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Agency and Corporations

15 January, 2016 - 09:31

A person can be guilty of a crime if he acts through another. Again, the usual reason for “imputing” the guilt of the actor to another is that both were engaged in a conspiracy. But imputation of guilt is not limited to a conspiracy. The agent may be innocent even though he participates. A corporate officer directs a junior employee to take a certain bag and deliver it to the officer’s home. The employee reasonably believes that the officer is entitled to the bag. Unbeknownst to the employee, the bag contains money that belongs to the company, and the officer wishes to keep it. This is not a conspiracy. The employee is not guilty of larceny, but the officer is, because the agent’s act is imputed to him.

Since intent is a necessary component of crime, an agent’s intent cannot be imputed to his principal if the principal did not share the intent. The company president tells her sales manager, “Go make sure our biggest customer renews his contract for next year”—by which she meant, “Don’t ignore our biggest customer.” Standing before the customer’s purchasing agent, the sales manager threatens to tell the purchasing agent’s boss that the purchasing agent has been cheating on his expense account, unless he signs a new contract. The sales manager could be convicted of blackmail, but the company president could not.

Can a corporation be guilty of a crime? For many types of crimes, the guilt of individual employees may be imputed to the corporation. Thus the antitrust statutes explicitly state that the corporation may be convicted and fined for violations by employees. This is so even though the shareholders are the ones who ultimately must pay the price—and who may have had nothing to do with the crime nor the power to stop it. The law of corporate criminal responsibility has been changing in recent years. The tendency is to hold the corporation liable under criminal law if the act has been directed by a responsible officer or group within the corporation (the president or board of directors).


Although proving the intent to commit a crime (the mens rea) is essential, the intent can be established by inference (circumstantially). Conspirators may not actually commit a crime, for example, but in preparing for a criminal act, they may be guilty of the crime of conspiracy. Certain corporate officers, as well, may not be directly committing criminal acts but may be held criminally responsible for acts of their agents and contractors.


  1. Give an example of how someone can intend to commit a crime but fail to commit one.
  2. Describe a situation where there is a conspiracy to commit a crime without the crime actually taking place.
  3. Create a scenario based on current events where a corporation could be found guilty of committing a crime even though the CEO, the board of directors, and the shareholders have not themselves done a criminal act.