I’ve entirely avoided writing about the brutal, sad epic of the murder of Caylee Anthony, not because the story didn’t qualify as “news” in the commonly understood sense, but because these types of sensationalized murders are really well outside the wheelhouse of politics and government. Unfortunately, after the understandable outrage at her mother’s release with little more than a slap on the wrist, some government entities are reacting in a predictable, but likely foolish fashion. As Steve Chapman explains at Reason, rushing through new laws specifically aimed at – and named after – villains made famous by the media is generally a losing proposition. “Personalizing criminal law usually stems from fruitless outrage at a freakish event,” and comes with some serious inherent risk.
Plenty of legislators are ignoring that risk. Their proposals, all going by the name “Caylee’s Law,” are an understandable response to the acquittal of Casey Anthony of killing her 2-year-old daughter. Swearing when you stub your toe is also understandable, which doesn’t mean it will do your toe the slightest good.
So in some 20 states, bills have been introduced making it a felony not to report a child’s disappearance within a given time—eight hours, 24 hours, or 48 hours. Some would also make it a crime not to report a child’s death within one or two hours. If such a law had been in effect in Florida three years ago, Anthony might have gotten a lengthy sentence despite the murder acquittal.
It seems to have gone unnoticed that she did get a lengthy sentence—one year each on four counts of lying to law enforcement officers, almost all of which (with credit for good behavior) she had already served. Florida can blame itself for leniency on that offense. If she had given her false statements to a federal investigator, Anthony could have incurred five years in prison per lie.
For people given to homicide, the proposed change would have zero deterrent effect. If Anthony was willing to overlook the laws against murder, she would not have been fastidious in complying with a reporting rule.
There are frequent and often embarrassing problems with passing knee-jerk legislation in response to high profile stories. Not the least of these is the fact that our legal system has been around for quite a while now and you will often wind up enacting laws against things which are either, a) already illegal, or b) not supposed to be illegal and will fail a court challenge.
This type of situation ties in closely with the reason I’ve yet to see a single so-called “hate crime law” which I felt was valid. We wind up with scatter-shot laws on the books which are, at a minimum, redundant or, at worst, promote unequal protection and enforcement. And the list of possible disastrous scenarios which could result from some of these severely short time-lapse reporting requirements doesn’t take much imagination to summon up.
Before rushing into a politically popular move such as the ones proposed, legislators need to ask themselves a few important questions. Are you addressing a real problem which doesn’t have an extant solution? Is the remedy enforceable and will it pass muster in a court challenge? Have you forgotten the law of unintended consequences?
These are all important issues to be addressed before you wield the legislative hammer in some sort of “feel good” effort. And it doesn’t sound like Florida – among others – has the answers yet.
UPDATE: I was unable to locate this post originally, but Doug Mataconis (a lawyer I frequently turn to on such things) has a more experienced take on it.
This isn’t a new phenomenon, of course. Every time there’s been a horrible crime involving a child that gets a lot of media attention, someone somewhere decides there outta be a law. It’s an understandable reaction on some level because it grows out of revulsion toward a horrible crime, sympathy toward a child, and, in the Anthony case, the idea that someone got away with something. The first and most well-known of these laws is “Megans Law,” which has led to the adoption of some form of sex offender registration by every state in the country. The unintended consequence of such registries, however, has been that even relatively minor offenses committed by people under 18 end up becoming the modern equivalent of a Scarlet Letter, branding someone as a sex offender for life and essentially forcing them into a life under ground. Now some form of notification that a violent sex offender lives nearby may be a good idea. However, more often than not these laws drafted in the heat of passion and outrage end up being far too harsh and don’t recognize the fact that not every crime deserves to be treated the same way