Posts Tagged ‘crime and punishment’

Our carceral child support system and the Walter Scott case

“In South Carolina, at least one in eight people in jail are there on contempt-of-court charges related to late or unpaid child-support orders.” [Marshall Project; Christopher Mathias/Huffington Post] For decades elected officials of right and left alike have backed punitive handling of “deadbeat dads,” with results that include repeated jail terms levied over arrears unlikely ever to be paid, as well as the denial of drivers’ licenses and other basics of participation in the aboveground economy. Earlier on child support issues.

Some writings from my Cato Institute colleagues on the Walter Scott case: Tim Lynch, Jonathan Blanks, Matthew Feeney. And a New York Times “Room for Debate” roundtable on police use of deadly force featuring Walter Katz, Prof. Seth Stoughton and others.

“When everything is a crime”

George Will on overcriminalization, mens rea, and regulatory crimes, typically clear and cogent. Second paragraph:

In 2007, professor Tim Wu of Columbia Law School recounted a game played by some prosecutors. One would name a famous person — “say, Mother Teresa or John Lennon” — and other prosecutors would try to imagine “a plausible crime for which to indict him or her,” usually a felony plucked from “the incredibly broad yet obscure crimes that populate the U.S. Code like a kind of jurisprudential minefield.” Did the person make “false pretenses on the high seas”? Is he guilty of “injuring a mailbag”?

“You are probably breaking the law right now”

Glenn Reynolds on overcriminalization and regulation [USA Today]:

Regulatory crimes” of this sort are incredibly numerous and a category that is growing quickly. They are the ones likely to trap unwary individuals into being felons without knowing it. That is why Michael Cottone, in a just-published Tennessee Law Review article, suggests that maybe the old presumption that individuals know the law is outdated, unfair and maybe even unconstitutional. “Tellingly,” he writes, “no exact count of the number of federal statutes that impose criminal sanctions has ever been given, but estimates from the last 15 years range from 3,600 to approximately 4,500.” Meanwhile, according to recent congressional testimony, the number of federal regulations (enacted by administrative agencies under loose authority from Congress) carrying criminal penalties may be as many as 300,000.

And it gets worse. While the old-fashioned common law crimes typically required a culpable mental state — you had to realize you were doing something wrong — the regulatory crimes generally don’t require any knowledge that you’re breaking the law. This seems quite unfair.

Crime and punishment roundup

Police and prosecution roundup

  • Judge chides Montgomery County, Md. police for “unlawful invasion” of family’s home [my new Free State Notes post]
  • As more offenses get redefined as “trafficking,” state extends its powers of surveillance and punishment [Alison Somin on pioneering Gail Heriot dissent in U.S. Commission for Civil Rights report; Elizabeth Nolan Brown/Reason on legislative proposals from Sens. Portman and Feinstein] Proposal in Washington legislature would empower police to seize/forfeit cars of those arrested for soliciting prostitutes, whether or not ever convicted [Seattle Times]
  • Progressives and the prison state: “most of the intellectual and legal scaffolding of the contemporary American carceral system was erected by Democrats.” [Thaddeus Russell reviewing new Naomi Murakawa book The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America]
  • Here comes the next verbal conflation with negative implications for defendants’ rights, “traffic violence” [Scott Greenfield]
  • Please don’t pay attention to what goes on inside Florida prisons, it would only spoil your day [Fred Grimm, Miami Herald via Radley Balko]
  • Trouble in California: “U.S. judges see ‘epidemic’ of prosecutorial misconduct in state” [L.A. Times, Ronald Collins/Concurring Opinions, video from Baca v. Adams with Judges Kozinski, Wardlaw, W. Fletcher, earlier on California Attorney General Kamala Harris and Moonlight Fire case] But will Ninth Circuit’s strong words change anything? [Scott Greenfield including updates]
  • “Plea Bargaining and the Innocent: It’s up to judges to restore balance” [U.S. District Judge John Kane]

In trouble, can’t drive

Nowadays driver’s license suspensions are passed out almost as freely as tickets themselves once were, yet they can often be economically and personally devastating to their targets [NPR via Brian Doherty]:

If you get caught drinking and driving in Wisconsin, and it’s your first offense, you lose your license for nine months. For a hit-and-run, the punishment is suspension for one year.

But if you don’t pay a ticket for a minor driving offense, such as driving with a broken tail light, you can lose your license for two years. …

The most common way that people lose their driver’s license in Wisconsin is not for drunken driving or other unsafe driving. It’s for failure to pay the fine on a ticket for a nonmoving traffic offense. Those make up 56 percent of all license suspensions in the state, according to statistics from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

Many of the jobs that enable indigent persons to climb out of poverty call for use of a car, as with cleaning jobs, which typically require driving to the homes or offices being cleaned. Many other jobs are not near bus or mass transit lines, while in other cases the job seeker does not live near such a line. Absent an income from work, there is less hope of paying off the debt to the state. So even if one adopts the cynical view that Wisconsin makes the penalty higher for missing a ticket payment than for a hit-and-run because it is obsessed with maximizing its revenues, it’s not necessarily doing that efficiently either.

More on petty fines and fees here.

Brian Aitken at Cato

In several 2010 posts we covered the story of Brian Aitken, who was imprisoned by the state of New Jersey simply for carrying unloaded guns and ammo in his trunk (really, that was the extent of the crime). Last week Cato hosted Aitken to talk on his new book The Blue Tent Sky: How the Left’s War on Guns Cost Me My Son and My Freedom. Tim Lynch of Cato moderated, and I gave comments. Event description:

In 2009 Brian Aitken, a media consultant and web entrepreneur, 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. Despite the fact that Aitken owned the guns legally and had called the New Jersey State Police for advice on how to legally transport his firearms, he found himself sentenced to seven years in prison.

In 2010 New Jersey governor Chris Christie commuted Aitken’s sentence. But Aitken’s experience, like that of other law-abiding gun owners who’ve faced long prison sentences for honest mistakes, raises troubling questions about gun-law overreach, prosecutorial discretion, and judicial abdication.

I recommended the book as a riveting and outrageous read, yet leavened with hope because of the story of the strong public movement that formed to protest the injustice of his incarceration. In my comments, I mentioned the feds’ heavily armed raid on an Indiana antiquities collector. More on that story here.

Police and community roundup

  • Oh, no: “Ferguson to Increase Police Ticketing to Close City’s Budget Gap,” because three arrest warrants per household is still too low [Bloomberg News via Zach Weissmuller (& thanks for quote), earlier]
  • In years 2011/12 alone, one Buffalo officer “killed as many dogs in the line of duty as the entire NYPD.” [WGRZ]
  • “He believed the poor had the right to buy and sell.” Tunisia yes, Staten Island too? [David Boaz, USA Today]
  • “The language of protest: Race, rioting, and the memory of Ferguson” [Abigail Perkiss, NCC/Yahoo, mentions me]
  • “Red light cameras to go dark in New Jersey” [Josh Kaib, Watchdog Wire] “Public opinion swings hard against traffic cameras” [AutoBlog]
  • On interpreting statistics on race and policing, point counter-point [Scott Alexander, Ezra Klein, Alexander] Reminder: increasing ranks of black officers does not necessarily lead to fewer shootings of black civilians [Jamelle Bouie, Slate]
  • “Sex, Spice, and Small-Town Texas Justice: The Purple Zone Raid” [Reason.tv video]