New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has commuted the seven‐year sentence of Brian Aitken, the man wrongfully convicted on firearms charges under that state’s draconian gun laws. Good.
While a full pardon seems more appropriate – the judge in this case should have given the jury instructions on the “moving exception” that protected Aitken – this is at least recognition of an injustice and relief for one man and his family.
The New Jersey state judicial system’s webpage describes the grand jury’s function as “a screening mechanism to protect citizens from unfounded charges.” That didn’t happen in this case. For more on this phenomenon, read this Cato Policy Analysis, “A Grand Façade: How the Grand Jury Was Captured by the Government.”
For more Cato work on criminal justice, check out Tim Lynch’s excellent book, In the Name of Justice.
Brian Aitken, a finance student at NYU and economic scholar at the Foundation of Economic Education, ran afoul of New Jersey’s draconian gun laws when he was arrested while transporting two handguns unloaded and locked in the trunk of his car.
After separating from his wife in 2008, Aitken moved from Colorado to his native home of New Jersey the end of that year, to be closer to his son.
Shortly thereafter, in January 2009, Aitken – according to one account – “became distraught, muttered something to his mother, and left his parents’ home in Mount Laurel, NJ,” after his ex‐wife canceled a visit with their son.
At that point, his mother, who is a trained social worker, called the police out of concern. That’s when things went downhill for Aitken. After the police caught up with him, they determined he wasn’t a threat to his or anyone else’s safety, but proceeded to search his car anyway. Upon finding the guns, police pressed weapons charges against Aitken.
New Jersey law makes it nearly impossible to get a concealed carry license, and you can’t otherwise take a gun out of your home unless it is in connection with several enumerated exceptions. Moving from one residence to another is one of the exceptions. Aitken was in the process of moving; it took police over two hours to remove all of his possessions from the car before they found the two guns in the trunk.
The jury never heard about the moving exception, virtually guaranteeing Brian’s conviction.
Yet Judge Morley wouldn’t allow Aitken to claim the exemption for transporting guns between residences. He wouldn’t even let the jury know about it. During deliberations, the jurors asked three times about exceptions to the law, which suggests they weren’t comfortable convicting Aitken. Morley refused to answer them all three times. Gilbert and Nappen, Aitken’s lawyers, say he also should have been protected by a federal law that forbids states from prosecuting gun owners who are transporting guns between residences. Morley would not let Aitken cite that provision either.
Brian Aitken is currently serving seven years in a state prison. Now a website and Facebook page are asking Governor Chris Christie to pardon Aitken.
Gov. Christie has proven a sensible leader and shown political courage in taking on his state’s debt‐ridden “Situation.” Here’s hoping that Christie, a former prosecutor, will see that Aitken’s continued imprisonment does nothing to serve the interests of justice.
You’ve probably heard that a jury found Al Qaeda bomber Ahmed Ghailani guilty on only one out of 286 charges associated with the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.
A predictable debate followed. Glenn Greenwald cited the outcome as proof that the system works, while Liz Cheney, Debra Burlingame and Bill Kristol described the trial as a reckless experiment. Thomas Joscelyn called the trial a miscarriage of justice.
The most insightful commentary I’ve seen is over at Lawfare. Benjamin Wittes and Robert Chesney summed things up pretty well: “Trial in federal court didn’t work out the way the Obama administration wanted, but it wasn’t a disaster – and we can’t honestly say it worked out worse than the military commission alternative would likely have done.”
I’ve disagreed with Wittes on lawfare issues before, but he and Chesney are right on this case: (1) the defendant will serve a minimum of twenty years in jail, possibly life; (2) it’s not certain that the military commissions would have allowed evidence obtained by coercion (Charlie Savage also made this point in his article for the New York Times), (3) the conspiracy conviction in civilian court is solid on appeal, but not necessarily so in a military commission (conspiracy is not a traditional law of war violation, and three sitting Supreme Court justices have questioned its application in that forum); (4) the forum of conviction is less ripe for attack in courts of law and public opinion.
That’s a good outcome.
Pornography producer John Stagliano is on trial in Washington, D.C., accused of interstate trafficking of obscenity. Reason has been producing workmanlike coverage of the trial.
Setting aside the constitutionally difficult prospect of defining obscenity, the trial is replete with procedural anomalies that call into question the basic fairness of the proceedings.
District Court Judge Richard Leon ruled that Stagliano cannot use expert witnesses, and shut the press out of the jury selection process (which, after a full week, has yet to finish). Things don’t bode well for a free and open trial: The courtroom monitors that will display the crucial evidence are all arranged to be out of the sightlines of press and interested citizens, viewable only by jurors and lawyers. If the press and the public cannot see the evidence, how will we know if the trial is fair?
One of the proposed expert witnesses for the defense is University of California Santa Barbara Film Studies Professor Constance Penley, who would have testified to the artistic value of the indicted films. Artistic value is one of the characteristics of non‐obscene materials, so this cripples Stagliano’s defense from the outset. Reason’s interview with Penley is available here.
The judge has even kept the jury selection questionnaire’s secret. Richard Abowitz is covering the trial for Reason. His latest dispatch is available here. Read the whole thing. Additional coverage from The Blog of Legal Times is available here. Full disclosure: Stagliano is a former Cato donor.
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.
That’s what my colleague Tim Lynch’s 2009 volume In the Name of Justice is, according to a glowing review in the new edition of the Loyola Law Review. Tim’s probably too modest to link it himself, so I’ll do that here.
In the review, Professor Laurie L. Levenson of Loyola Law School writes:
I have been teaching criminal law for more than twenty years and the one question I predictably get from my students every year is, “Why do we have to read so much?” Sometimes they add, “Isn’t there one book — one article — that explains all of criminal law?” Ordinarily, I just smile and assign them more reading. However, the recent book, In the Name of Justice reminded me that there is such a work. This book raises nearly every important issue one must consider in critically analyzing criminal law.
In the Name of Justice is structured around Professor Henry M. Hart’s classic 1958 essay “The Aims of the Criminal Law,” and Tim assembled an all‐star team of scholars and practitioners – including Judge Richard Posner, Judge Alex Kozinski, James Q. Wilson, and Alan Dershowitz – to react, criticize, comment, and expand on Hart’s seminal article. Professor Levinson concludes:
Timothy Lynch has done an excellent job of assembling original essays and appendices of previously published essays and speeches on the critical issues in criminal law. The book is a smorgasbord of delights — the real “meat and potatoes” of criminal law. For my taste, the most fulfilling observations actually come from the contributions in the book’s closing materials. Justice Robert H. Jackson’s famous speech to federal prosecutors on their role in the criminal justice system and the function of criminal law is infused with lessons from Hart, as are the other speeches and essays in the Appendices. The aim of criminal law remains elusive, but the journey itself is worth the effort. In the Name of Justice is the perfect manner to explore the journey of understanding and applying our criminal laws.
I couldn’t agree more: I wish I’d had this book when I took Crim Law. Fortunately, it’s available now for law professors, students, and anyone else who wonders whether our burgeoning state and federal criminal codes have become unmoored from the criminal law’s proper purposes.
A modest proposal: Suppose that we decide to streamline our inefficient criminal justice system by treating people under suspicion of involvement with violent crime—whether or not they've been arrested, charged, or even informed of this suspicion—as equivalent to convicted felons. Suppose, then, that we permit them to be stripped of certain constitutionally protected rights at the discretion of the executive branch.
Outrageous? Some depraved brainchild of the Bush administration's Office of Legal Counsel? Actually, it's the editorial position of The New York Times:
Under federal law, people who pose a heightened risk of violence cannot buy or own firearms, including convicted felons, domestic abusers, the seriously mentally ill and several other categories. Suspected terrorist is not one them.
Individuals on the government’s terrorist watch list can be barred from boarding airplanes, but not from purchasing high-powered guns or explosives. Bipartisan legislation in both houses of Congress would end this ridiculous loophole, commonly known as the “terror gap.
The Times does note, before dismissing the fact with the wave of a hand, that "thousands" of people have been found to be on the list improperly. But let's linger a bit longer over this. The terrorist watch list, at last count, boasted about a million entries. When you eliminate variant spellings and duplicate entries—and rest assured that this would be another enormous source of problems—there are about 400,000 unique individuals on the list, of whom some 20,000 are Americans. Thousands more are nominated for inclusion on the list each week.