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FEATURED DISCUSSION
Criminal Law & Prosecution

by Isaac Gorodetski

The traditional common-law principle of "Ignorantia juris non excusat,"--Latin for "ignorance of the law" does not excuse--prevented a criminal defendant from escaping liability by claiming that he was unaware that his conduct was unlawful. When most crimes were malum in se--meaning inherently wrong according to the generally accepted moral code--the concept of "ignorance is no excuse" went unchallenged. That was all before the phenomenon of overcriminalization, before criminal codes and regulatory provisions were flooded with new criminal offenses, many of which were vague, ambiguous, duplicative and well-beyond the scope of the traditional common-law-based criminal justice system.

by William G. Otis

The reach of criminal law to enforce the regulatory state poses serious questions. Regulatory crimes tend to be "strict liability" offenses. That is, they do not require that that the defendant be found to have had bad intent in order to convict and punish him.

This is a relatively new and potentially ominous development. The Founders contemplated criminal punishment for, roughly, "bad actors" -- those who do something a person with common sense and ordinary intelligence would intuitively think of as criminal. Generally, criminal behavior up to now has been defined by people who either don't control their temper; want to make a quick buck; or range from extremely non-empathetic to malevolent.


by Paul J. Larkin, Jr.

A millennium ago, the criminal law was simple. If you knew the Decalogue, you knew what not to do: don't murder, steal, or lie. As a result, the law did not exonerate someone who claimed to believe that what he did was not a crime, since no one could reasonably believe that those immoral actions were not also illegal. Today, however, the criminal law has expanded to Brobdingnagian proportions. There are approximately 4,500 federal crimes alone. Atop that, use of administrative agencies to define criminal statutes (or their terms) exacerbates the problem. Congress may use a broadly defined term (e.g., "solid waste") in a statute (e.g., the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act) that delegates to an agency (e.g., the EPA) the power to define its terms (e.g., "hazardous waste") by creating a list of specific examples (e.g., "listed hazardous wastes") or by specifying exemptions (e.g., "recyclable materials"). The result is that there are perhaps 300,000 potentially relevant regulations. No one--no law enforcement officer, no lawyer, no law professor, no judge--could honestly claim to know them all.

by William G. Otis

Defenses that on paper look perfectly reasonable can morph into something entirely different in the hands of a creative counselor.

Lack of bad intent is -- as it should be -- a long-accepted defense to criminal charges. We would think grossly unfair a system that provided no such defense. Little did we suspect, however -- until it actually happened -- that garden-variety criminal intent could be flummoxed out the jury's mind by defense counsel's claim that his client ate too many Twinkies. But exactly that happened because of the inventive approach authored by the attorney for Dan White, the San Francisco city supervisor who killed Harvey Milk. White beat the murder wrap, and got punished only for manslaughter, because his lawyer convinced the jury that excess Twinkie consumption had deepened his "depression."

This is not an isolated example. The invention currently in vogue is "urban survival syndrome." This "syndrome" is now used to convince juries that the defendant is a victim, not a bad guy. In the hands of a smooth-talking defense lawyer, more than one jury has been persuaded that the client more nearly resembles a counseling patient than, as it used to be known, a thug.

There is a lesson here as we contemplate expanding the mistake of law defense. In the era of the gargantuan regulatory state, quite properly we want to help defendants who never had a bad heart -- or, worse, may never have known or had reason to know that their conduct was criminal at all. Expanding the mistake of law defense thus has understandable appeal. But like so many modern inventions of the law, there is the danger of unintended consequences. The danger here is that the mistake of law defense will sooner rather than later shed the limitations we build into it, incrementally nibble away at what is left of responsible commercial life, and become the corporate reincarnation of too many Twinkies.


by Paul J. Larkin, Jr.

Bill Otis, a highly respected former prosecutor and now a law professor, argues that a mistake of law defense would hamper the government's ability to enforce the criminal law. I respect Bill and always value his opinions, but this time he is mistaken.

Bill notes that regulatory crimes are problematic because administrative officials are not directly accountable to the electorate. That is true, but there is an additional and bigger problem: Regulatory offenses oftentimes involve a network of one or more intricately worded statutes and a boatload of hyper-complex regulations. It is easy to understand a law prohibiting a street crime, but far harder to comply with a regulatory offense because the line between lawful and unlawful regulated conduct can be indistinct. No amount of murder is permissible, and no one can obtain a license to steal, but a party can obtain a license to dispose of used oil and other types of waste that are the unavoidable byproduct of legitimate business activities. In fact, administrative laws assume that some regulated conduct is permissible; those laws just limit when, where, how often, and by whom certain it can be done. The problem lies in knowing what can and cannot be done. Is this used oil a "waste"? If so, is it a "hazardous waste"? Or is it a "recyclable material"? Agencies need complex rules, oftentimes requiring considerable scientific or technical knowledge, to regulate industrialization. But those same complex rules can be impossible for the average lawyer--let alone the average person--to understand. A mistake of law defense forces the government clearly to define crimes before someone can be held liable for committing one.

Bill argues that a mistake of law defense would enable crooked defendants, aided by unscrupulous lawyers, to escape responsibility for conduct that any reasonable person would have known was unlawful. The concern with manufactured defenses is legitimate, but overstated. If a government civil inspector notifies someone that his conduct is unlawful, the government can use that notice as proof of guilt if the defendant repeats that conduct. Also, if you place the burden of proof on the defendant, you effectively compel him to testify at trial to establish a mistake-of-law defense. Once he testifies, the prosecution can cross-examine him, and the jury can decide if he is a con artist who connived with a shyster. If the judge finds that a mistake of law defense is incredible--that is, no reasonable person could buy it--the judge need not instruct the jury on it. Finally, if corporate wrongdoing is a concern, a mistake of law defense can be limited to individuals and exclude corporations. In sum, Bill's concern can be met without turning every reasonable mistake of law into a crime.

 

 

 

FEATURED DISCUSSION ARCHIVE:


Obamacare Decision: Reactions, July 2012
Law School Faculty Diversity, May-June 2012
Class Actions, May 2012
Constitutionality of Individual Mandate, March 2012
Human Rights and International Law, February-March 2012
The constitutionality of President Obama's recess appointments, January 2012
Do caps on medical malpractice damages hurt consumers?, December 2011
Trial Lawyers Inc.: State Attorneys General, October 2011
Wal-Mart v. Dukes, April 2011
Kagan Supreme Court nomination, May-June 2010
Election roundtable, November-December 2006
Who's the boss, September 2006
Medical judgement, July 2006
Lawyer Licensing, May 2006
Contingent claims, April 2006
Smoking guns, July 2004

Isaac Gorodetski
Project Manager,
Center for Legal Policy at the
Manhattan Institute
igorodetski@manhattan-institute.org

Katherine Lazarski
Press Officer,
Manhattan Institute
klazarski@manhattan-institute.org

Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.