3rd Circuit Vacates Conviction, Remands for Resentencing

The Third Circuit agreed with Ms. Lefeber’s novel arguments in United States v. Thomas Chau, 221 F. 3d 438 (3d Cir. 2002) and vacated and remanded the sentence of a man who had pled guilty to environmental crimes. Ultimately, Mr. Chau received a greatly reduced sentence.

A pilot in the South Vietnamese army, Thomas Chau had fled to the United States in 1975 after the fall of Saigon ended the Vietnam War. Chau became a U.S. citizen, helped other South Vietnamese settle in Philadelphia – and, while buying real estate as an investment, ended up with “a common problem facing many property owners.”

In 1986, Chau purchased the former Drexel School building from the School District of Pennsylvania, not knowing it contained asbestos. The building sat vacant until 1997, when Chau and two helpers removed asbestos-laden insulation, put it in trash bags and dumped it illegally in Philadelphia.

After the EPA ordered him to clean up the remaining asbestos, the bankrupt Chau tried to remediate it himself. He covered his body with trash bags, put a paint respirator over his mouth and nose, aviator goggles over his eyes and a bandana over his head and began stripping the insulation and putting it in trash bags. An EPA inspector stopped him, and sealed the property.The government later declared it a Superfund site; cleanup cost $200,000.

Chau pled guilty to charges including violating the Clean Air Act and was sentenced to 51 months in jail. Lefeber represented Chau on appeal, arguing that the district court had erred in applying certain enhancements to his sentence.

The Third Circuit agreed with Lefeber, vacating the sentence and remanding the case for re-sentencing. The lower court re-sentenced Chau for considerably less time.