Posts Tagged ‘jurisprudence’

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!

 

 

 

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 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.

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…)

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…)

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…)

Decent, law-abiding citizen? Go directly to jail.

Saturday, October 30th, 2010

 

Odds are, if you’re reading this, you’ve lived an admirable life.  You applied yourself in school, got a good job, and worked hard to be a valuable member of your community.  Through your own efforts, you’ve probably earned a position of respect and responsibility.  Maybe you run your own shop, or you’re a partner in a firm, or you’re a military officer.  Your ethics are beyond reproach.  You’re raising your kids to be loyal, kind and brave.  You, dear reader, are doing everything right.

And you, dear reader, can very easily find yourself in the defendant’s seat.  In the crosshairs of a federal or state prosecution.  Facing serious prison time.

For what?  For nothing, that’s what.  You yourself may have done nothing wrong, but our criminal law has devolved so far, so fast, that you can find yourself being prosecuted anyway.

The worst effects can be seen in federal law.  As the regulatory state has expanded, as the “nanny state” has expanded, as the role of the federal government has expanded, the nature of federal criminal law has changed dramatically.  Stuff that nobody in their right mind would consider “criminal” has nevertheless been made into a federal crime, not just by congressional statute, but by regulatory fiat.

Regulatory crimes are the worst, because agency regulations are never (more…)

The New York Times Gets It Wrong… Again

Tuesday, July 27th, 2010

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Over the weekend, the NYT printed an article calling the Supreme Court under C.J. Roberts the “most conservative in decades.”  “The court not only moved to the right,” the article said, “but also became the most conservative one in living memory, based on an analysis of four sets of political science data.”

We admit to reading the article with a fair amount of skepticism.  Whenever political science folks or sociologists or others of their ilk start talking about the Court being “conservative” or “liberal,” we get uncomfortable.  The words have very different meanings for politicos than they do for jurists.  A judicial conservative is not necessarily supportive of right-wing politics.  A jurist who is politically conservative may well be fairly liberal in his jurisprudence, especially if he’s using his opinions to further a political agenda. 

The article did nothing to assuage our discomfort.  As we feared, it conflated the concepts of political and judicial conservatism.  The article really focused on whether rulings were more or less likely to be favored by conservative political platforms. 

To be fair, the headline really is misleading.  The article itself says at least twice that “the recent shift to the right is modest.”  And it does point out not only that “the court’s decisions have hardly been uniformly conservative,” but also that “the court’s decisions are often closely aligned with or more liberal than public opinion.”

But the basis of any analysis is its presumptions.  And the presumptions applied here are beyond simplistic.  “In the database, votes favoring criminal defendants, unions, people claiming discrimination or violation of their civil rights are, for instance, said to be liberal.  Decisions striking down economic regulations and favoring prosecutors, employers and the government are said to be conservative.”  Forget being beyond simplistic, it’s downright misleading.

Notice that the focus is on who prevailed in the case, not why the Court sided with them.  Just because a criminal defendant won his appeal, for example, that does not mean the justices were being liberal when they sided with him.  The Melendez-Diaz case, after all, pretty clearly restrains the prosecution and favors defendants, by requiring chemists to testify at trial as to their analysis of alleged drugs.  Who wrote the majority opinion?  Scalia.  Hardly a liberal.  His reasoning?  Very conservative: this is little more than an application of existing 6th Amendment law under Crawford.  Scalia is one of the most conservative justices, and yet he’s also the Court’s biggest protector of 6th Amendment rights.

Similarly, just because a civil-rights claim prevails, that has nothing to do with whether the decision itself is particularly liberal.  And if the civil-rights claimant loses, that doesn’t mean the decision was conservative.

The analysis is flawed from the get-go, because it focuses on the wrong thing entirely.  The focus should not be on who won, but why they won.

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We also made a face when we read this bit: “The Roberts court is finding laws unconstitutional and reversing precedent — two measures of activism — no more often than earlier courts.  But the ideological direction of the court’s activism has undergone a marked change toward conservative results.”

No, no and no.

Judicial activism is not measured by finding laws unconstitutional.  Judicial activism is creating new law where none existed, or legislating from the bench — it is another way of saying the court is exceeding its authority.  When the law is different from how a judge thinks it ought to be, an activist judge changes the law.  Merely applying existing constitutional law, however, and finding that the legislature has passed a statute that happens to be unconstitutional — that is precisely what the courts are supposed to do in the first place.  It is the opposite of judicial activism.

Reversing precedent isn’t so much a measure of activism, either.  Some precedents ought to be reversed for perfectly good reasons, such as a change in societal circumstances that necessitated the precedent in the first place.  There is nothing activist about saying “applying the Constitution to fact set A resulted in rule X, but now we have fact set B and rule X doesn’t follow any more.”  What is activist is deciding not to reverse a no-longer-applicable precedent, in order to advance some policy interest.  (Grutter, anyone?)

Recently, there’s been an Orwellian movement on the left to redefine the phrase “judicial (more…)

Deadlines, Schmedlines

Monday, June 14th, 2010

supreme court fountain

It was a case of very strange bedfellows today at the Supreme Court.  The 5-4 decision in Dolan v. U.S. (opinion here) wasn’t split on ideological lines, but on lines of seniority.  The majority consisted of the five most junior Justices, while the senior Justices were joined in a solid dissent.  So Thomas and Alito sided with Breyer, Ginsburg and Sotomayor.  And Roberts and Scalia were united with Stevens and Kennedy.

What gives?  We suggest that it reflects a changing approach to statutory interpretation. 

The case is about how to interpret 18 U.S.C. § 3664(d)(5), which says a sentencing court has to order restitution within 90 days of sentencing, but fails to specify what happens if the deadline is missed.  Specifically, it says that, if losses aren’t calculated 10 days before sentencing, the court “shall set a date for the final determination of the victim’s losses, not to exceed 90 days after sentencing.”  That word “shall” is pretty strong, and its accepted meaning is “must.”  In other words, a court has no choice here, no discretion, but “must” set a restitution amount within 90 days.  But there is no provision for remedies if that doesn’t happen.  So the Court had to fill in the blanks.

The majority reasoned that, given that the whole point of the statute is to ensure speedy restitution to victims, Congress couldn’t possibly have intended for restitution to be forfeited if a court takes too long.  And Congress wasn’t particularly concerned with giving finality to defendants, but anyway so long as the defendant is on notice that restitution is in fact going to be ordered, the defendant isn’t harmed if the deadline is missed. 

The dissenting Justices pointed out that this interpretation makes a nullity of 18 U.S.C. § 3664(d)(5).  The 90-day deadline is no deadline at all.  The majority allows restitution to be ordered at any time after sentencing, thereby gutting the plain language of the (more…)

No More Google Mistrials: A Proposal for Courts to Adapt to Modern Life

Wednesday, March 18th, 2009

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“Google mistrials” are in the news again. Every few years, we hear about mistrials being declared because jurors were caught researching the facts online. It’s not a new phenomenon — there have always been jurors who felt the urge to find out for themselves what really happened — all that’s new is how easy the Internet makes it. And even Google mistrials have been happening for many years.

Jurors naturally want to investigate on their own. It’s normal. After all, the whole purpose of a jury is to arrive at an official version of the facts, jurors do take this job seriously, and they commonly feel hamstrung by rules of evidence that keep them from seeing the whole picture. Taking the initiative can be thought of as a means to achieving true justice. Such initiative is even the major plot device of that old classic “Twelve Angry Men,” commonly seen as a drama that epitomizes true justice.

The justice system, on the other hand, has evolved over the centuries to ensure justice in quite a different way. Instead of allowing trial juries to investigate the facts, the courts carefully limit the facts to which juries are exposed. Before being spoon-fed to the jurors, facts must first be sifted through rules of admissibility, to ensure that only relevant and reliable information is made available. Then both sides in the trial get to challenge, cross-examine and argue about that evidence. This testing by fire, even if intended to obfuscate rather than clarify the facts, is generally seen as serving the higher goal of a just result.

So unlike “Twelve Angry Men,” when a juror in real life goes out into the world beyond the courtroom, and finds evidence that was not presented at trial which could affect the outcome of the case, justice is deemed to have been frustrated. A mistrial is declared, and everyone has to do it over again. The judge, jury, court employees, lawyers, witnesses and parties will have wasted their time, effort and money.

But it used to take some effort to cause such mistrials, and so they were rare. Jurors may have WANTED to go out and do some research on their own, but few had the time and resources to match their inclination. Nowadays, however, everyone is a research specialist. In everyone’s pocket is a miniature Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a phone or PDA with full access to the Internet. Looking up individuals, events, photos, aerial images, detailed maps, weather, weapons, forensics, public records, and practically anything else is now fast, effortless and free.

There are no obstacles to such research, and so everyone does it. And they do it all the time. It’s not a here-and-there thing like visiting a library; it’s part of the habits of people’s daily lives. The simple fact is that it is something people do naturally and routinely throughout their day. Telling someone not to go online these days is as inane as telling them they can’t talk about their day with their spouses and best friends.

Beyond simple inanity, ensuring that jurors comply with a no-Googling rule is simply unworkable in real life. Access to the Internet is ubiquitous in modern life. It’s everywhere. Unless courts are willing to confiscate all wireless devices of any sort at the courthouse, and then sequester every jury at great expense to ensure that they don’t access the web after hours, then courts are simply not going to be able to prevent Googling from happening. Jurors are going to be instructed not to do it, they’re going to do it anyway in ever-increasing numbers, and so mistrials are going to happen in ever-increasing numbers.

It’s time for modern jurisprudence to catch up to modern reality. Independent juror research simply cannot be grounds for mistrial any more.

It’s not such a stretch, by the way. We already allow jurors to take into the jury room any common knowledge and common sense they already possess. In fact, we insist on it. All that would be required of the law would be a presumption that anything available on the net is common knowledge.

That’s a simple fix, and an intellectually honest one.

What would that mean? That would mean that lawyers would have to be a little more diligent in investigating their cases. They’re going to have to presume that anything on the Internet is common knowledge. So if that common knowledge is wrong, they’re first going to have to realize it’s out there, and then debunk it.

So what? That’s what any good lawyer does now, anyway. If there’s a common perception that happens to be a mis-perception, then effective counsel will do their best to educate the jury to at the very least minimize the effects of that misperception. We do this all the time, in all sorts of cases. Prosecutors try to nullify the perception that circumstantial evidence is somehow less reliable than direct evidence. Defense attorneys try to undo the perception that an eyewitness identification is as damning as it gets. There are tons of examples for every kind of case that goes to trial.

The risk, of course, is that by attempting to debunk an attitude, one may merely highlight it to a juror who wouldn’t have otherwise have thought it. That’s the same risk we take now. We try to minimize it during jury selection, if we can. And we judge the risks and take the course we judge to be best.

In short, the law needs to accommodate modern reality by treating data commonly available as if it people were commonly aware of it. The law may already do so, and the courts just haven’t gotten around to realizing it yet. It really may be nothing more than a simple matter of re-interpretation of a longstanding rule.

So no more Google mistrials, please. Efficiency would be improved, and justice would be served.