Posts Tagged ‘statutory construction’

Let’s Make a New Law!

Thursday, October 24th, 2013

Any moderately well-informed person these days is aware of the shocking injustices that happen whenever criminal laws get written by people who don’t really understand what criminal law is, or how it works. (Brilliant summary here.) They tend to create crimes that are ill-defined, overbroad, and usually an overreaction to the perceived harm. The results can be pretty bad.

How much more cause for concern, then, when the proposed crime violates not only the fundamental principles of criminal jurisprudence, but cherished individual rights that have nothing to do with crime?

And how much more cause for concern, then, when those who catch potential problems are not engaged in thoughtful debate, but are instead shouted down and accused of malicious and reprehensible conduct?

It looks like that’s what’s been going on recently in an ongoing debate over proposed “Revenge Porn” legislation that’s floating around out there. At first the shenanigans were amusing to watch, but lately it’s turned into a distressing train wreck online. A law has been proposed in reaction to something with a lot of emotional pull, thoughtful people have voiced concerns that it may be a bad law, and its proponents have responded less with reasoned debate than with emotional backlash. Those who disagree are shouted down as stalkers and assholes; their comments are deleted so that others may not see them.

Ignoring whether either side is right or wrong, what a terrible blow this has been to the credibility of the law’s proponents. Think how insecure they must be in their own assertions to react so defensively. How much confidence can than inspire in the rest of us?

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“Revenge Porn” is pretty much what it sounds like. You’re in a relationship with someone, they let you have some nude pix, then there’s a breakup and you feel bitter and to get back at them you post their nudes online for the world to see. It’s a nasty, cruel thing to do. It’s not hard to imagine society thinking the practice to be so bad that it deserves to be punished. It’s easy, in other words, to see Revenge Porn as something that might be criminalized.

Some law professors have been pushing a model statute that would criminalize the practice. So far, no big deal. This is something that law professors are expected to do.

None appear to be professors or practitioners of criminal law, though. That’s not encouraging. Those reviewing the language will therefore probably want to keep an extra-sharp lookout for things like imprecise (or missing) mens rea, over-inclusive definitions, and conflated or confused concepts, etc. Nothing personal, just a normal precaution. You get this stuff all the time.

An extra wrinkle comes from the fact that posting a nude picture of your ex counts as “speech” for First Amendment purposes. And the First Amendment doesn’t let the government criminalize speech, except in very tightly controlled circumstances. Even the most awful, painful, hurtful and distressing speech (such as that of the Westboro Baptist “Church”) is not something that gets criminalized in this country.

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This is a criminal law blog, not a First Amendment forum, and so it’d be somewhat off-topic to get into whether or not Revenge Porn is something that can be criminalized without running afoul of Freedom of Speech. But it is pertinent to note that the professors’ interpretation of the 1st Amendment here is not universal — and it is also relevant to examine how they have reacted to the ensuing disagreement.

To be fair, the law’s proponents are from academia, where disagreement (often) = bullying and criticism (sometimes) = hate speech. Where speech is generally not very well protected, in the first place. Where debate can be frowned upon and contrary points of view shouted down, removed from newspaper bins, at times even persecuted and hounded out. You ain’t seen petty vindictiveness until you’ve seen someone challenge the orthodoxy. You don’t get this from the better professoriate, of course — there are plenty of wonderful academics who welcome healthy debate, the chance to make their case or (as the case may be) get a new point of view. But there are plenty of others who prefer to point to their credentials and their peer-acceptance as proof of their correctness, and who get the most defensive when challenged.

You can usually tell which kind of academic you’re dealing with based on how they react to a contrary position. The ones who are pushing the Revenge Porn law, sadly, seem to be falling into the lesser camp so far. This is not good for their credibility.

So to the extent that First Amendment practitioners are in dispute with these particular academics, one might be inclined to conclude that the practitioners could perhaps be more likely to be correct.

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But again, this is a criminal law blog. So how does the law look from the perspective of our criminal jurisprudence?

Not… not so great.

Here’s what the model statute says:

Whoever intentionally discloses a photograph, film, videotape, recording, or any other reproduction of the image of another person whose intimate parts are exposed or who is engaged in an act of sexual contact without that person’s consent, under circumstances in which the person has a reasonable expectation of privacy, commits a crime. A person who has consented to the capture or possession of an image within the context of a private or confidential relationship retains a reasonable expectation of privacy with regard to disclosure beyond that relationship.

(a) Definitions: For the purposes of this section,
1) “disclose” means sell, manufacture, give, provide, lend, trade, mail, deliver, transfer, publish, distribute, circulate, disseminate, present, exhibit, advertise or offer.
2) “intimate parts” means the naked genitals, pubic area, buttocks, or female adult nipple of the person.
3) “sexual contact” means sexual intercourse, including genital-genital, oral-genital, anal-genital, or oral-anal, whether between persons of the same or opposite sex.

(b) Exceptions:
1) This section shall not apply to lawful and common practices of law enforcement, the reporting of unlawful conduct, or legal proceedings.
2) This section shall not apply to situations involving voluntary exposure in public or commercial settings.

…..

Holy cannoli, where to begin…?

The first problem is one of good old mens rea: It criminalizes disclosing the image without the subject’s consent, regardless of whether the actor knew about it one way or the other, or meant to do so without consent. It criminalizes the act where the subject had a reasonable expectation of privacy, regardless of whether the actor knew or had any reason to know it. The only mens rea here is whether the image was disclosed intentionally.

It’s a strict liability crime. Whenever you see that, huge red flags should be popping up in your head screaming “INJUSTICE AHEAD!” Sure it doesn’t criminalize accidentally dropping a photo out of your wallet, but it does criminalize showing it to people with the mistaken belief that your wife was cool with it — or without the knowledge that she had since changed her mind.

The second problem is one of conflated concepts. “Reasonable expectation of privacy” is a concept of Fourth Amendment law — of procedural rights, not of criminal liability. It is a term of art that has been defined in a fairly convoluted fashion over the years in such a way that the average layman couldn’t give you an accurate definition of the phrase if his life depended on it. His liberty would depend on it, here. The authors probably don’t mean for this phrase to have the meaning & baggage it carries in Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. They just think it sounds good. And so there is inherent confusion in the statutory language. It is not clear what is actually meant here. And where there is vagueness in criminal law, where there is room for interpretation, there is room for cops and prosecutors to screw over the regular Joe. And if you don’t think that happens, you’re not getting out enough. When you see conflated concepts and room for interpretation, those red flags ought to be screaming at you even louder.

The third problem is one of unclear writing. Seriously, what do the “consent” and “reasonable expectation of privacy” clauses modify? Does this refer to images that are disclosed without consent, or taken without consent? Does this refer to images that were disclosed under circumstances where someone had an expectation of privacy, or taken under such circumstances? Is it criminalizing pictures of sexual acts that were nonconsensual? What about images that were taken by someone else, and then given to you by your ex? What about images that someone else forwarded to you, or you found online, and had no way of knowing whether they were consensually/privately taken or disclosed (whichever verb applies)? It can be read all of these different ways.

There is literally no way of knowing for sure what conduct is criminalized here. As written, it outlaws all kinds of behavior its authors probably didn’t mean to punish. It is overbroad as hell. You hear those red flags? Since when do flags scream? These are. Get some earplugs.

Strictly from a criminal perspective, this is a god-awful statute. It’s another one of those “think of the children” “take back the night” “let’s name a statute after the victim” kinds of legislation that pave an eight-lane superhighway to hell with their good intentions.

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You want a statute that works? (Again, ignoring any First Amendment concerns.) Here’s one I banged out in court this morning while waiting for a case to be called. Zero research or deep thought went into it:

…..

DEFINITIONS:

(A) “Private Sexual Image” = any media containing:

(i) an image taken in a non-public place, and in a non-commercial setting…

(ii) of a living person whose identity is readily ascertained from the contents of the image…

(iii) and depicting that person’s unclothed genitalia, buttocks, or female breasts, or depicting that person engaged in sexual intercourse, oral sex, manual-genital contact, or other such sexual behavior…

(iv) and which has not previously been “distributed” as that word is defined herein.

 

(B) “Distribute” = make publicly available by any means, including displaying in public or in a publicly-accessible medium, sharing via any communication or peer-to-peer arrangement, and any other method that makes a duplicate of the image available to others. Excluded are private acts of showing the image, without duplication or transmission, to individuals or small groups of people.

 

CRIMES:

Any person who, with the intent to harass, shame, or defame another person:

(1) distributes an image he knows, or a reasonable person similarly situated would know, to be a Private Sexual Image of that other person;

(2) when he knows, or a reasonable person similarly situated would know, that he does so without the consent of that other person; and

(3) thereby does harass, shame or defame that other person

is guilty of a Fucking Nasty Crime.

 

Any person who, with the intent to harass, shame, or defame another person:

(1) distributes an image he knows, or a reasonable person similarly situated would know, to be a Private Sexual Image of that other person;

(2) when he knows, or a reasonable person similarly situated would know, that he does so without the consent of that other person

is guilty of a Nasty Crime.

 

Any person who

(1) intentionally distributes an image he knows, or a reasonable person similarly situated would know, to be a Private Sexual Image of another person;

(2) when he knows that, or recklessly disregards whether, he does so without the consent of that other person

is guilty of a Crime.

 

DEFENSES.

It shall be an affirmative defense to all of these crimes that, when the image in question was originally taken, it was reasonable to expect that it would later be viewed or possessed by people other than those who were a subject of the image, the person taking the image, and the person accused of distributing the image.

It shall be an affirmative defense to the Fucking Nasty crime that the image in question was transmitted to the accused via electronic or other means whereby the image could be “forwarded” or otherwise duplicated and transmitted to third parties.

…..

There, quick and easy. There’s probably stuff to fix in there, as well, and again who knows if it’d pass constitutional muster on other grounds, but it’s hardly as overbroad or prone to injustice as the one those professors are promoting.

I bet you can do it even better. You are cordially invited to tear my suggestion apart in the comments, and provide your own language. Have at it!

Grammar Police Fail

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

 

So everyone from the Washington Post to Fark is reporting gleefully about the recent acquittal of a Northern Virginia man charged with failing to stop for a school bus picking up kids.  The defense attorney is getting kudos for pointing out that the law, when rewritten 40 years ago, omitted the word “at.”  The resulting language, agreed the judge, only criminalizes a driver who fails to stop a school bus that was stopped.  Absurd, but Virginia doesn’t let judges add words to statutes by interpretation, even if they’re absurd.

So far, so good.  We’re all in favor of forcing the government to do its job properly before being able to impose a criminal punishment.  And one of our pet peeves is poorly-drafted statutes and regulations, many of which seem to have been written by junior high dropouts.  Passing a stopped school bus is incredibly dangerous and richly deserving of criminalization, but we have no problem with someone getting off on a technicality of bad drafting.  A poorly or vaguely drafted statute does not provide the notice of criminal liability that is a basic element of Due Process, and the state shouldn’t be allowed to punish someone for violating it. (See “Honest Services.”)

But on actually reading the statute, we have to say the judge screwed up.  Here’s what it says:

A person is guilty of reckless driving who fails to stop, when approaching from any direction, any school bus which is stopped on any highway, private road or school driveway for the purpose of taking on or discharging children.

The error here is not the omission of the word “at” after the word “stop.”  It’s the inclusion of a gratuitous comma after the word “direction” — a comma which is artless, but nonetheless does not change the meaning of the sentence.

Here’s the sentence with the “at” included:

A person is guilty of reckless driving who fails to stop at, when approaching from any direction, any school bus which is stopped on any highway, private road or school driveway for the purpose of taking on or discharging children.

That reads even worse.  That’s where the “at” was before amendment.  (But the statute also had a lot of other language as well that was deleted or replaced.  It read fine before it was amended.)

Here’s the sentence with the gratuitous comma removed:

A person is guilty of reckless driving who fails to stop, when approaching from any direction any school bus which is stopped on any highway, private road or school driveway for the purpose of taking on or discharging children.

This makes perfect grammatical sense.  It’s still artlessly written, but it scans.  You’re guilty if there’s a bus stopped to pick up or drop off kids, and you don’t stop, no matter whether you’re coming from behind or ahead or the side.

As written, it still says that.  The extra comma (a bane of ancient legal writing) doesn’t change the meaning one way or the other.

Speaking as a card-carrying Grammar Nazi, the judge was simply wrong to think it meant you’re guilty if you fail to stop a school bus you approached.  The same misreading could be used to say you’re guilty if you fail to stop your own car for the purpose of taking on or discharging children.  The Commonwealth cannot appeal from an acquittal, so this case is over, but the defense really was in the wrong here.

How would we have written it?  To convey the same meaning, we’d probably draft something like this:

A person is guilty of reckless driving if he fails to come to a full stop a safe distance away from a school bus that is stopped on any road for the purpose of taking on or discharging children, regardless of the direction in which he is traveling.

Or some such.

Anyway.  Kudos to the defense lawyer — it’s still a perfectly valid victory, and in a way it’s nice to have a foolish judicial decision in the defense’s favor for a change.  But it’s a good thing that driver didn’t hit a kid.  His actions still count as reckless under any definition of the word.

Just Around the Corner

Friday, October 1st, 2010

The Supreme Court is back in session on Monday, and we’re not ashamed to admit that we’re excited.  As always.  And they’re starting off the argument season with a bang — a critical issue on federal sentencing of gun crimes.  Can’t wait.

The case is actually two cases, Abbott v. U.S. and Gould v. U.S.  The issue is just what the heck 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) means.

§ 924(c) says, if you’re convicted of possessing a gun during a narcotics crime, you get a 5-year minimum sentence, to be served consecutively.  Unless, that is, “a greater minimum sentence is otherwise provided by this subsection or any other law.”

Such straightforward language, and yet capable of so many different interpretations.  Is it written to make sure that you get at least 5 years if you carried a gun during a drug crime?  Or is the point to make sure that you get at least an extra 5 years, added to the original sentence?

Does it mean that, if you’re already facing a mandatory minimum greater than 5 years for the gun, then § 924(c) doesn’t even apply?

Does it mean that, if you’re (more…)

Skilling Decision: Good for Justice, Bad for Jurisprudence

Thursday, June 24th, 2010

jeff skilling

It looks like we spotted the trend.  Unfortunately.

Last week we noted that, when faced with an ambiguous statute, some on the Supreme Court are now willing to read new language into the statute, rather than toss it back to Congress to do it right.  And we wondered if that might be a harbinger of what was to come in the “honest services” cases of Black, Weyrach and Skilling.

Well, those cases came down this morning, and sure enough the majority decided to read in new language, rather than toss out the statute for being vague.

It’s great for the defendants, whose honest-services convictions got tossed.  But to get there the Court had to change the rules.  Now, judicial invention is a perfectly acceptable method of statutory interpretation… so long as the new language is what “everybody knows” the statute really meant to say.  And that’s bloody dangerous. 

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We’ve been paying close attention to this issue (see other posts here, here, here and here), as have many others, because the feds love charging people with honest services fraud.  It’s so vague and open-ended, that it potentially criminalizes any activity that’s outside one’s job description.  That makes it a great catchall when you can’t prove something more substantive.  But it’s also not at all what Congress intended.

“Honest services” fraud was originally a judge-created law.  There wasn’t any statute criminalizing it, it just sort evolved via common law, accepted in all the Circuits.  But we don’t do common-law crimes in this country, for one thing, and the mail fraud statute didn’t say anything about intangible rights, so in 1987 the Supreme Court threw out the common-law version of honest services fraud.  If Congress wanted to criminalize it, then that was up to Congress.

The idea was pretty simple: If you had a position of trust, and you abused that position for private gain (say, by taking bribes or kickbacks), then you were depriving people of the services you ought to have been giving them had you been honest.  You were getting paid under the table to do your job wrong.  So in 1988 Congress came up with 18 U.S.C. § 1346.

But the language didn’t say anything about abusing a position of trust.  Instead, it just said that (more…)

Another reason to hate NY’s “Hate Crimes” law

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

snake_oil_hate_criminal

“Hate” is not an element of New York’s “hate crime” law.  You don’t have to hate to commit a hate crime.  Instead, the law merely requires that you have “a belief or perception” regarding a person’s race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, religion, religious practice, age, disability or sexual orientation.  (The legislature could have saved a lot of bother by simply saying “a characteristic of a person over which that person has no control.”  That’s the policy they’re pursuing, even if they don’t realize it.)

There’s a list of eligible crimes at PL §485.05(3).  If you commit one of those crimes, and if you either chose your victim or committed the crime because of such “a belief or perception,” then you are guilty of a hate crime in New York, and now face harsher punishment.

This is a pretty vague statute.  You don’t need to have any specific belief or perception about someone, just “a” belief or perception.

The Queens DA’s office — already known more for its zeal than for its sense of justice — has now taken that vagueness to its logical extreme.  They’ve taken the reductio ad absurdum and made it office policy.

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The New York Times reports today that the Queens DA has been going after people who defraud old people, not because of any animus towards old people, but because of a belief about old people.  Namely, that old people are easy to defraud. 

Ordinarily, such frauds do not carry any mandatory jail time.  But if charged as a hate crime, they carry mandatory upstate prison time.  Can it be that the legislature really intended this outcome?

By the Queens DA’s logic, every scam targeted at the elderly is a hate crime, because the scam rests on a belief that old folks are easy to scam. 

By this same logic, any (more…)

Is Dolan a Clue to the Upcoming “Honest Services” Decisions?

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010
tammany_tiger
We’re still waiting to hear how the Supreme Court decides the trio of cases on “honest services” fraud.  In the meantime, we’re wondering if yesterday’s Dolan decision might be a harbinger of what’s to come.

In Dolan, the Court was dealing with a vague statute.  It left out a crucial statement of what ought to happen if the court missed a deadline.  They could have sent it back to Congress to specify what ought to happen.  After oral arguments, during which both the progressive Stevens and the formalist Scalia seemed inclined to do just that, we figured it was probably going to happen.  But we figured wrong. 

Instead, the Court split 5-4, not on ideological lines, but on seniority.  The five most junior justices agreed to craft their own remedy language for the statute, based on what they felt the general purpose was supposed to be.  The four more senior justices wanted Congress to amend the statute itself, and pointed out that the juniors’ interpretation actually undermined the existing language already in the statute.

We wonder if we’re going to see a similar split (and similar strange bedfellows) in the “honest services” cases of Black, Weyrach, and (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…)

Supreme Court Finds Animal-Cruelty Law to be Unconstitutionally Overbroad

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

supreme court fountain

Congress screwed up again.

Animal cruelty sucks. It’s against the law, in one form or another, in every single state. The feds wanted to outlaw it, as well. But they have that pesky jurisdictional hurdle to overcome, which they always try to get around by invoking interstate commerce. So in 1999, Congress passed a law making it a crime — not to commit acts of animal cruelty — but to have a photo or video of a living animal being wounded or killed, with the intention to place that depiction into interstate commerce for commercial gain. 18 U.S.C. §48.

That’s pretty awkward. And it doesn’t outlaw the actual cruelty itself. It’s sort of meant to stop animal cruelty from happening, by making it a federal crime to sell videos of it. Which is pretty lame and stupid, hardly a deterrent at all.

The law was really intended to focus on “crush videos,” which showed the killing of kitties and puppies, for an audience that derived sexual pleasure from such images. See Internet R. 34. The acts depicted in such videos are already against the law in every state, but there you go.

So Robert Stevens was a pit bull enthusiast and documentary film maker. He sold videos that were not “crush videos,” but which did depict dogfighting. Stevens said they were educational, to provide perspective on the phenomenon. The feds said they violated section 48.

This morning, an almost unanimous Court ruled that the statute is unconstitutionally overbroad. (Read the opinion here.) Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roberts focused not on the First Amendment issues that had been raised (which would have required the carving out of new First Amenment law), but instead zeroed in on the fact that this statute is supposed to apply only to specific types of “extreme” material.

Overbreadth analysis doesn’t require the making of new constitutional law. All you do is (more…)

Grammar Schooled: Over-Zealous Feds Get an “F” in Adverbs

Monday, May 4th, 2009

social-security-card.png

In a sort-of unanimous opinion today, the Supreme Court reversed the conviction of a Mexican who’d tried to get a job by using counterfeit Social Security and Alien Registration cards along with a fake name and date of birth. He’d been convicted of aggravated identity theft, 18 U. S. C. §1028A(a)(1) — a federal crime for “knowingly” using “a means of identification of another person.”

There was no evidence that this guy, named Flores, knew that the Social Security cards (plural) or Alien Registration cards (yes, plural) he’d tried to use had actually belonged to anyone else. And in fact, they didn’t, as they were made-up counterfeits. The feds said it wasn’t necessary to prove that Flores knew it was someone else’s ID. All they needed to prove, they said, was that Flores knew that… well… that he was using a means of identification.

The trial court, for some reason, bought that argument. Flores then decided to forego a jury and let the judge decide the case. The judge found him guilty of aggravated identity theft. On appeal, the Eighth Circuit agreed with the trial judge’s ruling.

Writing for the Court today in Flores-Figueroa v. U.S., Justice Breyer gave the feds (and the trial judge, and the Circuit) an “F” in basic English grammar. The phrase “knowingly using someone else’s ID” has a simple plain meaning, which is that you knew it was someone else’s ID. Nobody in their right mind would expect the word “knowing” to only modify the verb “using.” Nobody with a third-grader’s grasp of English would think it did not modify the verb phrase “using someone else’s ID.” In fact, to read the sentence the way the feds wanted to would make no sense whatsoever.

The feds, for their part, could not present a single example of a statute being interpreted the way they wanted this one to be interpreted. Their arguments were just lame. And so all nine Justices agreed that this conviction needed to be reversed.

But not all nine could agree with the rest of Breyer’s reasoning. And neither can we. If Breyer had stopped right here, this would have been a great opinion. But he didn’t stop there. Instead, as pointed out by (still concurring) Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito, he added some unnecessary extra bits of reasoning that only serve to weaken the Court’s opinion.

All three properly called him out for making a baseless statement that courts “ordinarily” read the mens rea of “knowingly” to apply to every element of the crime. Breyer said that there are certainly examples where “knowingly” does not apply to every element. For example, it’s illegal to knowingly transport someone under 18 years old across state lines for prostitution. But you didn’t have to know that the victim was under 18 to be convicted of this crime. The law doesn’t care whether you knew that element or not. All you had to do was know that you were transporting the victim across state lines for prostitution.

Scalia remained “agnostic” on whether courts “ordinarily” interpret laws this way. But Breyer seems to imply that courts should interpret laws this way, and Scalia cautioned against that firmly. “It is one thing to infer the common-law tradition of a mens rea requirement, where Congress has not addressed the mental element of a crime,” he said (a tip of the hat to one of Breyer’s own dissents last week). But “it is something else to expand a mens rea requirement that the statutory text has carefully limited.

Scalia also raised another good point, that Breyer shouldn’t have gone on about the legislative history here. “Relying on the statement of a single Member of Congress or an unvoted-upon (and for all we know unread) Committee Report to expand a statute beyond the limits its text suggests is always a dubious enterprise.” That is especially bad, he added, when doing so would criminalize acts that the text would otherwise permit.

* * * * *

It is clear that the feds improperly charged Flores with identity theft here. Although he clearly used a false identity, and absolutely tried to pass off counterfeit identification documents, it was equally clear that he had never stolen or used anyone else’s ID.

Why did the feds charge him with a crime he clearly hadn’t committed? It’s not as if they didn’t have other stuff to charge him with. Were they just not thinking? Did they just not understand what the law said in plain English? Did they just not care? Or were they intentionally trying to stick it to him?

Hmm… that’s a nice little mens rea question. Their reasons determine their culpability. Were they idiots (and therefore bad at their job, but not bad people), or were they abusing their power (and therefore bad prosecutors, and bad people)? What do you think?