Laws Named After Victims

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Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Ilya Somin has this post about Caylee’s Law. Briefly, legislation has been introduced in many states that would make it a crime to fail to report a child’s death within one hour, or a child’s disappearance within 24 hours. Some organizations are even calling for a federal law. This activity was sparked by the Casey Anthony case, in which the defendant failed to notify authorities of her daughter Caylee’s death or disappearance for a month.

Somin thinks that Caylee’s law is a bad idea, because it will sometimes be hard to know when the clock starts on a parent — for example, if an infant dies of SIDS during the night, and is discovered in the morning, has the hour already passed? Further, he suggests that the law may result in overcompliance, with parents reporting children missing almost immediately out of fear of being charged, even though most “missing” children quickly crop up.

More generally, he argues that what he describes as “knee-jerk” “overreaction[s]” like this are the result of a combination of a desire to right perceived wrongs and a lack of information about the frequency of the perceived wrongs and the costs of the proposed solutions. He suggests using something he calls “Ted Frank’s Law” as a heuristic: “My rule of thumb is a strong presumption that any law named after a victim is poor public policy enacted by legislators who confuse voting against a law with voting against an innocent person.”

Somin links to this article at Time, which likewise argues that Caylee’s law is ill-conceived, and which points to California’s three strikes law, passed after the murder of Polly Klass, and Megan’s law as historical examples of bad legislation enacted in quick response to highly publicized incidents.

I’m not sure that I agree with Somin generally, or specifically about the merits of Caylee’s Law. In any event, we at the School of Government try to remain neutral on policy issues. So I won’t comment further on the merits of Caylee’s law, but I thought that it would be interesting to look at recent laws named after victims in North Carolina. In the last three legislative sessions, I found three bills named after victims that were enacted. (I just looked at the short titles of the session laws listed on the General Assembly’s website, so I may have missed some. If you know of others, please post a comment.) Here they are:

  • S.L. 2011-60, the Unborn Victims of Violence Act/Ethen’s Law, which according to this report was named “after the unborn son of Jenna Nielsen, who was eight months pregnant when she was stabbed to death outside a Raleigh convenience store in June 2007.” The law, codified at G.S. 14-23.1 et seq., creates the offense of murder of an unborn child and various lesser crimes.
  • S.L. 2011-191, Laura’s Law, which according to this story was named “for Laura Fortenberry, a Gaston County teen who was killed by a drunk driver.” The law creates a new “aggravated level one” punishment for DWIs where three or more grossly aggravating factors apply and makes other changes to the DWI laws.
  • S.L. 2010-16, Susie’s Law, which WRAL reports was named after “Susie . . . a . . . pit bull-shepherd mix[, who, as] a puppy . . . was beaten, set on fire and left to die,” but survived. The law increases the punishment for certain animal cruelty offenses.

Any thoughts about the merits of these initiatives specifically, or of laws named after victims generally?

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2 comments on “Laws Named After Victims

  1. This-called “Caylee’s Law” seems merely symbolic. I can’t imagine that any innocent person would wait an hour after finding a dead child. And why make someone a criminal who simply finds a body in a lake while fishing or in the woods while hunting. How in the world are the cops going to deternmine when a child “disappears.” I reembember an old George Will observation that sais, “some feople believe that any “good Idea” should be the subject of a federal program.” If the murderer does it, are you really gonna charge that?
    I propose that no law be named after a victim until the passing of 2 years from the precipitating event, so the emotions driving these laws
    subsides.

  2. We have enough laws on the books. Whenever something bad happens, people want a new law, but usually the old ones cover the conduct.

    People that want this law think Anthony killed her child. Well killing your child is already very illegal. The fact that the state couldn’t convict her notwithstanding.

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