In the United States, a corporation can be convicted of criminal offenses (example). Can corporations be charged with any criminal offense, or are there some that cannot apply to anything except a human being? I'm interested in formal limits established by statute, caselaw saying a corporation can't satisfy the elements of certain crimes, and/or practical considerations making it essentially impossible to convict them of some kind of crime.

While I'm especially interested in the US, I'd also be interested in other countries.

4 Answers 4


First, the list of criminal offenses a corporation can commit is specified in the law. It is exactly that, a list. Of the 300 crimes an individual can commit here, about 100 of them can also be done by a corporation.

It is hard to discover why these hundred crimes were chosen specifically. Logic used to make this list eludes me. For example, a corporation can commit Rape, but not Murder. It can commit a Terrorist attack but not Terror. It can commit Threatening a public official but not Oppression.

I looked through the explanatory notes for the law and I discoved the reason: Strictly only those crimes were created for corporations that were required by higher european law, which only moves the question higher up. I did not look up what the European Parliament had to say about this.

There is one crime that was added specifically, later on, to the list, and that is Usury.

In principle, all crimes committed by an individual can be done by a corporation, because a crime is considered to be committed by a corporation if the action is done by an employee in the name of the corporation.

  • 2
    This is not standardized across the European Union. In England and Wales a corporation can commit almost any offence that any of its officers commit: cps.gov.uk/legal/a_to_c/corporate_prosecutions "[A corporation] should not be treated differently from an individual because of its artificial personality." We also do not have an offence of "usury" since the 1540s.
    – Calchas
    Jun 26, 2015 at 14:00
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    You're right. I see France also allows far more crimes for corporations. I may look more into it later. Jun 26, 2015 at 19:34

First, corporations as a rule should not be treated differently to natural persons.

  1. A company is a legal person, capable of being prosecuted, and should not be treated differently from an individual because of its artificial personality.

[This is from the official guidance of the Crown Prosecution Service, the public prosecutor in England and Wales.]


However, a corporation is different to a natural person in two ways. First, it is only capable of acting through its agents—directors, employees, shareholders and so on. So the corporation can only be guilty in the sense that a crime is committed by a natural person on its behalf. But then you have the question, when is a person acting on behalf of a corporation, and when is a person acting as a private individual?

So, for some crimes, it is a clear defence for the corporation to say, "the person was not acting on behalf of the corporation".

A company cannot be criminally liable for offences which cannot be committed by an official of a company in the scope of their employment, for example rape.

Second, the corporation cannot be sent to prison, it can only be fined. So if an offence requires a custodial sentence, it cannot (in common law) be committed by the body corporate.

The offence must be punishable with a fine (this excludes murder, treason, piracy).


In some cases it has been felt desirable that a corporation should be punished for manslaughter and other serious crimes perpetuated by its agents. Parliament has acted to create a specific offence of corporate manslaughter. No doubt other jurisdictions have similar provisions. http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2007/19/section/1?view=plain

I would imagine that many States in the United States apply similar principles.


In the United States, a defendant can only be convicted of a crime if they meet certain mens rea requirements. There are some crimes that do not have this requirement, but they are required to be less serious crimes.

A corporation has no mind. It therefore cannot have a "guilty mind" required for the mens rea requirement. We have therefore developed two ways of holding corporations liable for bad acts. These theories are not uniformly adopted. There are a series of department of justice memos (see, e.g., the McNulty Memo) establishing the federal government's approach to this issue, but remember the DOJ doesn't make law and so it is up to courts to determine if they "buy" the approaches used by the DOJ (or other prosecuting entities).

The first theory is one of respondeat superior. It holds basically that the corporation can be held liable as employer for the bad acts of its employees. This theory is highly constrained, since at common law we usually don't hold a real person employer liable for crimes of their employees (only for torts).

The second theory is a "legal fiction" of consciousness. We simply determine that if one or many managers are aware of an act, that the corporation is deemed to have the relevant awareness. This gets even more "fictional" for crimes where the mens rea is not mere knowledge but purpose.

A third possibility involves holding the corporate entity liable for "aiding" or "conspiring" or "soliciting" the commission of a crime. This approach is troubled because traditionally one can only be found to have "conspired" if one had a certain mens rea so this doesn't really resolve the problem.

To address your exact question: Corporations can be convicted of any crime so long as they have the relevant mens rea and performed the actus reus causing the harm. So there are not "limits" on the crimes they can be convicted of in any hard sense; it's just very challenging to satisfy the mens rea requirement in any non-fictional sense and this has lead courts to be very reluctant in applying criminal sanctions. In practice this has meant that corporations are mostly prosecuted for conduct that relates to business in some commonsense way. But this isn't always the case. For example, FedEx was indicted for smuggling controlled substances and in some ways treated like an ordinary drug dealer might be.


For statutory crimes, the legislation itself will tell you whether a corporation, or a natural person, or both, can be convicted.

The Companies Act 2006 contains many examples of such offences. Here's an example of one which cannot be committed by a corporation but can be committed by a natural person:

387(1) If a company fails to comply with any provision of section 386 (duty to keep accounting records), an offence is committed by every officer of the company who is in default.

Here's one which can be committed by both a company and a natural person:

501(4) If a parent company fails to comply with section 500, an offence is committed by — (a) the company, and (b) every officer of the company who is in default.

If a statutory offence only refers to the word "person" without specifying whether it applies to corporations, then Section 5 and Schedule 1 of the Interpretation Act 1978 are applicable:

  1. In any Act, unless the contrary intention appears, words and expressions listed in Schedule 1 to this Act are to be construed according to that Schedule.

“Person” includes a body of persons corporate or unincorporate.

This means that the offence may be capable of being applied to a corporation. However, this will depend on the surrounding context of the legislation, due to the phrase "unless the contrary intention appears" from Section 5. For example, the offence might describe something which obviously can't be done by a corporation, or it might refer to the "person" in a way which implies a natural person (e.g. by referring to them being over 18).

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