Archive for July, 2011

The Ten-Percent Solution

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011

At the close of yesterday’s post, we talked a little about how we’re starting to see signs of opposition to the insane quantity of federal crimes.  More and more people are starting to see how bad it really is, we noted — perhaps enough some day soon to reach a tipping point that results in actual change.

It would have to be a big freaking tipping point, though, wouldn’t it?  Current attitudes are rapidly swelling the numbers of crimes, and the tide is only rising.  Idealists push for criminalization of unsavory attitudes (see hate crimes). Crusaders criminalize failure to keep up with the crusade du jour (EPA, anyone?).  Pencil-pushers criminalize failure to comply with arbitrary procedures (see any random page of the C.F.R.).  The public cries out for crimes named after children, to punish everyone for an outlier result.  And politicians ratchet up the penalties so they don’t look “soft on crime.”  Overcoming such a mass of societal attitudes is a daunting prospect.

As it happens, though, societal change may not be as impossible as all that.  Science Daily now reports on a study showing that, when just 10% of a population holds a firm belief, that belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society.

When the number of committed opinion holders is below ten percent, there is no visible progress in the spread of ideas.  It would literally take the amount of time comparable to the age of the universe for this size group to reach the majority.

But,

Once that number grows above ten percent, the idea (more…)

Too Many Crimes — Time for Change

Monday, July 25th, 2011

A few times, now, we’ve talked about how there are too many federal crimes, and how an enormous number of them are frankly unjust.  We’re just one of many voices crying out about this deep and dangerous problem.  The other day, the WSJ entered the conversation with a piece titled “Federal Offenses: As Criminal Laws Proliferate, More Are Ensnared.”  We’re not going to comment on the piece other than to say it’s well written, and worth reading.

It is certainly true that the number of federal crimes has risen rapidly in recent decades.  And it is beyond rational dispute that a growing number of these crimes are flatly unjust.

Far too many are created by regulatory bureaucrats, unbeholden to any voters, as tools for enforcement of their strictly civil rules (the proper methods of enforcement being fines and restrictions/denials of permit).  And by “far too many” we mean “all crimes created by regulatory agencies.”  Criminal law is not just some tool for rule enforcement; it is the singular means by which the awesome might of the state is brought to bear to punish those whose conduct is so bad that society demands that we take away the transgressor’s liberty, his property, his reputation, and sometimes even his life.  As an old bureau chief of ours used to say, “it is a big fucking hammer, not to be used lightly.”

Many of the federal crimes are unjust for that reason, because they do not punish conduct that society (through elected officials) requires punishment.  Far too many are also unjust because they lack any (more…)

Answering Your Most Pressing Questions

Saturday, July 16th, 2011
Real nice, Google.

Because we were bored out of our skull this afternoon, we checked this blog’s stats on Google Analytics.  Browsing through the various keywords people have used to find this blog over the past year, all we can say is “The hell is wrong with you people?”

Leaving aside the freaks and weirdos (and possibly some of their clients), however, it seems that most people find this blog by asking Google the same handful of questions.  The number one search engine query that get people here, every month this year, is something along the lines of “why become a lawyer.”  Number two includes variations on a theme of “can a cop lie about whether he’s a cop.”  The top five are rounded out by queries about what crimes Goldman Sachs may have committed, connections between Adam Smith and insider trading, and what one should say to a judge at sentencing.

We’re not sure that we’ve actually discussed all of these topics here.  Then again, we might have, and just forgot it (which is a distinct possibility — these posts are all written in a single pass, without any real editing, and usually are not given another thought once they’re posted.  If you ever wondered what “ephemera” meant, you’re looking at it right now.)

Still, in the interests of alleviating our boredom public service, here are some quick answers to our readers’ most pressing questions:

1. Why Should You Become a Lawyer?

Because you feel a calling to serve others.  Because you want to make a difference in the lives of others.  Because you are genuinely interested in the rules by which human society functions, why people behave the way they do, and the policies and interests underlying it all.  If those are your reasons, then you belong.

Not because you want to (more…)

Economics and Rising Crime Rates

Saturday, July 9th, 2011

Looks like there’s going to be more work for defense lawyers, and that’s a real shame.

Hey, we like working as much as the next guy, but we’d rather have a lower crime rate.  After Obama’s little press conference yesterday, though, we can’t help but think that the crime rate is going to go up.  Because the economy is going to continue to suck.

Of course there’s a whole lot more to crime rates than just the economy.  The gang crimes of the crack epidemic flourished during boom years, after all, driven not by poverty but by the turf battles and growing pains of an exciting new industry, like a dot-com bubble with guns instead of IPOs.  While wages were rising in the 50s, the crime rate was rising twice as fast.  And a tanking economy does not always coincide with rising crime rates — they dropped about a third during the Great Depression.

Demographics are a much larger factor, especially in violent crimes, which surge and recede with the unmarried young male population.  That population is responsible for about half of all crimes that get committed.  Cultural attitudes also play a big role — different communities of our wonderfully heterogeneous country can have markedly different views of what is right and wrong, and what is tolerable in others — so that population shifts and evolving community attitudes bring about noticeable drops or rises in local crime rates.

But although the economy is not the biggest factor, it still does have an effect on crime rates.  Financial crimes seem to bloom in downturns, partly out of reckless desperation, and partly because frauds are easier to conceal when everything is going up.  It also affects violent crimes committed by people other than the young-male demographic, for whom economic stress can lead to domestic strife.  For some of those feeling the lack of opportunity the most, opportunistic crimes lose some stigma and are more likely to be seen as options.

It would be foolish to claim any cause and effect between a down economy and the crime rate.  But a down economy — especially a long-term downturn — certainly amplifies the effects of more direct factors like demographics.

Well, the at-risk demographics have been swelling for a few years now, and we’re starting to see an effect on the statistics.  It’s likely that critical mass has been reached, or will be fairly soon.  Cultural shifts work in both directions, but in recent years they’ve been balancing out in favor of less, not more, homogeneity.  (It’s not that particular communities are more or less likely to commit crimes; it’s just that greater cultural diversity correlates strongly with deviation from the singular norm of the law.)  The amplifying effect of a long-term crap economy is most likely to be significant in precisely these circumstances.

-=-=-=-=-

So why do we think the economy’s going to stay down for a while?  Because it’s the message the Obama administration has been sending lately.  What the president said after yesterday’s gloomy jobs report only solidified this impression.

The news was (more…)

Manhattan D.A. has problems. This may be why.

Saturday, July 2nd, 2011

This morning’s WSJ has a short article with a long headline, “Manhattan DA Is Put on Defensive: Vance’s about-face on bail in sexual-assault case follows two high-profile court defeats for office.”  The blurb from the website’s front page summarizes the story pithily: “The newly surfaced problems in the sexual-assault prosecution against Strauss-Kahn represent the latest of several recent high-profile setbacks for Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.”

We’re a proud alum of the office, but lately the office has had a different vibe, one that make us less proud.  Outside the investigative division, which so far as we can tell has remained as professional as ever, there seems to be a distinct shift away from the higher standards of the Morgenthau office towards those of lesser offices.  Although it hasn’t gone quote the way of, say, Nassau County, the change has been clearly noticeable.

In this morning’s article, the DA’s spokeperson tried to defend the office’s handling of the Strauss-Kahn case.  In doing so, she made a key statement that seems to explain what’s going wrong:

“At every step of the way, the district attorney’s office made the right decisions. We pursued an account of a sexual assault that was corroborated by witnesses, electronic evidence and DNA evidence. That evidence was more than enough to present to a grand jury, which indicted the defendant. After the indictment, the district attorney made clear that the investigation would continue and prosecutors would take the case wherever the facts led. Today, we did just that.”

This is a defense?  Cy, if you’re reading this, that statement is an indictment of your office, not a defense.

First of all, if you only have enough evidence for an indictment, you don’t seek an indictment.  We were trained not to write up a case unless it was one we were confident we could prove beyond a reasonable doubt at trial.  The evidence sufficient to obtain an indictment is laughingly slim — one only needs to convince a bare majority of the grand jury that it’s probably more likely than not that the crime could have happened, on the barest evidence that has not been tested or challenged in any way.  If the best you can say of your evidence is that is is “enough to present to a grand jury,” then you need to keep investigating.

Second, “after the indictment, the district attorney made clear that the investigation would continue and prosecutors would take the case wherever the facts led?” Are you shitting us?  You mean you sought an indictment before you’d even completed your investigation?  That’s the kind of amateurish, shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later approach we’ve come to expect of the embarrassingly bad DA’s offices.  It’s not what the Manhattan DA’s office is supposed to do.  No, you’re supposed to complete your investigation first, and only then seek an indictment.  You don’t go to the grand jury until (1) the investigation is complete, (2) the investigation has convinced you that the suspect is guilty and that you can prove this guilt beyond a reasonable doubt at trial, and (3) you’ve made a policy determination that prosecution is the right thing to do in this case.  Ideally, but not required, one also (4) presents the opportunity for a pre-indictment plea, which in our experience often leads to discussions that can shut down a misguided prosecution before it’s gone too far.

We’ve certainly seen more of this reckless prosecution lately, and it’s never been to the credit of the office.  Each time, it’s only made the office look worse.  And we’re not the only ones noticing.  When we speak with other defense colleagues about this, almost all are in agreement that this change under Vance has only damaged the office’s reputation.

It’s a shame for the office, of which we would like to remain proud.  It’s a shame for Vance, whom we genuinely like and want to see succeed.  But it’s worse than shameful to shoot from the hip like this, trying to score points at the expense of the lives of real people.