“Hello.  This is an automated call from Acme Manufacturing. Our records indicate that you purchased Product X between December 2019 and January 2020. We wanted to let you know that we are recalling Product X because of a potential fire risk. Please call us or visit our website for important information on how to participate in this recall.”

When companies recall products, they do so to protect consumers.  In fact, various federal laws, including the Consumer Product Safety Act (CPSA), the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA), and National Highway and Motor Vehicle Safety Act (MVSA), encourage (and may require) recalls. And the agencies that enforce these statutes would likely approve of the hypothetical automated call above, because direct notification is the best way to motivate consumer responses to recalls.[1]

But automated calls to protect consumers can run into a problem: the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA).
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As the partial federal government shutdown enters its second week, businesses both large and small should be aware of the shutdown’s implications for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and for product safety. Companies should be aware that their obligations under CPSC continue, despite that their partner in product safety is absent until its funding is restored.

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It might be hard to call the many recent reports of record fines from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) or the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) “news”, so routine have they recently become.  In 2014 alone, NHTSA issued more than $126 million in civil penalties, exceeding the total amount collected by the agency during its forty-three year history.  As NHTSA trumpets its “success” and regulators are calling on Congress to increase maximum fines  dramatically, one wonders when those civil penalties cross the line into criminal territory.

The Supreme Court laid out a seven-factor test for determining whether statutory penalties are civil or criminal in Kennedy v. Mendoza-Martinez, 372 U.S. 144 (1963).  That case involved a dual Mexican-U.S. citizen who left the United States to avoid World War II military service.  The Court held that depriving him of his citizenship as a penalty for leaving the country constituted a criminal penalty that could not be imposed absent constitutional safeguards.
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