Archive for the ‘Policy’ Category

Confused about the outcome

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

You’re not the only one to ask, that’s for sure.  The short answer is this:

  1. The prosecution had the burden to remove all reasonable doubt from the jury’s minds — both that Zimmerman had committed every element of the crimes charged, and that he had not acted in self-defense.
  2. This was a very difficult case for them to prove.  Their evidence was iffy and called for a lot of speculation.  Their arguments were easily shot down by the defense.  And the defense view of the case was fairly consistent with the evidence.  At the end of the day, there was plenty of room for doubt about a lot of important things.
  3. With all that doubt, the jurors found that the state had not met its burden, which meant that they had to say “not guilty.”

Different people are confused and upset about this for different reasons.

Some are confused about what the evidence was, how the law applied to it, and where all the reasonable doubt came from.  I can try to go over all that with illustrations later, if you like. (I don’t mind, it’d be fun.)

Others are confused because they think the jury’s job was to decide what really happened, rather than to decide whether the state had proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt.  The jury’s verdict doesn’t mean “George Zimmerman is innocent” or “George Zimmerman was justified to shoot in self-defense.”  All it means is “the prosecution did not prove every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt” and “the prosecution did not prove it wasn’t self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Also, in cases like this, a lot of people take sides without knowing (or even caring) what the actual evidence was, or how the law applies to it.

Instead, a lot of people take sides, for and against, because they want to further some sort of political agenda.  There is a narrative they want the case to tell, regardless of what the facts really were.  It’s all about their cause, not the case.  So of course they get upset when the jury’s verdict doesn’t fit their narrative.

And a lot of other people take sides because they get the sense that one or the other is the “right” side to be on.  Sort of a knee-jerk, follow-the-crowd sort of thing.  They may not really know what was going on, but they feel that they are on the side of good and justice.  So of course they get upset when the jury’s verdict isn’t what the crowd had led them to expect.

Yes, juries can and do come back with bizarre verdicts that make you wonder how many brain cells they had between them.  But this just isn’t one of those cases.  The jury’s verdict was not at all unsurprising, given what came out during the trial.  It would be very easy for people of ordinary judgment to believe that the government came nowhere near proving its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

Zimmerman may or may not have committed the crime with which he was charged.  But that jury had good reason to come back with a “not guilty” verdict after that trial.


You wanna hear something shocking?  I don’t think the prosecutors really (more…)

On this latest Miranda thing…

Monday, April 22nd, 2013

So after catching one of the guys thought to have committed the Boston Marathon bombing (and a string of violent acts thereafter), the government said they weren’t going to read him his rights. Not just yet. Invoking the “public safety exception” to the Miranda rule, they said they wanted a chance to find out who he was working with, where other bombs might be, etc., before telling him he’s allowed to clam up.

Predictably, a lot of people were upset about this. But why?

Yes, it was wrong of the administration to say that. But not for the reasons everyone’s saying. Not because it’s further eroding our rights (it’s not), but because it’s just stupid.

It conflates intelligence with evidence — stupid. It misses the whole point of Miranda — stupid. It defeats the purpose of intel — stupid. And pisses off those who love the Constitution — stupid.

And of course, it’s nothing new.

About three years ago, the Obama administration made it DOJ policy to permit “unwarned interrogation” not only in situations involving immediate public safety (“where’s the bomb?”), but also cases where cops believe getting intel outweighs your right to remain silent.

The 2010 memorandum states:

There may be exceptional cases in which, although all relevant public safety questions have been asked, agents nonetheless conclude that continued unwarned interrogation is necessary to collect valuable and timely intelligence not related to any immediate threat, and that the government’s interest in obtaining this intelligence outweighs the disadvantages of proceeding with unwarned interrogation. [4] In these instances, agents should seek SAC approval to proceed with unwarned interrogation after the public safety questioning is concluded. Whenever feasible, the SAC will consult with FBI-HQ (including OGC) and Department of Justice attorneys before granting approval. Presentment of an arrestee may not be delayed simply to continue the interrogation, unless the defendant has timely waived prompt presentment.

On top of that, the Obama administration wanted Congress to specifically pass legislation allowing longer interrogations before Miranda need be invoked. (A brilliant writer blogged about that memo a couple of years ago, concluding that it was “An Unnecessary Rule.”)

The administration is just trying to have its cake and eat it, too. Miranda does not prevent them from gathering intelligence. The Fifth Amendment does not prevent them from gathering intelligence. They can interrogate people all they want, in any way they want, and the Constitution doesn’t say jack about it. But if they force you to incriminate yourself against your own will, they’re just not allowed to use those statements against you to prove your guilt in a criminal proceeding. That doesn’t mean they can’t force you to incriminate yourself, and it doesn’t mean they can’t use those statements for other purposes.

But the government wants to be able to do both. It wants to be able to override your free will, force you to condemn yourself, and use your words both to prevent future attacks (laudable) and to convict you so the State can punish you (contemptible).

Their saying this out loud is idiotic, because everyone sees how contemptible it is, and the government looks even more like an enemy of the public, rather than its protector. And of course giving a heads-up to the real bad guys about what we’ll be doing. (And announcing it in a specific case, as they did this week, just lets everyone in the bomber’s organization know that we’re learning everything that guy could tell us. Stupid. You never want the enemy to know how much you know.)

But it’s also stupid because it misses the ENTIRE POINT of Miranda.

Sorry to break this to you, but Miranda isn’t about protecting your rights. It never was.

Miranda is about giving the police a free pass. It always has been.

The Fifth Amendment is there to make sure we don’t have another Star Chamber. We don’t want the government using its power to override your free will, and make you confess to a crime so it can punish you. Lots of confessions are purely voluntary. In fact, most probably are. But sometimes the government has to force it out of you, and we don’t want that to happen.

But it’s hard for courts to tell voluntary confessions from involuntary ones. They have to look at facts and assess things on a case-by-case basis. That’s hard. And it’s hard for police to know if they’re crossing the line, when the line is different for every individual. So the Miranda rule creates an easy line that applies to everyone:

Say the magic words, and the law presumes that the confession was voluntary.

See how easy that was? Not hard. Easy.

All a cop has to do is recite the Miranda litany as they’re taking a suspect into custody, and BAM! they get to interrogate all they want, and everything the guy says can be used in evidence at his trial.

It is hard to imagine a more pro-law-enforcement rule. In one stroke, Miranda dispensed with actual voluntariness, and replaced it with “as a matter of law” pretend voluntariness.

And yet law enforcement — even our nation’s top officials, who went to law school and everything — astoundingly persist in thinking Miranda is bad for them. They think that, if you mirandize someone, they’ll shut up, and you’ll lose all that delicious intel and lovely evidence. (NYPD officers are actually trained NOT to mirandize people on arrest, for this very reason. Yeah, TV ain’t real life.)

But here’s the kicker: People don’t clam up when they’ve been read their rights. The people who clam up remain silent regardless of whether they’ve been mirandized or not. In fact, there is evidence that people are MORE likely to talk once they’ve been read their rights. They don’t know what those rights mean, but they know they’ve got them, and TV has conditioned them to expect the magic words. So when they hear them, they relax. All is well. Their rights are being acknowledged. And they start blabbing.

So not only do the magic words let you use all those statements, compelled or not, but they actually get the statements flowing.

So wanting to hold off on saying them is just stupid. Counterproductive. Idiotic.

So there’s lots of reasons to dislike what the government is saying in this case. But eroding our rights just isn’t one of them.

You lost those rights in 1966.

Drawing the Line

Friday, March 29th, 2013

Everyone knows that drunk drivers cause deadly car accidents. This is because alcohol impairs one’s ability to drive safely. So it is against the law to drive under the influence of alcohol.

Everyone knows that texting while driving causes deadly car accidents. This is because texting distracts your attention from driving safely. So it is against the law to text while driving.

Everyone knows that speeding causes deadly car accidents. This is because going faster than conditions and one’s ability permit make you unsafe. So it is against the law to speed.

And now West Virginia is looking to outlaw driving while wearing Google Glass. Because presumably having the internet in your heads-up display would distract your attention from driving safely.

Of course, these laws are all trying to prevent people from driving unsafely. So why not, instead of a whole jumble of laws dealing with specific causes of unsafe driving (and having to be written to deal with new, unforeseen causes), why not have a single law punishing… you know… unsafe driving?

Because these particular causes of unsafe driving are worse than any other? If you say so. But even then, they could just be grounds for enhanced penalties for violating the basic law. No need for separate laws.

The actual reason is that “unsafe driving” is a very subjective concept. It’s really an “I know it when I see it” kind of thing, not readily reduced to formulas. Different people have different abilities, physiologies, training, etc., so one person could drive safely with distractions/speeds/alcohol intake that would make another person a deadly menace. If all you’ve got is a cop who can testify that “this person was driving unsafely because of X Y Z,” when it’s not necessarily so that X Y or Z equal “dangerous, then you’re not going to get a lot of convictions.

And so we draw a line. Forget individual variations — as a matter of law, if you do X, Y or Z while driving, you are automatically a menace, and that’s that. The police officer doesn’t have to make a judgment call about whether you were actually unsafe. All he has to do is determine whether you did X Y or Z.  It’s so much easier to prove that you had crossed the line, than to prove that you were actually being unsafe.

Of course, this is overbroad and unjust. Because where we draw the line is arbitrary. Someone driving 70 is no more dangerous than someone going the limit of 65, but that’s where we drew the line.

Where we draw the line depends. For speeding, it’s sort of a lowest-common-denominator kind of thing: We pick a speed that, for this road, most drivers should be able to manage safely. And by “most drivers” we mean “poor drivers.” Because as a society we’ve decided that we’d rather make it easier to get a license, and we’re willing to accept a certain number of traffic fatalities per year in exchange for letting more people drive. So sure, there are plenty of people who could manage it safely at a higher speed, but they’re going to have to obey the same line drawn for everyone else.

For alcohol, it’s more a lobbying kind of thing: Victims and families of victims of drunk driving are understandably upset that people are committing reckless homicides and being treated like it was just oopsie an accident. So they lobby lawmakers to make driving with any alcohol in your bloodstream a crime. And over the years, the amount of alcohol required gets smaller and smaller, because who wants to lobby for the alternative? Who wants to be the guy pushing to make the law go easier on those killers? And so the arbitrary line keeps ratcheting down because nothing is there to prevent it.

For things like texting, it’s more of a zero-tolerance thing: We can’t ever know which text or other distraction is the one you could do safely or the one that would cause a pileup on I-70. So we just outlaw all of them. (If we were intellectually honest, we’d simply outlaw driving while distracted, which is the actual problem. But that would fill the jails with moms who were yelling at kids, people driving while furious after an argument, girls putting on makeup on the way to work, truckers eating tacos, and the like. And we don’t want to do that, do we?)

It’s not just traffic laws — the law is filled with examples of “bright line” rules. All are arbitrary. Some try to strike a balance, some are purely political, and some are unthinking zero-tolerance rules. But the lines have been drawn. And that’s the important thing.

The important thing is that the line is drawn somewhere. Because it’s not about justice. And it’s not about safety.

It’s about not having to make subjective decisions.

And now you know.

Understanding the law

Friday, March 8th, 2013

A lot of the law is extremely formulaic. True, human intelligence is required to spot issues, devise strategies, and (most importantly) persuade decisionmakers. But in its actual application, the law is often little more than a series of IF-THEN decisions. A computer could be programmed to do it. This is just as true of corporate taxation as of advanced constitutional law. A law student could outline those courses with nothing more than a flowchart and do okay on the exam.

Knowing the formula is important. It’s specialized knowledge that you usually have to go to law school to get. But it’s only knowledge. It’s not understanding.

It’s like baking a cake. If you know the recipe, you can go step by step through the process and get a decent cake on the other side. If you don’t know the recipe, you’re likely to wind up with a big mess. But knowing a recipe that works isn’t the same as knowing why it works. It’s not going to help you if your ingredients suddenly change, or something new is added into the mix, or you have to use an oven with a very different temperature. In that case, if you want to make a cake, you’re going to have to understand the chemistry of what’s going on, the effect that the ingredients and how they are combined and the heat and the time have on the final result.

Knowledge is the what. Understanding is the why.

Most students can demonstrate their knowledge on an exam, and they’re lumped together in the curve. It’s the rare students who demonstrate their understanding who get the outlier As, however.

In fact, there are professors out there who will announce to the class that the final exam is going to cover things that never came up in class. Topics that were never discussed. Issues that aren’t in any of the books. The students will have to say, based on their understanding of why the law is the way it is, what the answer in that unfamiliar area ought to be.

These are awesome professors. If you ever get one, cherish the experience. Because you’ve lucked into someone who teaches the why, as well as the what. And you are going to be so much better equipped to deal with the law as it changes.

The law does change. Whatever field you practice in, the law is going to change during your career. If you know where the law is coming from, you’ll have a pretty good idea of where it’s going. And more importantly, whichever way it goes, you’ll get why. You’ll understand it better. You’ll be able to use it better, advise your clients better, persuade a court better.

So how does get this understanding?

What you’re looking for is policy. An underlying philosophy or purpose that explains the statutes and cases. What were the lawmakers and judges trying to do? What was the point of view that drove how they did it?

You’d think this would be easy — just look at the legislative record to see all the arguments for and against, the court opinions spelling out in excruciating detail precisely where they were coming from.

But if you try doing that, you’ll soon learn it’s not easy at all. The stated reasons for statutes, regulations and caselaw are inconsistent as hell. They’re all over the map. And what’s more, people are only human. The reasons we give for our actions are rarely the same as our true, unstated motives. We may not even be fully aware ourselves of the actual policies we’re acting on — most of the time because we haven’t reflected enough to actually know what they are, and so they remain unconscious, subliminal. And our brains are wonderfully adept at justifying after the fact.

So it’s a puzzle. The narrators are not telling you the truth. They’re not lying to you, but they’re not telling you the truth. The trick is to pick out the clues from what they say, from the situations they’re reacting to, from the problems they’re trying to solve, and from (most importantly) what they actually do. It takes a fair amount of insight into one’s fellow human beings to solve this puzzle.

And this is what sets apart the merely adequate law professor from the superstar. The adequate professor makes sure you understand what the various disparate laws happen to be. The superstar gives you an insight that explains them all (or most of them, anyway).

Which way would you prefer to learn them all?

Now, there are lots of ways to explain what’s going on. How do you know which theories are best?

As with any other field of study, the simplest theory that explains the most data is best.

So for example, you might have a ton of cases that seem to be all over the place, if you just take the judges at their word. They seem to be espousing a given principle, but their decisions keep pushing the law in a different direction. That tells you that the real reason isn’t the one they’re saying. Maybe it’s emotion. Maybe it’s a desire for a certain outcome no matter what. Maybe it’s just pandering to a perceived public opinion. Maybe it’s just a backroom deal.

And those surface reasons give you a clue to the unspoken philosophy behind them. In a criminal case where the court is performing some impressive legal gymnastics, it could simply be that the desire to punish this guy is more important than any protections the law might have given him. (That’s the opposite of the rule of law, by the way. A good example of saying one thing but doing another.)

You can also watch as repeated reliance on the spoken, but incorrect, principles leads to bizarre outcomes. The exclusionary rule is a good example, where the courts keep saying it’s about deterring the police from violating your rights, when in reality it does nothing of the sort. The rule is intended not to make the police think twice but instead to ensure that violations of your rights don’t get used against you. And you can see how repeated insistence on its deterrent purpose erodes the rule — because in situation after situation the court recognizes that there is no significant deterrent effect, and so says exclusion wouldn’t matter here.

This kind of thing goes on in almost every field of the law.

The trick to understanding is actually formulaic: 1) Look at the facts and the outcome; 2) Look at the stated justifications; 3) Note any disconnects; 4) Apply your own understanding of human nature, various philosophies, history, culture, etc., determine likely explanations for the disconnects; 5) Select the explanation that explains the most data with the least complexity.

Go on, try it!

Deterrence has nothing to do with it.

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

Interesting concurring opinion by Posner the other day in U.S. v. Craig. Basically, the defendant pled to four counts of creating child porn — which he created in an awful and horrifying way. He could have gotten 30 years for each count, but the judge gave him 50 (30 on one count, 20 on the other three). The defendant appealed the sentence. But it was within the Guidelines, and so was presumptively reasonable. And the judge didn’t ignore any mitigating factors. So the appeal was meritless and denied. A shocking sentence for a shocking crime, but hardly a shocking decision.

True to form, however, Posner went out of his way to make an economic evaluation of the sentence. What was it good for? Did tacking on the extra 20 years make any sense? Posner says no, and argues that judges need to take such things into account in the future when imposing sentences.

He engages in a straightforward cost-benefit analysis. The cost to society? $30K a year now, more than double that as the prisoner grows old and requires medical care. Plus the lost productivity of the man being incarcerated. The benefit? For that he looks to the purposes of punishment. But not all of them.

He only considers (more…)

Answering Your Most Burning Questions

Friday, December 14th, 2012

Google analytics is a great tool. Among other things, it shows the search engine queries people use to find this blog. Which is a good way of figuring out who its audience is, and what they need to know.

The queries aren’t as entertaining as they are over at Popehat, but then again neither is this blog.

Nor are they all that varied. In fact, just looking at the top 2000 searches so far this month, almost every single one is a variation on a few basic themes. These are the questions people apparently want answered right now. So I’ll address them briefly — very briefly — here.

1. Should I become a lawyer? / Do I have what it takes to be a lawyer?

To answer questions like these, you first have to understand what lawyers do. Once you know that, it should be (more…)

On Overcriminalization: There’s nothing new under the sun

Monday, June 11th, 2012

As we’ve mentioned perhaps a dozen times by now, we do this illustrated guide to law in our rare moments of free time. (Latest post on self-defense law is here.) We make every effort to avoid citing case names or statutes in that guide, because they’re almost never necessary for an understanding of the actual concepts. We also try not to waste time on what the law used to be. It’s common for those who popularize specialized fields of knowledge to tell the story of how a given field has evolved, devoting the bulk of their writing to what people once thought, before getting to how things are right now — and we hate that. Cut to the chase, already!

But the next installment’s going to be about the sources of criminal law, and it would be sort of disingenuous to simply cut to the chase there (“elected officials pass statutes and ordinances, and agencies adopt regulations, now move along” — that’s not really the whole story, is it?). In this particular case, it seems necessary to at least summarize a history of how English and American criminal laws all came about. Because that history is still a big source of the criminal laws we deal with now — occasionally in weird ways.

It’s a fascinating history, and we’re barely going to touch on any of it in our comic. But the surprising thing is how rarely anyone has touched on it at all. The history of criminal procedures is extremely well-documented (and byzantine in its complexity); but if any of you are History majors looking for a topic for your senior thesis or a dissertation, we might just mention that the history of the laws defining crimes is far from exhausted, hint hint.

There are two or three halfway-intelligible histories out there, written during various centuries, and each author makes the same complaint that they’re writing in a vacuum. Each, however, refers heavily to Sir William Blackstone. So we were re-reading bits of his Of Public Wrongs this morning over our coffee (thank you Google Books!) when a thought started nagging in the back of our brain.

It was hard to pin down the idea, but then we had it: Overcriminalization. For a while now, people who pay attention to the law have complained that there are too many crimes, with irrationally high penalties, and that this leads not only to injustice but to the law itself losing its legitimacy. Lately, this idea has begun to gain traction among political types as well. People are starting to realize that, as we’ve written several times before, the problems come from a number of sources: vindictive laws being passed without much forethought in response to notorious one-off cases; progressive politicians outlawing more and more offensive behaviors; reactionary politicians ratcheting up the punishments for everything; and perhaps most insidious of all, unelected bureaucrats imposing criminal penalties on countless (and as yet uncounted) regulatory infractions. It’s so bad that nobody knows for sure what’s a crime and what isn’t, and especially in the federal system the penalties can far outweigh the severity of a given offense.

Why did reading Blackstone bring this to mind? Because apart from merely commenting on the state of the law in the mid-1700s, Blackstone was arguing for reform. He wanted a law that was more utilitarian, more deterrent than retaliatory, more enlightened — and above all, more simplified. He complained that the criminal law as it stood in his time was a tangle of writs and statutes, with new offenses being created all the time without anyone knowing about it. All the different sources of penal laws, and all the previously unknown offenses, were “a snare for the unwary.” The law had ratcheted up over the preceding centuries, so that the number of capital offenses was enormous, and severe punishments were prescribed for the pettiest offenses. All this led to judges refusing to impose the prescribed penalties, while at the same time leading to a growing contempt for criminal laws in general.

Yup, sure sounded familiar. Overcriminalization is something that just seems to … happen… in mature systems. In Blackstone’s time, it happened because of a rapidly-growing administrative role of government, because of officials trying to look tough on crime, because of vindictive one-off laws, because of not thinking things through, and because of simple intertia. Yup, totally familiar.

Still, whenever people start talking about overcriminalization, they don’t start throwing around old Blackstone quotes. Instead, they usually come out with an aphorism they ascribe to Tacitus: “The more numerous the laws, the more corrupt the government.” Which is unfortunate because (1) that phrasing implies a meaning that Tacitus did not intend; and (2) what the old boy really was saying was so much more apposite.

What was Tacitus saying in his Annals, Book III part 27? He’s talking about how the laws were getting out of hand in Ancient Rome:

Pulso Tarquinio adversum patrum factiones multa populus paravit tuendae libertatis et firmandae concordiae, creatique decemviri et accitis quae usquam egregia compositae duodecim tabulae, finis aequi iuris. nam secutae leges etsi aliquando in maleficos ex delicto, saepius tamen dissensione ordinum et apiscendi inlicitos honores aut pellendi claros viros aliaque ob prava per vim latae sunt. hinc Gracchi et Saturnini turbatores plebis nec minor largitor nomine senatus Drusus; corrupti spe aut inlusi per intercessionem socii. ac ne bello quidem Italico, mox civili omissum quin multa et diversa sciscerentur, donec L. Sulla dictator abolitis vel conversis prioribus, cum plura addidisset, otium eius rei haud in longum paravit, statim turbidis Lepidi rogationibus neque multo post tribunis reddita licentia quoquo vellent populum agitandi. iamque non modo in commune sed in singulos homines latae quaestiones, et corruptissima re publica plurimae leges.

Which my antique Church & Brodribb translation has as:

After Tarquin’s expulsion, the people, to check cabals among the Senators, devised many safeguards for freedom and for the establishment of unity. Decemvirs were appointed; everything specially admirable elsewhere was adopted, and the Twelve Tables drawn up, the last specimen of equitable legislation. For subsequent enactments, though occasionally directed against evildoers for some crime, were oftener carried by violence amid class dissensions, with a view to obtain honours not as yet conceded, or to banish distinguished citizens, or for other base ends. Hence the Gracchi and Saturnini, those popular agitators, and Drusus too, as flagrant a corrupter in the Senate’s name; hence, the bribing of our allies by alluring promises and the cheating them by tribunes vetoes. Even the Italian and then the Civil war did not pass without the enactment of many conflicting laws, till Lucius Sulla, the Dictator, by the repeal or alteration of past legislation and by many additions, gave us a brief lull in this process, to be instantly followed by the seditious proposals of Lepidus, and soon afterwards by the tribunes recovering their license to excite the people just as they chose. And now bills were passed, not only for national objects but for individual cases, and laws were most numerous when the commonwealth was most corrupt.

So he wasn’t saying “the more corrupt the government happens to be, the more laws there will be.” He was saying “there were ups and downs, but generally there was a strong correlation between how many criminal laws we had and how broken our government was at the time.” (The word “corrupt” having the older more general meaning of “debased, decayed, changed in bad ways” — the way we’d say “a corrupted hard drive” today — in addition to the more specific modern meaning of “venal, self-serving, bribe-taking etc.”)

And what Tacitus was saying in general was the same thing that Blackstone was saying: there were too many criminal laws, often conflicting, created not for the general need but in order to curry favor with the people, to react to one-off cases, etc. etc.

Yup, sure sounds familiar. Just like old Ecclesiastes said, “there’s nothing new under the sun.” (Or didn’t one of the Epicureans say that first? Or was it one of the older Vedas?)


Blackstone actually gives us some hope. For his proposed reforms actually were taken to heart — in the new United States, of all places. As the new states were formed, and began creating their laws practically from scratch, they were ideally suited to put these new progressive ideas in place. There was no hidebound tradition to adhere to, no entrenched bureaucracy to upend. Blackstone called for a stripped-down, principled criminal law, and American legal thinkers tried to make it so. Crime was (for the first time in history, really,) identified as an offense against the State, and not the more personal kind of moral offense or private conflict. Lawmakers and judges began to try to explicitly think through different levels of intent and culpability — not as thoroughly as would be done in the mid-20th Century, but still in significant ways. Deterrence replaced retaliation as the driving force of enlightened thought on punishment. These were not frontier hicks making the laws, but educated progressive thinkers well aware that they were creating something new, and trying to get it right the first time.

We don’t have a new nation to start from scratch again, but at least there is precedent for reform. England came around, too — if a bit more gradually. (We probably don’t want another Sulla, though.)

It’s happened before, it could happen again. There’s nothing new under the sun!




Better Criminal Lawyering through Smart Risk-Taking

Wednesday, March 28th, 2012

Judgment is the criminal lawyer’s stock-in-trade. The ability to assess the risks of a situation, and choose the better course of action, is the value that lawyers bring to the criminal justice system. It doesn’t matter if they’re defense attorneys negotiating a deal or fighting it out at trial, or if they’re prosecutors deciding whether and what to charge — their value is their judgment. The better the judgment, the better the lawyer.

It’s therefore critical that criminal lawyers have some understanding of how and why people take risks. In advising a client inclined to take a bad risk, the lawyer can’t really change that perception without knowing what’s causing it. And such an understanding also helps one spot one’s own inclinations to error before it’s too late.

This is not common sense. (In fact, common sense is usually the enemy here.) It’s insight. The ability to see how people act, and realize — aha! — why.

Fortunately for the rest of us, there are amazingly smart people out there who do that all day. When you find one with real insights about why people take the risks they do, you’re probably gonna want to listen.

That’s why we’re taking a moment to point you to Danny Kahneman (that’s his picture up there).

Who is Danny Kahneman, you ask. You’re not alone. If you’re not an economist, you can be forgiven for not knowing he won the Nobel Prize for basically inventing the field of Behavioral Economics. If you’re not a psychologist, you can be forgiven for not knowing he’s considered “one of the most influential psychologists in history, and certainly the most important psychologist alive today.” If you’re not a foreign-policy wonk, you can be forgiven for not knowing of his significant ideas on the evaluation of risks in wartime. He’s one of the most insightful and relevant people nobody’s ever heard of.

As it happens, a lot of his insights are directly relevant to the practice of criminal law. Trying to decide the likely outcome of that trial? You’re probably (more…)

Making Drug Enforcement Work

Friday, March 2nd, 2012


Tomorrow’s issue of the Economist has a brief piece on some new drug policing in Virginia: “Cleaning Up the Hood: Focusing on drug markets rather than users means less crime.” The article is on DMI, or Drug-Market Intervention, a law-enforcement strategy that has been spreading around the country since it was first introduced in North Carolina about eight years ago.

DMI is a combination of community involvement and police commitment that focuses on street dealers. The community is encouraged to report dealers. Police then notify the dealers that they know who they are, but promise not to arrest them if they take part in an intervention. The dealers are confronted with community leaders who show them what their dealing is doing to the community — and who promise to help them change their ways if they’re willing. The dealers are given a second chance. Meanwhile, the police increase their presence in the area, and those caught dealing now get locked up. Quick police response and community involvement increases people’s willingness to report dealers, and a cycle begins.

Law enforcement has long known that you don’t eliminate a drug problem by going after demand — addicts and users are too numerous, and no matter how many you lock up they just keep coming. Meanwhile, street dealers continue to operate, destroying the safety and livability of the community. The addicts they attract, the nastiness they inflict, the violence they commit, and the fear they instill all combine in ruinous ways, engendering more crime and blight.

Buyers are easy to arrest, though, and if a police force is going to be judged by its arrest numbers rather than actual results (as politicians are wont to do), then there is a strong temptation to arrest the users. Not only does this do nothing to stop the dealing problem, the users are typically charged with modest possession offenses that put them right back out to buy again.

Drug courts and similar diversion programs do actually work wonders with helping users break their drug habits and overcome the life-skill deficits that often led to them. But those programs are typically reserved for those charged with crimes to begin with, many times only those charged with felony possession, and of those only the defendants who are likely to succeed in the program to begin with. They’re great, but they don’t solve the underlying problem.

These DMI initiatives recognize that, like so much else in society, it is (more…)

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…)