Archive for the ‘Policy’ Category

Is Open File Discovery a Cure for Brady Violations?

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

Prompted by a tweet from Scott Greenfield this morning, we read a short editorial the New York Times did a couple of days ago, arguing that federal and state prosecutors should adopt open-file discovery policies, in order to limit Brady violations and promote justice. We’d missed it the first time around, because … well, because we never bother to read NYT editorials.

This one is decent enough, so far as it goes. The Times points out that it’s up to the prosecutor to decide whether something is material enough to disclose under Brady, and so defendants very often don’t learn of facts that might have been favorable to them. With full disclosure, perhaps fewer defendants who are over-charged or improperly charged would plead guilty, and perhaps fewer wrongful convictions might result.

Yeah, but …

Here’s the thing: “Open file” policies are rarely that. Prosecutors’ offices with open file policies rarely (if ever) make their complete file available to the defense. More often “open file” just means they comply with their existing discovery obligations without putting up too much of a fight.

Prosecutors in general are unwilling to engage in true open file discovery, and for reasons that are anything but nefarious. It would be like playing high-stakes poker in a game where you and only you have to show all of your cards, all of the time. Unless you have four aces and a joker every hand, that’s a losing strategy. Defendants will be able to see all the weaknesses of the evidence with plenty of time to exploit them. People who “should have been” convicted will go free.

In practice, prosecutors only show their hand if it’s going to make the defendant fold. Or to the extent that it will persuade the defendant to fold. Show the ace, but don’t bother showing the 2, 6, 7 and jack.

Of course, it’s a misplaced concern to worry that people who “should have been convicted” will go free. If the evidence does not establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, then it doesn’t matter whether they did it or not, they don’t deserve to be convicted. It’s not even correct to think of whether they deserve to be convicted — the concern is whether the State is entitled to punish them. If the government’s evidence, all of it, is too weak to convict, then the State doesn’t get to punish. (What the defendant deserves only enters into it when asking how much punishment to inflict.)

The proper concern is whether (more…)

When Incarceration Shot Up and Crime Plummeted

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

The January 30 issue of the New Yorker has an intriguing article by Adam Gopnik, “The Caging of America: Why do we lock up so many people?” Perhaps we’ve grown a bit cynical, but we expected yet another inane media whine about increasing rates of imprisonment “despite” fewer crimes being committed. We were surprised to find a thoughtful — at times insightful — look not only at the reality of American incarceration, but also at what causes crime to go up and down. It’s rare enough for a news or magazine writer to do even that much. To his credit, Gopnik goes one further, making a creditable attempt at objectivity — dismissing, debunking and blaming both the right and the left — though his apparent left-ish leanings still come through from time to time.


Gopnik’s main points are these:

Incarceration is happening on an unprecedented scale in our history. It’s been growing ever faster since the 1970s. Its ubiquity and brutality have become accepted parts of the culture. Northern and Southern thinkers have come up with different explanations and solutions. Northern thinkers like William J. Stuntz see prison as a place for rehabilitation, and the injustices as the result of our system’s reliance on procedural correctness rather than individual justice, from the Bill of Rights through the present day — a problem to be solved by letting common sense and compassion be the focus on a case-by-case basis. Southern thinkers like Michelle Alexander see prison instead as a means of retribution, and the injustices of the system are part of its design to trap and control young black men.

As incarceration rates more than tripled between 1980 and 2010, the crime rate itself went down. “The more bad guys there are in prison, it appears, the less crime there has been in the streets.” The huge growth in imprisonment, and the policies that led to it (such as harsher drug laws, zero-tolerance policies, restricted sentencing discretion, etc.) were a reaction to the big-city crime wave of the 1960s ad 1970s — a crime wave that owed its existence to liberal policies that had crossed the line from mercy to abdication. Meanwhile, research began to reveal that rehabilitation doesn’t work, and bad guys weren’t getting better, and so all you could do was lock them up to keep them off the streets.

Starting in the 1990s, crime rates began to drop — by 40% nationwide, and 80% in New York City. Demographic shifts don’t account for it. Neither do broken-window policing, keeping the really bad guys behind bars, welfare reform, or other right-wing explanations. The left’s insistence that crime comes from poverty, discrimination and social injustice didn’t work, either, as none of those things changed enough to account for the drop in crime. The economy didn’t have an effect.

What did have an effect in New York City, however, was (more…)

Correct, but Wrong: SCOTUS on Unreliable Eyewitness Identification

Thursday, January 12th, 2012

In this Information Age, it is hard to grasp sometimes that everybody does not know everything. And yet it is so. It is common knowledge, for example, that dinosaur fossils are the bones of creatures that lived scores of millions of years ago, that terrorist hijackers flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and that eyewitness identification testimony is statistically as reliable as a ’78 Chevy. And yet there are tons of people who sincerely believe that fossils are just a few thousand years old, that the U.S. government conducted 9-11, and that an eyewitness I.D. is the be-all-and-end-all of Truth.

Actually, it’s not fair to lump the I.D. believers in with 9-11 conspiracy theorists, Genesis literalists, truthers and the like. The others are sort of fringe-y. But if you put 12 ordinary citizens in a jury box, of good intelligence and sound common sense, and the victim points dead at the defendant and says “there is no doubt in my mind, THAT is the man who raped me…” you can almost hear all twelve minds slamming shut. They’ve heard all they need to hear. So far as they’re concerned, this case is over.

This despite the fact that study after study after study reinforces the fact that eyewitness testimony sucks.

And innocent people go to jail — or worse — because of it.

So you can imagine how keen the legal world was to get the Supreme Court’s decision in Perry v. New Hampshire, which came down yesterday. Perry, identified by an eyewitness as someone she’d seen breaking into cars, argued that Due Process required a judicial hearing on the reliability of that testimony before it could be admitted at trial.

Which was the exact wrong thing to argue.

Due Process requires that the government makes sure that it does not do things that make its identification procedures unreliable. It does not require that a judge do the jury’s job. Particularly when that job — weighing the reliability of a given bit of testimony — is incredibly fact-specific.

And especially given all the evidence of all the various factors that go into making eyewitness testimony unreliable — racial differences, time lapse, focus of attention, lighting, familiarity, stress, presence of a weapon, etc. — what judge in his right mind is going to want to be the one deciding whether this particular eyewitness’s memory is good enough?

So it’s hardly any surprise that the Supreme Court balked at Perry’s Due Process argument. By a vote of 8-1 (former prosecutor Sotomayor as the lone dissenter, none better to know the power of the EW ID) the Supremes held that, unless law enforcement is alleged to have gotten the I.D. under unnecessarily suggestive circumstances, there’s no Due Process issue and certainly no reason for a pre-trial hearing on reliability.


No, what Perry could have argued for is either (more…)

Exceeding Their Authority: When Bureaucrats Create New Crimes, Justice Suffers

Wednesday, December 14th, 2011

One of our bugbears here at The Criminal Lawyer is the excessive number of federal crimes — particularly those that are created by regulators rather than by elected legislators. We’re not alone in this concern, and over the past several months we’ve noticed what can only be called a growing movement for reform.

A particular concern of ours has been the fact that an astonishing number of federal crimes lack any mens rea component. In other words, one can face prison even though their act was perfectly innocent — there was no intent to break the law whatsoever.

Mens rea is an essential part of American criminal justice. We don’t punish people simply because the committed some act or other, or even just because they harmed someone. Even if that harm was grievous. No, before we punish someone, there has to have been some culpability on their part. And culpability is defined by their mental state when they committed the act. There is a spectrum ranging from intentional through accidental, and the closer one was to the intentional end, the more severely we punish them. (If you want to be pedantic about it, there are a couple of other spectra of mental state as well — one’s ability to tell right from wrong, and one’s level of depravity — imagine them as the Y- and Z-axes to the X-axis of mens rea, if you like. But only mens rea is a component of crime itself — the others apply as defenses and as sentencing concerns.)

When defining a crime, here’s how it’s supposed to work: You specify what act you are forbidding, and you specify the mental state required to make it criminal — so bad that it deserves punishment. For example, if you plot to kill your neighbor, and succeed in killing him, then you are going to be punished far more harshly than a careless teenager who kills a family of four when he mistakenly runs a red light. Your act was more intentional, and thus more evil, than that of the teenager. Even though he did far more harm, you are more culpable, and thus your act is more criminal. And a man who accidentally trips on the sidewalk, knocking a little old lady into an oncoming bus? His act isn’t criminal at all. It was purely accidental, and unlike the teen driver he did not deviate from the normal standard of care to any extent that society would punish.

It is true that, as American jurisprudence evolved, there did arise certain “strict liability” crimes that have no mens rea requirement. Things like statutory rape. But those are exceptions to the rule, in the first place. And in the second place, the lack of mens rea is not really applicable — it usually has to do with elements of the crime that your own mental state could not affect one way or the other. For example, in the case of statutory rape, the issue is not whether you knew the girl was under the age of consent, but whether you had sex with someone without their consent — and someone under the age of consent, as a matter of law, cannot have consented to have sex with you. Your mens rea has nothing to do with whether or not she consented. It does not matter whether you knew she was underage, what matters is that she was underage, and thus you had sex with someone without their consent.

But though there were strict liability crimes, they were exceedingly rare.

Until regulators got involved.

Bureaucracy has a way of growing, and of expanding its own authority. Give an agency power to regulate, say, the mouse-pad industry, and they will start writing rules and procedures based on how mouse pads are actually produced and sold. Then they will start writing rules based on how the bureaucrats think mouse pads ought to be produced and sold, perhaps involving idealistic notions or academic fads. Meanwhile, they’ll busily craft tons and tons of rules and procedures micromanaging every aspect of how the main regulations are to be complied with. The number of regulations out there that Americans are expected to follow are uncountable, and nobody knows what’s in all of them. It’s beyond the capacity of the human brain to know what all the rules are.

And all of these rules have the force of law. Even though no elected official ever enacted them. The regulations are imposed, not by elected representatives who speak for (and must answer to) the citizenry, but by unelected government employees answerable to nobody.

That’s all well and good, when (more…)

“More Law?” – Pure Sociology Gets It Wrong

Monday, November 28th, 2011

There seems to be a growing recognition that there’s a lot more law to deal with these days than there used to be. But when you say “more law,” what does your audience think you’re talking about? Are you addressing policy makers and the sociologists who influence their thought? If so, consider this:

Law is a quantitative variable. It increases and decreases, and one setting has more than another. It is possible to measure the quantity of law in many ways. A complaint to a legal official, for example, is more law than no complaint, whether it is a call to the police, a visit to a regulatory agency, or a lawsuit. Each is an increase in the quantity of law. So is the recognition of a complaint, whether this is simply an official record, an investigation, or a preliminary hearing of some kind. In criminal matters, an arrest is more law than no arrest, and so is a search or an interrogation. An indictment is more law than none, as is a prosecution, and a serious charge is more than a minor charge. Any initiation, invocation, or application of law increases its quantity, even when someone brings law against himself, as in a voluntary surrender, confession, or plea of guilty. Detention before trial is more law than release, a bail bond more than none, and a higher bail bond more than one that is lower. A trial or other hearing is itself an increase of law, and some outcomes are more law than others: A decision in behalf of the plaintiff is more law than a decision in behalf of the defendant, and conviction is more than acquittal. The more compensation awarded, the more law. And the same applies to the severity of punishment as defined in each setting: the greater a fine, the longer the prison term, the more pain, mutilation, humiliation, or deprivation inflicted, the more law….

And so on and so on, for another couple hundred pages, goes Donald Black’s “The Behavior of Law.” This is no minor piece of academic drivel — it is a seminal and highly influential book in the field of Sociology, hailed on its publication in 1976, required reading in our graduate course on Law and Society at U.Va. eleven years later, and with a new edition out just last year. Professor Black’s explanation of the law is now the basis of the school of Pure Sociology, which scholars use to explain pretty much any intense human interaction — ranging from the courtroom to artists and scientists, to the acts of terrorists and genocides.

It is no minor piece of drivel. It’s serious drivel. It screws up the way people think about law, making a very Babel of what should be basic, shared understanding. To the extent that sociologists affect public policy, confusion like this can only make things worse. And sociology is indeed important to law. It may or may not be a true -ology constrained by the scientific method, but pretty much all modern ideas of social improvement are deeply affected by it. Legislators may be motivated by re-election concerns, but sociological conclusions strongly inform what they see as the stance to take. Regulators are, if anything, much more influenced by sociological studies of what is or is not good for the public welfare. Sentencing commissions, juvenile justice, and diversion programs are almost entirely based on sociology.

It’s possible that we’re just nursing a grudge for having to endure a semester of it a gazillion years ago, but we doubt it. Pure Sociology isn’t itself a bad thing. It tries to explain why one criminal gets punished more severely than another for essentially the same act; why two groups of people are still fighting long after the initial conflict ended — and how third parties are likely to maneuver with respect to that conflict; why conflicts begin in the first place; why one becomes a predator while another becomes a peacemaker. Perfectly appropriate areas of human study. Furthermore, the factors that Pure Sociology takes into account are as commonsensical as they come: the strength or weakness of social ties, differences in status, the social structures within which the various actors exist, and the like. The general conclusions of Pure Sociology aren’t all that objectionable, either — that the fewer social ties between two people, the more likely government is to get involved, and the more severe its actions; that people tend to see people of high status as having gotten there through the exercise of free will, while people tend to see the most disadvantaged of us as victims of circumstances beyond their control; that the worst conflicts seem to happen between parties that, to an outside observer, appear to have more in common than otherwise.

But the core definitions are simply wrong. You do not get “more law” when someone is arrested as opposed to merely searched. You get more governmental intrusion. That is not the same thing as law. You do not get “more law” when the party bringing a case wins than when the defendant wins. You get more government authority to act against the defendant. That is not the same thing as law. In all the scenarios listed by Prof. Black, the amount of law is not changing. The things which the law permits to happen vary, not the amount of law itself. These and similar definitions are central to the school of Pure Sociology, from which all else is derived, and they are wrong.

This is not a minor quibble, harrumphing over a perfectly typical misappropriation of a word within the academic community. It is a failure to define some fundamental concepts, an understanding of which would be absolutely required before any of the higher explanations of human conflict can be attempted.

First of all, Law. Generally speaking, law is the (more…)

The Well-Educated Citizen

Monday, November 14th, 2011


We have more and more college graduates these days, but is it doing any good?

On our first day of college, at UVA back in the late summer of ’87, we didn’t feel the usual nervous excitement one gets from moving away from home, meeting new roommates, trudging through the various long lines to register for classes and get ID cards etc., and hearing the old “look to your left, look to your right” speech. We didn’t feel that way partly because we’d already been there and done that and more at military school, but mostly because we were feeling another emotion entirely that completely overpowered all the rest. It’s an emotion we can’t quite name, though there’s probably a great name for it in German — a great hopeful sensation of “at last, it’s about time!”

We were stoked to finally start getting an education. After years and years of schooling, we were ready to get learning. College for us wasn’t a prerequisite for getting a job or anything like that — it was a chance to gain as much knowledge about as many different subjects as we could cram into four (ultimately five) years. A chance, moreover, to learn how to use that knowledge and apply it and, maybe, start contributing to it. A truly liberal education that would prepare us for pretty much any future by preparing us to think critically and analytically and have the basic underlying data to do it well.

Back in 1987, most of our friends thought we were out of our mind. Most of them were there to get ready for a career, whether it be in engineering, business, architecture, teaching, or the arts. Or a career yet to be determined once they found the right major. Going to college was mainly about getting a good job after graduation.

Now in 2011, that seems even more the case than ever. College is seen as a prerequisite for a good job, period. Many kids are told this from kindergarten through high school, but it’s such an implicit societal assumption these days, that even if it wasn’t drilled into them they’ve picked it up by osmosis.

The problem is, college these days is not something you can rely on to prepare you for a job, unless you’re pursuing a technical degree in the soft or applied sciences.


Here’s how education is supposed to (more…)

The Science of Ethical Relativism?

Wednesday, November 9th, 2011

If you’re looking to start an argument with a loved one, or a fight, moral relativism is an excellent way to start. Specifically the position that, because different people do have different ideas of what is and is not ethical, your loved one’s morals are not true. Nor are they any more valid than the morals of someone who thinks very differently. And in fact, all ethical positions are equally valid and deserving of respect. This position strikes many as not only absurd but insulting, which may lead them to strike you.

After all, just because someone thinks that they’re doing the right thing, that doesn’t make it so, right? A fanatic who kills random bystanders in order to make a point may think it’s the height of propriety, and others may agree with him, but they’re wrong. Right? There are some things that are just wrong, and a relativist position that such attitudes are as valid as any other is equally wrong. Right?

Well, we’re not going to get into all that here. What got us onto this was a report in Scientific American that you can scientifically determine whether or not someone is a relativist. That could be useful, if for no other reason than to avoid situations where someone gets punched in the nose.

The magazine reports that “a simple mental puzzle” can determine whether someone is a relativist, or “an absolutist who embraces only one ‘true’ answer to these weighty conundrums.” This is the result of a study by Geoffrey Goodwin an John Darley. You can take a sample question at the link, if you like, but it really just boils down to whether or not, in a situation with multiple possible outcomes, you think through those outcomes when arriving at your answer.

That’s really not terribly useful, unfortunately. It’s only a test of clear, orderly thinking. The kind of brains used by chess players, mechanics troubleshooting a system, computer programmers, and even the occasional lawyer. It’s sadly true that too few people do think so clearly, but plenty do. And plenty of them are moral absolutists. The ability to consider different possibilities and perspectives certainly goes well with relativism, but it is neither a prerequisite nor a cause nor a strong correlate.

Criminal law, of course, is the embodiment of absolutism. What is crime, but the codification of a society’s morality — a list of those acts that are so ethically wrong that they must be punished. It doesn’t matter if an individual or ethnic group within the society doesn’t share the codified morals — they may think it’s perfectly fine if not laudable to do a certain thing, but the law says otherwise and they’re going to be subject to it. And appearances to the contrary, many very smart people with clear logical minds are behind our criminal jurisprudence. They may have the ability to be relativists, but it’d be difficult to call them by that name.


Still, it’s fascinating that someone actually bothered to take a philosophical idea, and do science to it.

Originally, of course, philosophy was how we learned about the world — we thought about it and compared notes to see which ideas held up the best and made the most sense. But the scientific method has replaced philosophy. You have an idea about how the world works? Test it and see if you’re right. In recent decades, the science of the mind has gotten astonishingly good. Brain science is rapidly answering a heck of a lot of questions that used to be the sole province of philosophers. So philosophers have retreated to areas not easily testable, stuff that isn’t exactly science, but where ideas can still be floated and debated and explored. Stuff like morality, free will, etc. One thing that has been fairly constant, however, is that philosophers do not go into the lab. They do not construct double-blind experiments, perform regression analysis, or any of that. The only experiments they perform are thought experiments.

Until lately, however. Goodwin and Darley may not have constructed the best (more…)

A Neat Primer on Neuroscience and Criminal Law

Monday, November 7th, 2011


One of our favorite topics here at the Criminal Lawyer has been the interaction of brain science and criminal law. So it’s with a pleased tip of the hat to Mark Bennett that we have the video linked above, an excellent summary of modern neuroscience as it applies to deep policies of our jurisprudence — Culpability, free will, the purposes of punishment, and how (or whether) to punish. The lecture was given about a year and a half ago by David Eagleman, a neuroscientist with a gift for explaining the stuff to non-scientists like us.

Most popularized science is weighed down with histories of how we got here, rather than discussions of where “here” is and where we might be going next. It’s a necessity, but unlike most popularizers Eagleman manages to cover that ground in just the first half of the lecture, rather than the more usual first 80%. So if you want to cut to the chase, you can skip to around the 15-minute mark. We enjoyed watching it all the way through, however. Once he gets going, he neatly and clearly presents ideas that many should find challenging — not because they undermine criminal jurisprudence, but because they challenge much that it merely presumes.

One particularly challenging idea of his is that, as we understand more and more how the brain works, and especially the smaller and smaller role that free will plays in our actions, the less focused on culpability we should be. Rather than focusing on whether or not an individual was responsible for a criminal act, the law should instead care about his future risk to society. If he’s going to be dangerous, then put him in jail to protect us from him, instead of as a retroactive punishment for a crime that may never happen again. The actuarial data are getting strong enough to identify reasonably-accurate predictors of recidivism, so why not focus on removing the likely recidivists and rehabilitating the rest?

Of course, as we mentioned the other day, there’s an inherent injustice when you punish someone for acts they have not yet committed, just because there’s a statistical chance that they might do so at some point in the future. That kind of penalty must be reserved for those who have actually demonstrated themselves to be incorrigible, those who reoffend as soon as they get the chance. Punishment must always be backwards-looking, based on what really happened, and not on what may come to pass.

We have quibbles with some other points he makes, as we always do when people from other disciplines discuss the policy underpinnings of criminal jurisprudence. But on the whole, this is a worthwhile watch, and we’d like to hear what you think of it.

When Is It Unfair to Get a Fair Trial?

Monday, October 31st, 2011


“You are saying it was unfair to have a fair trial?”

That was a fair question put by Justice Kennedy at oral argument today. The issue is whether a criminal defendant can be deprived of the effective assistance of counsel (for Sixth Amendment purposes) when a lawyer screwup prevents him from taking a plea deal.

The issue was presented in two companion cases, Lafler v Cooper and Missouri v. Frye. In Lafler, defense counsel gave bad advice, so that the defendant rejected a plea offer and went to trial instead. In Frye, the defendant did take a plea, but an earlier more favorable offer had never been conveyed.

Everyone accepts as given that the lawyers in these cases screwed up big time. The issue is only whether the screwups were so deficient as to rise to a constitutional violation.

Defendants do not have a right to a plea bargain, of course. The Supreme Court has spoken pretty firmly on that one. The plea bargain is, however, almost universally lauded — it allows defendants to cut their losses, prosecutors and courts to free up resources, and gives the system a chance to impose a “more fair” penalty than that which the legislature would otherwise have imposed. Plea bargains are wonderful. But there is no constitutional right to them.

Given that, the layman might be forgiven for scratching his head and wondering why these two cases were granted cert in the first place. (Laymen do that, you know.) There was no constitutional right being deprived, and there’s no doubt about the reliability of the conviction, so how could there possibly be ineffective assistance here?

That’s pretty much what the government argues — that there’s no prejudice, so there’s no Strickland problem. Being convicted after a fair trial is not prejudicial. Voluntarily taking a guilty plea is not prejudicial. The mere fact that a less harsh sentence could have been gotten with a better lawyer may perhaps be a pity, but it is not prejudicial. A do-over ought to be out of the question.

But Padilla held that ineffective assistance applies to the plea bargaining stage, that failure to advise as to immigration consequences can require just such a do-over. So the defendants argue that what was prejudiced was the outcome of the plea process itself, and not the outcome of the case. The issue for them is not whether the defendant would have been convicted or not, but whether ineffective assistance deprived them of the opportunity to get a better deal.

Both defendants argue that the correct fix would be to give them a chance to accept the earlier offer that, but for their lawyers’ failing, they would have accepted in the first place.


There is a fear that, if the defendants win, there will be a rash of appeals claiming that prior plea offers hadn’t been conveyed, or had been rejected for stupid reasons. Who wouldn’t want to take advantage of a chance to cut their 10-year sentence down to the 2-year offer that was originally rejected? How easy is it to claim that a lawyer told you something stupid, or didn’t tell you anything at all, especially as those discussions aren’t typically recorded or transcribed — it’s a he-said-she-said at worst, and who knows what lawyers might not be persuaded to bend the truth and swear out an affidavit substantiating the defendant’s claim?

One might also fear that, given this safety valve, defendants would be more likely to take cases all the way to trial, on the off chance that they win, knowing that if all else fails they can just go back to their saved game from the plea levels. That would sort of undermine the courts’ stake in plea bargaining, clogging the courts rather than freeing them up.

These are policy issues that may well be persuasive to the justices. Not law issues, so much as practicalities.


But what did the justices actually say today? That might give a (more…)

Using Neuroscience to Gauge Mens Rea?

Monday, October 31st, 2011

Over at Edge, in a short video, we get an intriguing look at criminal justice from the perspective of neurological science.

Put all this together, as you can see here, and we discover little areas that are brighter than others. And this is all now easily done, as everyone knows, in brain imaging labs. The specificity of actually combining the centers (where information gets processed) with the actual wiring to those centers has been a very recent development, such that it can be done in humans in vivo, which is to say, in your normal college sophomore. We can actually locate their brain networks, their paths: whether they have a certain kind of connectivity, whether they don’t, and whether there may be an abnormality in them, which leads to some kind of behavioral clinical syndrome.

In terms of the Neuroscience and Justice Program, all this leads to the fact that that’s the defendant. And how is neuroscience supposed to pull this stuff together and speak to whether someone is less culpable because of a brain state?

Then you say, well, okay, fine. But then you go a little deeper and you realize, well, this brain is a very complicated thing. It works on many layers from molecules up to the cerebral cortex; it works on different time scales; it’s processing with high frequency information, low frequency information. All of this is, in fact, then changing on a background of aging and development: The brain is constantly changing.

How do you tie this together to capture what someone’s brain state might be at a particular time when a criminal act was performed? And I should have said it more clearly — most of this project was carried out asking, “Is there going to be neuroscience evidence that’s going to make various criminal defendants less culpable for their crime?”

Well, probably not. Even if this were to become reality — which it isn’t, yet — the whole focus of mens rea culpability is what the defendant’s mental state was at the time he committed the act. Even if police officers were equipped with infallible handheld brain scanners, so they could get a mental reading at the moment of arrest (and oh, the fascinating Fourth Amendment issues there!), the moment of the crime is past. The reading is not evidence of what the brain was doing five days ago, or even five minutes ago.

And at any rate, it’s not usable science yet. So why bother thinking about it now?

To his credit, the speaker, neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, admits as much.

Now, the practicing lawyer asks “is this thing useful, can we use it tomorrow? Can we use it the next day? Can’t? Out. Next problem.” So, after four years of this I realize, look, the fact of the matter is that from a scientific point of view, the use of sophisticated neuroscientific information in the courtroom is problematic at the present.

But then he says “it will be used in powerful ways in our lifetime.” What powerful ways? Mainly the ability to show that someone simply couldn’t have thought a certain way, because his brain doesn’t work that way. This defendant shouldn’t be punished like a normal adult, because his brain isn’t wired like a normal adult, and he could not have had the same mens rea as one would otherwise expect under the circumstances. Research is showing that children and teenagers are wired differently, as well, which could affect juvenile justice.

That’s useful for the defense. It could be a valuable tool in raising defenses showing that mens rea was lacking, because it couldn’t have existed. Not useful for prosecutors, more than showing that it was just as theoretically possible as for any normal human, which is sort of presumed for everyone anyway. So yay for science.

Another way it’s expected to be useful, however, is preventing future crimes. Stopping the next mass-murderer before he actually starts shooting kids on campus and whatnot. Of course, we immediately get creeped out the second anyone (more…)

The Legal Profession Needs More Bars to Entry, Not Fewer

Tuesday, October 25th, 2011

On the New York Times op-ed page today, Clifford Winston asks the question “Are Law Schools and Bar Exams Necessary?” The writer, an economist with the left-ish Brookings Institution think tank, answers with a resounding “no.” They only increase the cost of entry into the profession — and thus the cost of legal services — while doing nothing to ensure the quality, honesty and accountability of the lawyers performing said services.

His diagnosis is on the nose, but his prescription is bad. He is right that simply graduating from an ABA-accredited law school and passing the bar are not sufficient quality control. But his solution — eliminating such barriers to entry — is the exact wrong approach. If anything, the barriers to entry need to be higher.


Law school, as experienced by most law students, is an enormous investment with little application to the actual practice of law. The first year is great for teaching how to spot issues and do the necessary legal research to answer questions, and for instilling core principles that underlie our jurisprudence. But beyond that first year, the time spent in class after class could be better spent in an apprenticeship where one learns how the law is actually practiced — and more importantly, acquiring the experience and judgment required to advise and deal with clients. Apart from the exceptional few who truly get a lot out of their continuing studies as preparation for real life — in particular, those who take advantage of clinical programs — law school after year 1 is a bit of a wasted opportunity for the run-of-the-mill students

The cost of law school is staggering, but only in part because of the requirements of maintaining ABA accreditation. These costs could be trimmed. The law library is the single greatest mandatory expense, what with the required accumulation of endless paper volumes of statutes, regulations, case law, treatises and their myriad pocket parts and updates. It’s a required expense, but not a necessary one, especially as everything’s been available digitally since forever.

Most of the cost of law school is not mandated, but the result of simple supply-and-demand. Tons of people want to go to law school, either to fulfill a calling or to make money or get status or just kill time until they find themselves. The demand drives up tuitions. Add to that the subsidy of student loans, and the price gets driven ever higher. Costs, on the other hand, remain fairly low. Staffing is not an enormous cost, considering. The ratio of students to professors is huge. When you figure 400 students in a section, each paying however many tens of thousands of dollars in tuition, the salaries of the handful of professors teaching them account for a minor fraction of it. Because of this, and the apparently endless supply of prospective students, law schools are a veritable cash cow — which is why so many have popped into existence in recent decades.

One byproduct of all these new law schools is a dilution of the quality of legal education, and thus the quality of many graduates with a JD. This is not to denigrate those with degrees from lower-tier schools, many of whom provide better services than some top-tier grads after gaining greater experience in the trenches. But whenever someone complains about “too many lawyers,” what they’re really complaining about is “too many bad lawyers.” Making it harder to get into law school, and then making it harder to actually get one of those JDs once there, would weed out many of the incompetent and misguided before they can do any damage to a real client.

The solution is not to abolish law school, but to make it harder and more relevant. Change the accreditation standards away from expense for its own sake (which, like several other such ABA standards like those for evening students, are actually holdovers from an earlier time when they existed to discourage minorities and those who needed to work for a living from joining the profession), and instead make the accreditation turn on selectivity of admissions and the quality of education provided. Require clinical courses (another astronomical expense, but one which makes sense). Require a uniform grade curve, so that performance can be measured accurately across multiple schools. Require practical courses alongside the general and theoretical, especially in the second and third years. Require more rigorous training in practical ethics, not just the bare-minimum survey everyone’s been doing since the ’70s.

Don’t eliminate the barrier; make it meaningful.


With respect to the bar exam, as we’ve said before, nobody in their right mind believes (more…)

Myth #3: “I was Entrapped!”

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

So you were hanging out with your buddy Joe, a guy who buys weed off you every now and then. Joe tells you he knows a guy who’s looking to buy more than Joe usually gets, and offers to introduce you. One thing leads to another, and soon you’re making a big sale to this new guy. As soon as everything changes hands, you’re cuffed and arrested. Turns out your buddy Joe was an undercover all along. He set you up! A cop! That’s entrapment, right?

Or maybe you were a out on a call, meeting another poor schlub at his hotel room to trade a little physical pleasure for a little cash. As is your practice, you make sure to confirm he’s not a cop first. He says no, you discuss what he’d like to do and for how much, and now you’re in handcuffs. What the hell? He lied to you! A cop! That’s entrapment, right?

Or maybe you were out protesting the latest outrage du jour, and you and your buddies decide to move the protest to a major thoroughfare at rush hour. The cops don’t stop you until you’re there, and then they arrest you. They let you do it! The cops! That’s entrapment, right?

Nope, nope, and nope.

Entrapment is not what most people think. It’s not when the police conspired with you to commit the crime. It’s not when your decision to go ahead with the crime was based on a police lie. And it’s not when the police didn’t stop you from committing the crime.

The police helping you commit a crime is not entrapment. Entrapment is when the police made you commit the crime, when you wouldn’t have done so otherwise.

Entrapment is when you would not have committed the crime, period, if the police hadn’t made you do it. If you’d never sold drugs in your life, but the undercover begged you for weeks to do the deal to save him from being killed by his supplier… maybe that’s entrapment. If you were not going to that hotel room as a prostitute, but for a purely social encounter, and the cop gave you money you’d never asked for… that’s probably entrapment. And if the cops out-and-out told you and your fellow protesters to go onto that street, and then arrested you for doing what they told you… that’s entrapment.


Different states deal with this differently. Some look at your (more…)

Falling Economy, Falling Crime

Tuesday, October 4th, 2011

Endless Origami: Crime Rates

Or maybe not…

For some reason, common wisdom would have it that crime should go up when the economy is going down. Violent crime in particular. Apparently, the thinking is that less prosperity leads to increased frustration and desperation, leading to more beatings killings muggings and rapes. As if the people who otherwise would commit such crimes are less likely to do so when banks are lending and people are investing in new and bigger business ventures.

Of course, common wisdom is frequently wrong. Which is good, because as we’ve pointed out before, the economy is going to continue to suck. Europe is facing massive uncertainty in the face of its Mediterranean peoples voting themselves the treasury. Here in the U.S., the Obama administration, elected on a platform of “hope,” is doing everything in its power to kill off any hope that investment in growth would be worth the risk. Instead of ensuring the stability and predictability necessary for economic growth, the governments of Europe and the U.S. are only spreading uncertainty and worry. It is now pretty much a certainty that a double-dip recession is upon us.

But the economy just isn’t that strong an influence on crime. During the prosperous 1950s and 1980s, violent crime went through the roof. During the Great Depression and the recent Crappy Recession, violent crime plummeted. The influence of economic hardship on crime is just not that strong. It is certainly not cause-and-effect — any effect is likely limited to exacerbating the effect of those things that actually do drive up crime. And right now, those things aren’t driving crime up.

So what are those things? What factors do drive violent crime? And are they going to come back any (more…)

Too Many Federal Crimes, Too Many without Mens Rea — Do We Have a Movement Yet?

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

We’ve posted several times about how there are just too many federal crimes, many created by regulatory fiat or otherwise without meaningful oversight by elected officials. About how a great many of them are apparently drafted by people with no understanding of how criminal law works and why. About how, as a result, there are an insane number of federal crimes (all felonies, of course) that penalize without any mens rea requirement at all. The most innocent accident, the most harmless and unintentional error, can make any honest and decent citizen a felon. (Sample posts here and here.)

We’re not the first to talk about it, by any means. We won’t be the last. But it’s starting to look like we’re reaching a tipping point — a critical mass of public awareness that might actually lead to … dare we say it … change?

Back in July, we cited a recent study that showed that, when a perception is firmly held by fewer than 10% of a population, it doesn’t really catch on. But for some reason, once the magical number of 10% is reached, the opinion spreads like wildfire. From obscurity, the idea suddenly becomes a majority view.

This 10% number pops up no matter what relevant population you’re looking at, no matter what social network. All that it takes to change the world is to have 10% of them be firmly committed, stubborn, and outspoken.

Over the rest of this summer, we’ve seen more and more references to this overcriminalization.  They’ve come mainly from the libertarian right and the defense bar, as one might expect, but it’s also been catching on in the mainstream press, left-leaning internet fora, and other places indicating that the idea is starting to take root in the general consciousness.

The last several days have seen a marked uptick in the topic. The New York Times cited it three days ago as a reason why people are taking pleas rather than going to trial. The Wall Street Journal has been doing a series on it, culminating yesterday in a long article on pretty much everything mentioned in the first paragraph of this post. And various bloggers and redditors and the like have been talking it up more than usual.

It’s starting to look less and less like a passionate few shouting in futile obscurity, and more and more like a movement.

Excellent. Let’s keep it up, shall we?


(Aside — If we were a Republican presidential candidate, we’d jump on this in a heartbeat. Not only would we be getting out in front of the movement, the better to be mistaken for a leader, but it would be a great way to repackage part of the platform. The present platform calling for less regulation comes off as a kind of “help out corporations at the expense of the people and the environment” thing. But make it a call for less regulation in the name of social justice — with plenty of anecdotal examples of real individuals who have been fucked by the fourth branch — and it becomes a populist battle cry. Just sayin’.)

What Would Plato Do?

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

Wanda: What would an intellectual do?  What would… Plato do?

Otto: Apol-

Wanda: Pardon me?

Otto: Apollgzz.

Wanda: What?

Otto: Apologize!

Well, no.  He probably wouldn’t.  Not Plato.

And certainly not in the case of Troy Davis, whose final clemency request was denied this morning, and who now faces execution tomorrow evening for the killing of a police officer in 1989.  He was convicted at trial 20 years ago, but since then the reliability of that verdict has been called into serious question.  Seven of the nine major witnesses recanted their testimony, many claiming that the police pressured them to give false eyewitness accounts.  No forensic evidence ever tied Davis to the crime, the murder weapon was never found.  In the intervening years, ten new people have come forward to point the finger at another individual known to have been present at the scene.

So it’s possible that Troy Davis might not have shot the officer.  It’s possible that he might have.  Twenty years of second-guessing and changing stories make it uncertain.  But what is certain is that he was convicted, and that the conviction stands.

Should we be troubled by this?

We started pondering this after our kids’ bedtime story the other night.  We were reading to the lads from the Dialogues of Plato [what, you got a problem with that? Shut up, these are not your children.], specifically the Crito.  That’s the one where Socrates has been condemned to death, and his friend Crito shows up to talk him into escaping.  Boiled down to its essence, the Crito runs something like this: (more…)