Ken Lammers, who blogs over at CrimLaw, recently posted a review of my new book, In the Name of Justice. By way of background, the book is an edited collection of essays. The lead essay is a reprint of the 1958 classic, “The Aims of the Criminal Law,” by Harvard Law Professor Henry Hart. Legal and criminal law experts, such as Judge Richard Posner and James Q. Wilson (among others), have written original essays about Hart’s ideas.
Among other things, Hart critiqued the doctrine of strict criminal liability–which essentially dispenses with the requirement of proving someone’s criminal intent. Hart says this is profoundly wrong. The essence of criminal conduct is that the person has done something which is blameworthy. With strict liability, prosecutors can condemn certain persons as “criminals” without proving that they have done anything that is truly blameworthy.
Judge Richard Posner’s essay offers a defense of the strict liability doctrine, but Ken Lammers is not persuaded. Here’s an excerpt:
Posner’s strongest argument is born of the wisdom of ignorance: the statutory rape argument. The statutory rape, best-interest-of-the-child, absolute strict liability is a creature born of emotion divorced from logical thought. We must protect the children at all costs. Therefore, anybody who crosses the line gets convicted no matter the circumstance. “The effect is to induce men to steer well clear of young-looking women, a form of care they would be less likely to use if ignorance were a defense.” (p. 97)
This pretty much brands Posner as someone who has not had actual trial experience. He’s never seen that trial wherein the immature 18 year old defendant (looking all of 14) has “raped” the 14 year old predatory girl (who looked 20) who had a list on her bedroom door of men she aimed to have sex with and had crossed several names off as she achieved her goal. Y’know, the same girl who turned the defendant in because she got mad at him when he found out her age and refused to have sex with her anymore. Guilt via strict liability. I’ve seen at least two cases with facts similar to this in my 8+ years practicing (none at my current locale); persons in larger jurisdictions can probably relate more of the same. This is how the “justice” of strict liability plays out in real life and anyone who thinks that is the proper way for the law to work is clearly engaging in faulty reasoning.
I agree. And statutory rape is just a single example of where the doctrine of strict liability has taken hold. Once that precedent was established, it has expanded elsewhere, as have the injustices. For example, the law bans felons from possessing guns and ammunition. Dane Yirkovsky found a bullet at his girlfriend’s house and put it in a dish on the dresser. Later, police search and find the bullet. Yirkovsky tells them that he put it there. Since he is an ex-con, he gets arrested on a felon-in-possession charge. And with mandatory minimum sentencing in place, he is now serving a fifteen year prison sentence. Under the law, Yirkovsky is “guilty.” But did he do anything that was really blameworthy? Can his conduct really be described as “criminal?”
To learn more about the state of our criminal law, get the book.