Tag: overcriminalization

Prosecutorial Misconduct

A federal prosecutor’s misconduct tilted the scales of justice against Antonio Lyons, an Orlando businessman. Lyons served three years in prison before his attorney discovered statements from a witness that differed from the testimony given at trial. That was just the tip of the iceberg.

For more than a week in 2001, the jurors listened to one witness after another, almost all of them prison inmates, describe how Lyons had sold them packages of cocaine. One said that Lyons, who ran clothing shops and nightclubs around Orlando, tried to hire him to kill two drug dealers.

But the federal prosecutors handling the case did not let the jury hear all the facts.

Instead, the prosecutors covered up evidence that could have discredited many of Lyons’ accusers. They never disclosed that a convict who claimed to have purchased hundreds of pounds of cocaine from Lyons struggled to identify his photograph. And they hid the fact that prosecutors had promised to let others out of prison early in exchange for their cooperation.

An investigative project by USA Today documented 201 cases from across the nation in which federal judges found that prosecutors broke the rules. It includes a database and interactive map chronicling prosecutorial misconduct. Read the whole thing.

Check out Tim Lynch’s In the Name of Justice: Leading Experts Reexamine the Classic Article “The Aims of the Criminal Law” and Harvey Silverglate’s Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent for more on the criminal justice system.

Cybertormenting Now Illegal in Louisiana

Louisiana has a new law on the books that outlaws “any electronic textual, visual, written, or oral communication with the malicious and willful intent to coerce, abuse, torment, or intimidate a person under the age of eighteen.”

This is a statute aimed at “cyberbullying,” the increasingly common use of text messages and social media as a vehicle for teenage taunting. The issue caught its first big headlines with the Lori Drew case. The case against the Missouri woman hailed into court in California for suicide-inducing internet harassment was a stretch of an existing federal statute that was ultimately thrown out. The government continues to contend that violating a website’s terms of service is a federal crime.

The federal cyberbullying statute proposed last year was a monstrosity. Felony time (up to two years) for a statute that will primarily be used against minors is excessive. There is no dedicated federal juvenile justice system, and this is not a good excuse to create one. Harvey Silverglate, Cato Adjunct Scholar and author of Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent, testified at the hearings last fall.

The state laws aimed at cyberbullying are generally less onerous than the proposed federal one. The crime is a misdemeanor, and offenders under the age of seventeen are directed to the juvenile justice system. As Eugene Volokh points out, this law is still pretty bad:

Would publishing an online editorial — or a blog post — condemning an underage criminal for his crimes qualify as “malicious and willful intent to … abuse [or] torment”? Or would it not be “malicious” because it would be justified by righteous indignation (in which case I take it courts would have to decide what indignation is righteous and what is not)? Note that the law isn’t limited to messages sent only to the target, but includes speech published to the world at large as well.

Would sending a message castigating an ex-lover for cheating (assuming both the ex-lover and the sender are 17) qualify as “malicious and willful intent to … abuse [or] torment”? What if the message “speak[s] insultingly, harshly, and unjustly” (unjustly, that is, in the view of the judge), which is the dictionary definition of “abuse” that seems most relevant to speech?

So either the law is too broad, or it will be narrowed only by reading “malicious” as limited to speech that courts dislike — which raises the risk of impermissible content and viewpoint discrimination. And until the narrowing takes place (and maybe even after that), the law will be remarkably vague.

The exception for religious speech is also probably unconstitutional, because it treats nonreligious speech worse than religious speech. Cf. R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul (holding that content-based distinctions are presumptively unconstitutional even when they operate within an unprotected category of speech).

Volokh has provided excellent coverage of the development of this law – from proposal, to adoption, and even the scrivener’s error that purports to protect free speech from cyberbullying charges via the state constitution’s right-to-bail provision. He coined the “cybertormenting” term as well, which has the rhetorical flair appropriate for a legislative overreach of this magnitude.

Overcriminalization in the Financial Reform Legislation

The Heritage Foundation and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) made a stir by announcing their joint report, Without Intent: How Congress is Eroding the Criminal Intent Requirement in Federal Law. The report highlights the growth of federal criminal provisions in the 109th Congress. Many criminal statutes are drafted without the traditional requirement of criminal intent. When there is no requirement that the government prove you “willfully” or “knowingly” broke the law, mistakes are treated the same as intentional criminality. Some laws are written so broadly that it is impossible for anyone to know what conduct is illegal. Criminal provisions are included in statutes that are never reviewed by the judiciary committees of either chamber of Congress.

The NACDL has a follow-up analysis of the financial regulatory reform currently being considered by Congress. The Restoring American Financial Stability Act of 2010 has passed both houses and is heading into committee.

This 1600-page bill does everything that the Without Intent report warned against. The “reckless disregard” intent requirement is imported from tort law in several provisions and many others have no mental state requirement at all. New bribery and mail/wire fraud provisions are included where none are necessary. Bribery and fraud are already illegal.

Read the whole thing (direct .pdf link here).

Ninja Bureaucrats on the Loose

Quinn Hillyer has an excellent piece at the Washington Times highlighting the simultaneously farcical and frightening use of armed agents in enforcing suspected regulatory violations.

”The government,” wrote 50-year-old Denise Simon, “is too big to fight.” With those words, in a note to her 17-year-old son, Adam, she explained why she was committing suicide (via carbon monoxide) three days after 10 visibly armed IRS agents in bulletproof vests had stormed her home on Nov. 6, 2007, in search of evidence of tax evasion. Her 10-year-old daughter, Rachel, was there with Simon when the agents stormed in.

“I cannot live in terror of being accused of things I did not do,” she wrote to Adam. To the rest of the world, in a separate suicide note, she wrote: “I am currently a danger to my children. I am bringing armed officers into their home. I am compelled to distance myself from them for their safety.”

The IRS is not the lone culprit. The EPA, National Park Service, Small Business Administration and even the Railroad Retirement Board have acquired a taste for tactical enforcement of administrative sanctions.

Read the whole thing. And when you’re done, check out Tim Lynch’s book on the proper role of the criminal law, Radley Balko’s work on the unwarranted expansion of SWAT teams within American law enforcement, and the Heritage Foundation’s report on the uncontrolled growth of the federal criminal code.

Without Intent

One of the major problems with the growing body of federal crimes – over 4,500 and counting, expanding at the rate of 500 each decade – is that many lack the traditional requirement that the defendant has acted with a guilty mind, or mens rea. Highlighting the overcriminalization of nearly everything is necessary to educate the citizenry and put pressure on politicians not to pass overbroad and ill-defined criminal offenses. At some point, however, Congress must act to address the existing flawed statutes and put procedural barriers between bad ideas and the federal criminal code.

Enter the Heritage Foundation and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers with their groundbreaking report, Without Intent: How Congress is Eroding the Criminal Intent Requirement in Federal Law.

The report studies the legislation proposed or passed by the 109th Congress (2005-2006) and finds that a majority lacked an adequate mens rea requirement. The report closes with a strong case for several fundamental changes in the way that Congress creates criminal laws:

  • Enact default rules of interpretation ensuring that guilty-mind requirements are adequate to protect against unjust conviction.
  • Codify the rule of lenity, which grants defendants the benefit of the doubt when Congress fails to legislate clearly.
  • Require adequate judiciary committee oversight of every bill proposing criminal offenses or penalties.
  • Provide detailed written justification for and analysis of all new federal criminalization.
  • Redouble efforts to draft every federal criminal offense clearly and precisely.

This report is indicative of a broad effort developing across the political spectrum to fix a federal criminal code that has become disconnected from traditional notions of punishing blameworthy conduct. Northwestern Law’s Searle Center on Law, Regulation and Economic Growth held its 2009 Judicial Symposium on Criminalization of Corporate Conduct.

The Heritage Foundation is hosting an event highlighting the findings of Without Intent on Monday, May 24 that can also be viewed online.

The Crusade against Sexting

As my colleague Tim Lynch pointed out in this post, the Third Circuit recently upheld an injunction against a prosecutor who threatened charges against teenagers who engaged in “sexting.” A conviction would have turned these minors into registered sex offenders for flirting via cellphone. Professor Eugene Volokh has more on the decision.

“Sexting” is sending an explicit photo of yourself to your significant other, and is an increasingly common occurrence with high school–aged teens. It’s dumb — those digits don’t ever go away, and they can come back to embarrass you — but it shouldn’t make you a sex offender.

Unfortunately, the laws don’t reflect this sensible distinction between poor teenage judgment (but I repeat myself) and intentional criminality. I don’t think this guy is a threat to society, but he’s a registered sex offender now.

Even staunch conservative Andy McCarthy expressed concern about the heavy mandatory minimums for possession of child pornography over at The Corner. First-time offenders can get 15-year minimum sentences, more than some of the mobsters that McCarthy prosecuted as an assistant U.S. attorney. As McCarthy puts it:

I think that’s nuts. And mind you, compared to the average person (and even the average prosecutor), I am Atilla the Hun: I would not have the slightest problem imposing capital punishment on the people who actually produce and “perform” in these depictions in which young children are sexually abused…

But the mandatory minimums have to be sensible — “Doing it for the children” is not a rationale for failing to distinguish the truly evil from the venial.

This is why Vermont legislators carved out an exemption for sexting so that teens would not be charged as child pornographers and registered as sex offenders. The video at the link shows Vermont State Senator John Campbell making the case for such a legal distinction:

If a 14- or 15-year old girl, let’s say, decides to send a photograph of her breast to her boyfriend who is 15, she has just then become a transmitter of child pornography and he is in possession of child pornography, and as such, then they are now on the lifetime registry, the sex offender registry. So take that a little bit further, and see what’s going to happen. We have a child who now, as a registered sex offender, if they are lucky to get into college, because they have to register when they get to college. If they’re fortunate enough to get there, and they want to, let’s say, go into a teaching profession. Do you think that they’re going to be hired as a teacher when they have been charged with possession of child pornography? The answer is probably not.

Internet safety advocate Donna Rice Hughes responds: “They don’t have to go into a sex offender registry. There is prosecutorial discretion currently in the child pornography laws.”

We should not create a criminal code broad enough to give prosecutors the ability to charge anybody with something, and then leave it to the prosecutors’ good sense to rein themselves in.

It would certainly be dangerous if the legislature could set a net large enough to catch all possible offenders and leave it to the courts to step inside and say who could be rightfully detained, and who should be set at large.”

— Chief Justice Morrison Waite, United States v. Reese, 92 U.S. 214, 221 (1875)

The problem goes beyond sexting. Last year the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security held a hearing on “cyberbullying” legislation that would have criminalized using the internet to hurt someone else’s feelings. Setting aside the First Amendment issues with such a concept, this was a bill directed at making a federal felony out of teenagers’ rude conduct, in spite of the fact that there are no federal juvenile detention facilities to deal with this newly criminalized class of citizens.

Vermont’s sexting fix is a good start, but we have a long way to go before our laws again reflect traditional notions of criminal justice.

Felony Charges for Recording a Plainclothes Officer

Yesterday I wrote about the University of Maryland student beaten by police and falsely charged with assault during a post-game celebration. I concluded with a warning that a law barring citizens from taking photos or videos of law enforcement officers (such as those in force in Great Britain) would have prevented the false charges and beating from coming to light.

I did not know that Maryland was already heading that direction. Video:

Anthony Graber was riding his motorcycle on I-95 in Maryland, speeding and popping wheelies and recording the experience with a helmet cam. An unmarked car cuts him off as he slows for traffic, and a man in a hoodie and jeans jumps out with a gun in his hand. Five seconds after the armed man has exited his vehicle and approached Graber, he identifies himself as a Maryland State Trooper. Graber accepts a speeding ticket and posts video of the experience on YouTube. (HT Armed Liberal)

If that were the end of it – a law enforcement officer recklessly creates a situation that could prompt a firefight by provoking a law-abiding citizen with a concealed carry permit (because the officer’s outward appearance suggested a criminal attack was underway) – I wouldn’t be writing this. But the Maryland State’s Attorneys are now charging Graber with unlawfully recording the incident. Police have seized his computer and he faces felony charges.

Maryland is working hard to justify its status as least-free state in the union. Find your state’s ranking here.