In 1999 Edward Tenner published "Why Things Bite Back," a provocative book about the unintended consequences of technology. Someone should write a similar book about law, because the unintended consequences are even more far reaching.
Gene Healy, a Cato Institute scholar, recently provided a thorough exploration of the unintended consequences of one law, the new Bush-Ashcroft plan to federalize gun crimes known as the Project Safe Neighborhoods program. The unintended consequences of this law are frightening.
The law originated in a strategy by the National Rifle Association and the Bush administration to forestall further anti-gun legislation by emphasizing tougher enforcement of existing gun laws. To this end, the legislation funds 113 new assistant U.S. attorneys and 600 new state and local prosecutors whose only beat is to prosecute gun crimes. And there lies the unintended consequences.
As Gene Healy rightly notes, one consequence is the overenforcement of gun laws and a "proliferation of 'garbage' gun charges—technical violations of firearms statutes on which no sensible prosecutor would expend his energy."
Conviction rates are the key indicator in judging the performance of U.S. Attorneys' Offices. Unlike other prosecutors whose bailiwicks cover all criminal offenses, the 713 Safe Neighborhood prosecutors are limited to one offense. Once they run out of serious gun crimes, they push on with technical and meritless indictments.
Meritless convictions were fast in coming. Last January the Des Moines Register asked; "What sort of country would put a man in federal prison for 15 years for possessing a single .22 caliber bullet? Ours would." Dane Yirkovsky, a drug user and sometime burglar, was sentenced as an armed criminal for forgetting to dispose of a bullet that he found on a floor while installing a carpet.
Katica Crippen, a 32-year old woman with a drug conviction, posed naked for her photographer boyfriend holding one of his guns as a prop. Police found the photos while surfing internet porn sites. Her nakedness was no offense, but prosecutors interpreted holding a gun as "being in possession." Crippen was given an 18-month federal sentence for being an "armed felon."
Sentencing guidelines force judges to give unjust sentences for such non-crimes. Federal judge Richard Matsch, who presided over the Oklahoma City bombing trial, found Crippen's case on his docket. Outraged at the lack of prosecutorial judgment, he asked: "How far is this policy of locking up people with guns going to go? Who decided this is a federal crime?"
Reporter David Holthouse examined 191 Colorado federal firearm cases. The vast majority convicted as "armed felons" had no record of violent felonies. Most were drug possession charges. Only four had actually fired a gun during a crime.
In Richmond, Virginia, the meritless gun cases pursued by federal prosecutor David Schiller caused federal judge Richard L. Williams to observe that "ninety percent of these defendants are probably no danger to society."
Prosecutors already had a hearty appetite for expansive interpretations of gun laws prior to Project Safe Neighborhoods. Candisha Robinson sold illegal drugs to undercover officers in her apartment. A subsequent search found an unloaded gun locked in a trunk in her closet. She was charged by federal prosecutors with "using" a firearm while committing a drug offense.
Readers might lack sympathy for unsavory characters, but unsavory character is no justification for unsavory indictments.
In the end, many law-abiding citizens will end up in jail for merely being gun owners or acting in self-defense. A spouse, maneuvering for the upper hand in a divorce proceeding, can place a gun owner in violation of gun laws merely by obtaining a restraining order. Prosecutors already bring first-degree murder charges against occupants who shoot threatening intruders in self-defense.
Healy notes other unintended consequences of Project Safe Neighborhoods. The law contravenes President Bush's endorsement of federalism and the Supreme Court's effort to resist Congress' inclination to federalize crime. Just after his inauguration, President Bush told the National Governors Association: "I'm going to make respect for federalism a priority in this administration." Bush neither respects federalism nor upholds the Constitution when he crosses 10th Amendment lines and federalizes petty gun crimes.
How can Republicans demand respect for the Constitution when the centerpiece of their crime-fighting program leads off by trampling all over it?
Another consequence, which might not have been unintended, is jury-shopping by prosecutors. Black juries resist prosecutors' efforts to convict based on expansive interpretations of laws and meritless charges. In contrast, white juries believe the prosecutor. Federalizing gun charges lets prosecutors escape urban jury pools by moving cases to suburban federal district courts.
Gene Healy advises President Bush to abandon Project Safe Neighborhoods, because it is an "affront to the Constitution and the rule of law."
No one should be surprised when many of those prosecuted in the name of Safe Neighborhoods are hapless gun owners who are no threat to society.
Paul Craig Roberts is the author of The Tyranny of Good Intentions : How Prosecutors and Bureaucrats Are Trampling the Constitution in the Name of Justice.
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