By Diana D.
More than 30 states have enacted some version of the Son of Sam law, named after the infamous New York serial killer, which generally bars convicted felons from profiting from their crimes. New York goes even further by creating a new category for “funds of a convicted person” that exceed $10,000. Though there are some narrow exceptions for earned income and child support payments, money from many kinds of sources can trigger the statute, including inheritances and legal judgments for civil rights violations. Whenever a person convicted of certain crimes receives over $10,000, the Office of Victim Services freezes the money and notifies the victims of crime, who then have 3 years to bring a tort suit, even after the statute of limitations has expired. And we’re not talking small change– to get an idea of the money frozen since the Son of Sam law was expanded in 2001, check out this link: http://www.ovs.ny.gov/FormsandPublications/AnnualReports/2012AnnualReport/TableOfContents/NewYorkSonofSamLaw.aspx If the victim’s suit is successful, he or she may be able to reach not only the newly received funds, but all the assets of the convicted person.
For example, take the case of the man that inspired the shift in the law. David McClary was convicted of murdering a police officer. While serving his sentence, he brought a civil rights action based on his solitary confinement for 4 years within the prison. The reduced jury verdict in his favor would have granted McClary over $200,000. The legislature added the funds of a convicted person provision before he could collect the judgment, and the statute of limitations was extended. The police officer’s family later won a judgment of $100 million against McClary, wiping out his civil rights award and leaving him with a staggering civil liability. (For one particularly vindictive take on this lawsuit, check out the New York Post article at http://www.nypost.com/p/news/item_o6SS4DQd3minVBBC1WyxQJ)
Victim’s rights advocates have welcomed the expanded Son of Sam law. After all, in many cases the criminal defendants that caused their injury are judgment-proof, making it impossible for the victims to recover any money damages within the limitations period. While prison sentences may satisfy a convict’s “debt” to society, our sense of moral justice demands that the victims get at least some compensation for their losses, particularly where the criminal profits from his crimes.
But is that moral imperative really the same when the money comes from other sources wholly unconnected to the crime? There must be a point where civil damages for the victim become more about the societal vengeance than the justice-based legal system. When a convicted felon recovers damages for civil rights violations like excessive force by police or corrections officers, should he be required to wait an extra three years for compensation, and risk losing it altogether, while his former victims dangle a lawsuit over his head? This may be one area where the political implications have come to outweigh our moral sense of right and wrong. At what point do we cross the line between ensuring adequate compensation for crime victims and victimizing the perpetrators?