Tag: criminal law

Hate Crimes Bill Becomes an Amendment

Unsure about prospects on passing the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act as a stand-alone bill, proponents intend to attach it as an amendment to the Department of Defense Authorization bill. As I have said previously, this bill is an affront to federalism and counterproductive hater-aid.

Federal Criminal Law Power Grab

This legislation awards grants to jurisdictions for the purpose of combating hate crimes. It also creates a substantive federal crime of violent acts motivated by the “actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of any person.”

This is a federalization of a huge number of intrastate crimes. It is hard to imagine a rape case where the sex of the victim is not an issue. The same goes for robbery - why grab a wallet from someone who can fight back on equal terms when you can pick a victim who is smaller and weaker than you are?

This would be different if this were a tweak to sentencing factors.

If this were a sentence enhancement on crimes motivated by racial animus - a practice sanctioned by the Supreme Court in Wisconsin v. Mitchell - then it would be less objectionable if there were independent federal jurisdiction.

Thing is, the federal government has already done this, with the exception of gender identity, with the Federal Sentencing Guidelines (scroll to page 334 at the link):

If the finder of fact at trial or, in the case of a plea of guilty or nolo contendere, the court at sentencing determines beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant intentionally selected any victim or any property as the object of the offense of conviction because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, gender, disability, or sexual orientation of any person, increase by 3 levels.

The contrast between a sentence enhancement and a substantive crime gives us an honest assessment of what Congress is doing - federalizing intrastate acts of violence.

If Congress were to pass a law prohibiting the use of a firearm or any object that has passed in interstate commerce to commit a violent crime, it would clearly be an unconstitutional abuse of the Commerce Clause.

Minus the hate crime window dressing, that is exactly what this law purports to do.

What this really amounts to is a power grab - giving the federal government power to try or re-try violent crimes that are purely intrastate. Just as the Supreme Court invalidated the Gun Free School Zones Act in United States v. Lopez because it asserted a general federal police power, this law should be resisted as a wholesale usurpation of the states’ police powers.

The act also essentially overrules United States v. Morrison, where the Court overruled a federal civil remedy for intrastate gender-motivated violence. Forget a civil remedy; while we’re re-writing the constitution through the Commerce Clause let’s get a criminal penalty on the books.

Trials as Inquisitions

The hate crime bill will also turn trials into inquisitions. The focus of prosecution could be on whether you ever had a disagreement with someone of another “actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.” Worse yet, it can turn to whether you have any close friends in one of these categories, as demonstrated in the Ohio case State v. Wyant. The defendant denied that he was a racist, which led to the following exchange in cross-examination on the nature of the defendant’s relationship with his black neighbor:

Q. And you lived next door … for nine years and you don’t even know her first name?

A. No.

Q. Never had dinner with her?

A. No.

Q. Never gone out and had a beer with her?

A. No… .

Q. You don’t associate with her, do you?

A. I talk with her when I can, whenever I see her out.

Q. All these black people that you have described that are your friends, I want you to give me one person, just one who was really a good friend of yours.

David Neiwert says that this won’t happen because of a constitutional backstop in the legislation. Unfortunately, the House version of the bill explicitly endorses impeaching a defendant in exactly this manner:

In a prosecution for an offense under this section, evidence of expression or associations of the defendant may not be introduced as substantive evidence at trial, unless the evidence specifically relates to that offense. However, nothing in this section affects the rules of evidence governing impeachment of a witness.

Worse yet, the Senate version of the hate crime bill, the one which will likely become law after conference committee, does not contain this provision. Instead, it explicitly says:

Courts may consider relevant evidence of speech, beliefs, or expressive conduct to the extent that such evidence is offered to prove an element of a charged offense or is otherwise admissible under the Federal Rules of Evidence. Nothing in this Act is intended to affect the existing rules of evidence.

Anyone want to bet that an aggressive prosecutor could find that not having a close enough relationship with your neighbor counts as “expressive conduct” for the purposes of prosecution?

Future Push for More Federal Authority Over Intrastate Crimes

The hate crime bill also pushes a snowball down the mountain toward wholesale federalization of intrastate crime. In a few years this snowball will be an avalanche. By making any gender-motivated crime a hate crime, which will necessarily include nearly all rapes, we will define ordinary street crimes as hate crimes.

With a consistent average of 90,000 rapes a year, this expansion of hate crime definition will come back in a few years where those ignorant of the change in terms will wonder why hate crime is now rampant. “Rampant” only because we have made the relevant definition over-inclusive to the point of being meaningless.

And in a few years, we can revisit this issue with a fierce moral urgency to pass more feel-good legislation that upends state police powers in an effort to do something - anything - to confront this perceived crisis. A perception that Congress is creating in this legislation.

Former Prosecutor, Judge Calls for Drug Legalization

Many of those most involved in the drug war both at home and abroad recognize that it is an expensive failure, having had little impact of drug consumption while fostering crime and undermining civil liberties.  In fact, many former cops, prosecutors, and judges have joined together in Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

A former Orange County, California prosecutor and judge who once locked up drug offenders now advocates relaxing the drug laws.  The Los Angeles Times has just published Steve Lopez’s interview with Jim Gray:

All right, tell me this doesn’t sound a little strange:

I’m sitting in Costa Mesa with a silver-haired gent who once ran for Congress as a Republican and used to lock up drug dealers as a federal prosecutor, a man who served as an Orange County judge for 25 years. And what are we talking about? He’s begging me to tell you we need to legalize drugs in America.

“Please quote me,” says Jim Gray, insisting the war on drugs is hopeless. “What we are doing has failed.”

As far as I can tell, Gray is not off his rocker. He’s not promoting drug use, he says for clarification. Anything but. If he had his way, half the revenue we would generate from taxing and regulating drugs would be plowed back into drug prevention education, and there’d be rehab on demand.

So here he is in coat and tie – with a U.S. flag lapel pin – eating his oatmeal and making perfect sense, even when talking about the way President Obama flippantly dismissed a question about legalizing marijuana last week during a White House news conference.

“Politicians get reelected talking tough regarding the war on drugs,” says Gray. “Do you want to hear the speech? Vote for Gray. I will put drug dealers in jail and save your children.”

I had gone to visit Gray in part to discuss his support for a bill introduced last month by Democratic San Francisco Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, who is calling for marijuana to be regulated and taxed much like alcohol.

There’s no good answer to drug abuse.  But turning a health problem into a criminal law problem certainly is not the answer.  It’s time to take the immense profit out of the drug market as have other countries, such as Portugal, which has decriminalized drug use.

Ken Lammers on Posner and Strict Liability

Ken Lammers, who blogs over at CrimLaw, recently posted a review of my new book, In the Name of JusticeBy 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.

Who’s Blogging about Cato

Here’s a round-up of bloggers who are writing about Cato this week:

  • Writing at the Adam Smith Institute blog, Phillip Salter discusses Patrick J. Michaels’s proposal that scientific articles should be available online for public comment.
  • Penning his thoughts on Obama’s plan to raise taxes on oil and gas usage, Wintery Knight cites Jerry Taylor’s research that shows why similar price control programs didn’t work in the 1970s.
  • Reihan Salam quotes William Niskanen on The Atlantic’s Washington blog in a post about the “starve the beast” theory that says lawmakers can slow government’s growth by lowering taxes and running up deficits.
  • Think Progress blogger Matthew Yglesias responds to Michael Cannon’s work on health care reform in a post about Obama’s White House health care summit.
  • Dr. Paul Hsieh of FIRM (Freedom and Individual Rights in Medicine) and Brian Schwartz of Patient Power cite John H. Cochrane’s Cato paper on free market solutions to health care security.