I recently saw the quote “I will recognize corporations as people the day the state of Texas puts one to death.", and this got me wondering about how punishments targeting the person of the criminal work with corporate personhood.

Is there a guideline for how a court handles imprisoning (or executing) a corporate person?

  • What do you mean a "corporate person"? Do you mean the corporation itself, or its employees/stakeholders/directors? If the former, courts don't "imprison" corporations, they hold the people that cause those illegal actions responsible...
    – Ron Beyer
    Dec 12, 2021 at 15:34
  • 1
    I mean "not a natural person." So, if the answer is that corporations as legal persons can't be held responsible for crimes that carry jail time or the death penalty, do post it.
    – HAEM
    Dec 12, 2021 at 15:39
  • @RonBeyer so, the former.
    – HAEM
    Dec 12, 2021 at 15:43

2 Answers 2


Corporations cannot be sentenced to imprisonment or death; it would be an absurdity. They can certainly be sentenced to pay a fine, as well as various other punishments. A fine can be so large that it takes away all the corporation's assets, effectively destroying it; this is the closest thing to a "death penalty".

There's a good summary in "Corporate Criminal Liability: An Overview of Federal Law" by Charles Doyle, prepared for the Congressional Research Service. Sentencing is discussed on page 20.

Corporations cannot be incarcerated. Nor can they be put to death. Otherwise, corporations and individuals face many of the same consequences following conviction. Corporations can be fined. They can be placed on probation. They can be ordered to pay restitution. Their property can be confiscated. They can be barred from engaging in various types of commercial activity.

The rest of the section discusses these various possibilities. Under "Fines" is the following note:

The corporate fine Guidelines begin with the premise that a totally corrupt corporation should be fined out of existence, if the statutory maximum permits. A corporation operated for criminal purposes or by criminal means should be fined at a level sufficient to strip it of all of its assets.

See the article for further information, together with citations for all its claims.

  • 1
    The corporate analog to the death penalty, is "judicial dissolution" of the company (usually in a civil proceeding). Arguably, the corporate analog to incarceration is for it to be placed in a receivership, and hence denied the liberty to act autonomously.
    – ohwilleke
    Dec 12, 2021 at 20:54

So "corporate personhood" means that a corporation has some rights and responsibilities afforded to natural persons:

  • Right to enter contracts
  • Right to be sued
  • Right to sue
  • Right to hold property
  • Right to be taxed

Are just a few of the rights offered to corporations that are enjoyed by natural persons.

Corporate personhood does not mean that a corporation is a legal protection to directors for illegal activities. Corporations are driven by people, those people are the ones who take responsibility for the illegal actions of a corporation. A famous example of this is the Enron Scandal where they developed a system of loopholes, entities, and "creative reporting" to hide billions of dollars in failed debt. Many of those corporate directors went to prison.

This is related to the "shield" that a corporation affords its shareholders and, in some circumstances, its employees from financial liabilities when the company has a loss (a loss not created by an illegal activity). For example if Acme corporation takes on a contract for $1 million to sell widgets then nobody wants to buy the Acme widgets anymore, the company can be sued for $1 million but the shareholders are protected from any resulting award (over the amount they have invested in the company).

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