Posts Tagged ‘restitution’

Q&A Roundup Part 4

Friday, September 18th, 2015

The officer gets his overtime. The defendant gets his freedom. But the victim doesn’t get his property back. If someone steals all of the money in my bank account, the police find a paper trail that shows who did it, but the courts suppress the evidence because the evidence was acquired unlawfully, then can I still sue them in civil court to get my money back or does the money become the thief’s property for all intents and purposes? Or is there a third option that I do not know about?

The victim’s reaction is irrelevant to criminal law.

Criminal law is about whether the state can punish an offender. The victim isn’t a party to the case, but is merely a source of evidence. The prosecutor doesn’t represent the victim’s interests in restitution, but the state’s interest in punishment. Restitution may be ordered as part of a sentence, but it doesn’t have to be.

But just as the victim’s rights aren’t part of the criminal case, whether the criminal case pans out or not has little bearing on the victim’s rights. Even if the criminal case gets dropped or dismissed, the victim can still exercise his rights. He seeks justice, not in criminal court where he is not a party, but in civil court.

It is civil court, not criminal court, that is about righting wrongs. If someone harms you, you can sue them in civil court for money damages to “make you whole” and compensate you for the harm. If someone stole a particular thing, you can ask for a court order compelling them to give that thing back.

The outcome — or even existence — of a criminal case doesn’t have much effect on exercising your rights in civil court. Different rules apply, they have different standards of proof, and they really are like apples and oranges, so what happens in one court doesn’t really carry over to the other one. It would be unjust to deny people their right to civil justice just because a prosecutor exercised her discretion not to prosecute someone, or because evidence strong enough for a civil case wasn’t enough to meet the higher burden in a criminal one. That’s how someone like O.J. Simpson can be acquitted and unpunished by the criminal courts, and found responsible and liable for money damages for the same act in civil court.

In the example you’re responding to, the guy apparently stole a coin collection. We don’t know that the collection itself was ever recovered by the police. If it was, it was probably saved to be used in evidence. Regardless of the outcome of the case, police departments typically have a procedure for property owners to reclaim their stuff afterwards. If the thief had already sold the coins, however, there’s nothing for the police to return, so the victim would have to sue the thief for the value of what was stolen.

People do forget sometimes that civil law and criminal law are two entirely different and separate things (heck, I never knew this myself until after I started law school). That can lead to confusion when they expect the criminal law to enforce their rights against the offender. In criminal law it is the offender who has rights, not the victim. The only “justice” a victim typically gets from a criminal case is a sense of retribution — the offender got harmed, too. For the more meaningful justice of being restored or at least compensated, you need to take it to civil court. That’s what it’s for.

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…)

Stop the Presses! Threat of Punishment Might Work!

Thursday, December 4th, 2008

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The respected journal Science will publish tomorrow a research study that suggests that the threat of punishment can keep people from getting in trouble. Stop the presses!

You’d think that this might have been studied before. But previous studies (focusing on freeloading vs. pro-social behavior) only focused on short-term outcomes. This new study, on the other hand, found in the long term the threat of punishment becomes deeply embedded in people’s subconscious, so that they come to fear getting in trouble.

You’d think this might have been too obvious to require study. But as Karl Sigmund of the University of Vienna explained to LiveScience.com, “the experimental work is extremely important and timely, as many researchers had voices concern whether punishment is not too costly a tool to promote cooperation.”

Clearly punishment isn’t the only tool out there to affect people’s behavior. Socialization, community involvement, and positive inducements are all strong factors. But we’re going to go out on a limb and say that, until something else comes along that satisfies society’s need for deterrence, removal (and, sadly, retribution), punishment’s going to remain part of our toolbox for a long long time.

[The research was performed by a team led by Simon Gächter at the University of Nottingham.]