Find the solution, not the criminals

Stephen Richer Law Student, University of Chicago
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When I attached myself to New Orleans in 2003, I didn’t know I was signing up for the role of Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the hill. Falling crime rates in the city were replaced by Hurricane Katrina. And just as the city turned the corner on Hurricane Katrina, things got bad again—BP oil now lingers in the Gulf of Mexico, one of our principal sources of entertainment and revenue.

I bear a good deal of antipathy toward British Petroleum. But even so, now is not the time to press criminal charges against the company. Three reasons why:

  1. Criminal investigations would detract from the effort to solve the problem. If BP employees are subjected to criminal prosecution, they will redirect time spent on the problem toward defending themselves. Engineers will be more interested in reviewing their past work—to see if they could be held criminally liable—and executives will use their resources to marshal a team of lawyers, not a team of engineers. Similarly, engineers working for state and federal government should be tapped to fix the current problem; their expertise should not yet be used to investigate past mistakes. In a game of limited resources, let’s make sure we’re allocating them toward fixing the problem first.
  2. To date, there is no obvious evidence of criminal conduct. Yes, British Petroleum made a colossal mistake, and it should definitely be punished administratively. But unlike Colombia who killed a soccer player after he made a mistake in the 1994 World Cup, we in the United States don’t hold mistake-makers criminally liable, and we certainly don’t kill them.
  3. Any current criminal investigation would be politically tainted. If we are to criminally prosecute BP, it should be done properly and for the right reasons. Right now, it looks like we’re going head-hunting. The guilty have been named, now we just need to find the crime. Obama was criticized for his lack-of-emotion in response to the crisis. In response, he stated, “My solemn pledge is that we will bring those responsible to justice on behalf of the victims of this catastrophe and the people of the Gulf region.” Similarly, Attorney General Eric Holder promised that, “If we find evidence of illegal behavior we will be forceful in our response.” Marie Gryphon of the Manhattan Institute pointed out that such remarks seem more appropriate for suicidal terrorism than engineering mishaps. If a criminal prosecution is initiated, it should be done for evidence of a crime, not for political points.

The Gulf situation is a disaster and a true tragedy. But initiating a criminal probe right now will only make things worse. For the time being, both BP and the U.S. government should focus on fixing the problem. As for those of you who, like I, feel frustrated and powerless, I recommend lightening the mood with this “BP spills coffee” video.

Stephen Richer is the Director of Outreach at a Washington, D.C.-based legal think tank.