The Department of Justice (DOJ) has informed a federal judge that Boeing may have violated a 2021 agreement that shielded the company from criminal prosecution following two deadly 737 Max crashes overseas, which claimed the lives of 346 people. In a court filing on Tuesday, the DOJ alleged that Boeing failed to "design, implement, and enforce a compliance and ethics program to prevent and detect violations of the U.S. fraud laws throughout its operations."

While the government has not yet decided whether it will pursue prosecution against Boeing, the filing marks a significant development in the case. Lawyers representing the families of the crash victims have expressed hope that the DOJ will take further action to hold the planemaker accountable.

Paul Cassell, an attorney for the victims' families and a professor of law at the University of Utah College of Law, stated, "This is a positive first step, and for the families, a long time coming. But we need to see further action from DOJ to hold Boeing accountable, and plan to use our meeting on May 31 to explain in more detail what we believe would be a satisfactory remedy to Boeing's ongoing criminal conduct."

Boeing acknowledged receiving notice of the DOJ's decision and stated that it plans to respond. In a statement to USA TODAY, the company said, "We believe that we have honored the terms of that agreement and look forward to the opportunity to respond to the Department on this issue. As we do so, we will engage with the Department with the utmost transparency, as we have throughout the entire term of the agreement, including in response to their questions following the Alaska Airlines 1282 accident."

The 2021 deferred prosecution agreement between Boeing and the federal government was entered into following two crashes of 737 Max jets that killed 346 people. Under the terms of the agreement, Boeing agreed to pay a $2.5 billion settlement and abide by custodial stipulations in exchange for the DOJ dropping a fraud conspiracy charge after three years. The three-year period, overseen by a federal judge in Texas, was set to expire in July and would have resulted in the DOJ closing the case if it determined that Boeing had fully complied with the conditions.

However, in the letter filed on Tuesday, federal prosecutors argued that Boeing "breached its obligations" under the deferred prosecution agreement and is now subject to prosecution for any federal criminal violation. The DOJ stated that it is "determining how it will proceed in this matter" and that investigators are no longer bound by the 2021 agreement, allowing for a broader probe into the aircraft manufacturing giant.

The news comes more than five months after an Alaska Airlines 737 Max lost a door plug during a flight in January, prompting congressional and federal investigations. While there was no mention of the Alaska Airlines incident in the DOJ's letter, a person familiar with the matter confirmed to CBS News in March that prosecutors were looking at whether anything that led up to or contributed to the blowout might affect the deferred prosecution agreement.

Boeing has until June 13 to respond to the DOJ's allegations, and their explanation will be used as prosecutors consider their next move. The DOJ plans to inform the court by July 7 how it intends to proceed, which could lead to criminal charges against the company.

Attorneys representing the families of the crash victims have welcomed the DOJ's decision, with Robert A. Clifford stating, "This is a way for Boeing to be held criminally responsible in court. It's what the families have wanted. They want answers as to what really happened in the crashes and for the safety of the public to be protected."