Chances are, when you hear or read about a defendant entering a plea in a criminal case, you picture a guy in an orange jumpsuit, someone who ultimately is most likely led away in handcuffs after the plea is entered. But what happens when the criminal defendant isn't a person but a corporation? How exactly does a corporation plead guilty — or not guilty, for that matter?
To state the obvious, it is far less common for a corporation to be subject to criminal penalties than it is for a natural person. Most corporate criminal prosecutions occur in the federal courts (in contrast, the vast majority of individual criminal cases are handled in the state systems), and even there, corporate criminal defendants are scarce. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, there were 84,360 federal criminal cases in which an offender received a sentence in the fiscal year 2012, and of those cases, only 187 involved a corporation or other "organizational" offender. In other words, less than 0.25 percent of all federal convictions last year involved corporate defendants.
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