity concerning the ambit of a criminal statute should be resolved in
favor of lenity') (citations omitted); United States v. Bass, 404 U.S. 336, 348
(1971) (holding that ambiguous criminal statutes should be construed in favor
of the defendant).
2 See, e.g., Kraus & Bros. v. United States, 327 U.S. 614, 621-22 (1946) (stat-
ing that the same rules of construction governing criminal statutes apply to ad-
ministrative rules and regulations when a violation can result in criminal
(5th ed. 1992) (defining rule of lenity as a canon of statutory construction pro-
viding that penal statutes should be strictly construed against the government
or parties seeking to enforce statutory penalties and in favor of the persons on
whom penalties are sought to be imposed).
4 The rule of lenity is principally applied to criminal statutes, but some ju-
risdictions have applied the rule to civil statutes resembling penal laws. Exam-
ples of civil statutes to which this canon has been applied include: (i) statutes
whose penalties include forfeiture; (ii) statutes providing for extra damages
beyond those needed to make the complainant whole, including punitive dam-
ages, and attorneys' fees; (iii) statutes permitting revocation of a professional
license or disbarment of lawyers; (iv) statutes against extortion or discrimina-
tion; and (v) statutes declaring certain acts to be per se negligence. SINGER,
supra note 3, at § 59.02.

Imaged with the Permission of N.Y.U. Environmental Law Journal

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