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Tony Stewart, Kevin Ward, Jr., and Murder

As many of you have probably read by now, NASCAR driver Tony Stewart is reported to have killed Kevin Ward, Jr. during a dirt track race in New York. If you are curious to see what happened, Deadspin has the video posted here. In the lap previous to Ward’s death, it appeared that Stewart’s car made contact with Ward’s causing Ward’s car to collide with the track wall. Ward exited his vehicle and and walked toward the inside of the track making angry gestures (presumably at Stewart). The racers were under a caution flag after the collision between Stewart and Ward. As Stewart’s car approached Ward, Ward appeared to shout and wave his arms in an angry manner. Stewart’s vehicle appeared to fishtail and strike Ward. Ward was caught in a rear tire of Stewart’s car and was flung a significant distance. Ward’s body laid still on the track and he was later pronounced dead.

Not surprisingly, such an event has triggered strong emotional responses on Twitter and throughout the Web. Many have declared this case an obvious murder. Others have said that Stewart committed vehicular manslaughter. Others have put the blame squarely on Ward for walking into dangerous traffic on a dirt track. I thought it was worth shedding a little light on the topic based upon what the actual law is and the common mistakes observers are making about that law.

Unless Stewart states that he meant to kill Ward (which there is no indication he will do), the likely only viable theory of murder under New York law is murder in the 2nd degree which is defined as:

“Under circumstances evincing a depraved indifference to human life, he recklessly engages in conduct which creates a grave risk of death to another person, and thereby causes the death of another person…”

Some who witnessed the event and/or the video have stated that Stewart appeared to accelerate in an effort to either bump Ward or spray dirt at him. It is possible that such conduct could rise to the level of “depraved indifference” or at least get to the jury on that question. Other videos or statements might contradict that theory.

Unless I am misreading NY law, I don’t think vehicular manslaughter is an option for the state (unless Stewart was intoxicated). I’m happy to hear from NY criminal law experts in the comments if I am mistaken. That would mean that the general manslaughter provisions would have to be used. First degree would require:

“1. With intent to cause serious physical injury to another person, he causes the death of such person or of a third person; or 2. With intent to cause the death of another person, he causes the death of such person or of a third person under circumstances which do not constitute murder because he acts under the influence of extreme emotional disturbance, as defined in paragraph (a) of subdivision one of section 125.25. The fact that homicide was committed under the influence of extreme emotional disturbance constitutes a mitigating circumstance reducing murder to manslaughter in the first degree and need not be proved in any prosecution initiated under this subdivision.”

If the state could prove that Stewart meant to physically hit but not kill Stewart, “1.” could apply. If Stewart actually meant to kill Ward, but was under an extreme emotional disturbance (e.g. rage due to race and prior accident), then “2.” could be a viable outcome.

Second degree manslaughter is fairly straight-forward in New York:

“He recklessly causes the death of another person…”

Although “recklessly” appears as the mens rea requirement for both 2nd degree murder and 2nd degree manslaughter, the type of recklessness required to prove murder (“depraved indifference”) is tougher for the prosecutor to show.

There is also a possible negligent homicide charge which is defined as:

“A person is guilty of criminally negligent homicide when, with criminal negligence, he causes the death of another person.”

Commentators who believe Ward’s “recklessness” or “negligence” make Stewart innocent of wrongdoing will likely disappointed in how criminal law works in this area. The thought processes of the Ward are irrelevant to whether Stewart would be guilty of murder or manslaughter. The conduct and thoughts of Ward are only meaningful under criminal law insofar as Stewart understood them and took action as a result. So, if Ward made it impossible for Stewart to avoid him (which there is no indication of), then the causation element of murder or manslaughter wouldn’t be met. Similarly, if Ward provoked Stewart in a way that was legally sufficient to trigger an extreme emotional disturbance (again, there is no evidence of this that I have seen), then Stewart should not be convicted of murder. It is a common mistake for 1L’s to focus on the victim’s actions and thoughts in analyzing negligence/reckless fact patterns in Criminal Law and so it is not at all surprising to see such confusion in public discourse. In such cases, it is even theoretically possible for a defendant to be guilty of murder or manslaughter, but not the tort of wrongful death (despite the difference in burden of proof) because tort law more directly includes the conduct of the victim in determining wrongdoing. Criminal law, on the other hand, puts the focus squarely on the acts and thoughts of the defendant.

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On Jefferson’s Proposed Solution to the “Dead Hand” Problem (and the Futility Thereof)

Thomas Jefferson once opined to his friend James Madison that “the earth belongs in usufruct to the living” and “the dead have neither powers nor rights over it.”  These observations underlie the so-called “dead hand” problem of constitutional theory.  The problem is this:  Why should we the living generation of the present be governed by the constitutional dictates of dead people from the past? What gives those people the authority to rule us from the grave?

To Jefferson, these questions were unanswerable: The dead, on his view, had no right to rule from the grave, which in turn meant that “no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law.” But that conclusion raised a further question of its own: namely, how should we the people of the present design a constitutional system that defuses the threat of dead-hand rule down the road.  Jefferson’s answer was simple: Require that “every constitution . . . , and every law, expire after 19 years,” at which point the new generation of the living would acquire the prerogative to choose a new constitutional system for itself.  (I should note, by the way, that Thomas Paine had a few years earlier endorsed a similar solution, tethered to a 30-year, rather than 19-year, sunset term.  I apologize to the Paine estate for not featuring Tom P. more heavily in this blog post.)

Madison responded to Jefferson by suggesting that he had prescribed a cure way worse than the disease. Even if “in [t]heory” Jefferson’s solution would suffice to disempower the dead hand of the past, the repeated rebooting of our constitutional system would “in practice” give rise to some significant problems of its own. Specifically:

Would not a Government so often revised become too mutable to retain those prejudices in its favor which antiquity inspires, and which are perhaps a salutary aid to the most rational Government in the most enlightened age? Would not such a periodical revision engender pernicious factions that might not otherwise come into existence? Would not, in fine, a Government depending for its existence beyond a fixed date, on some positive and authentic intervention of the Society itself, be too subject to the casualty and consequences of an actual interregnum?

All good points, for sure.  But there is, I think, a further problem with Jefferson’s 19-year sunset proposal: it wouldn’t actually eliminate the problem of dead-hand control. Here’s why:

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Article Submission Season

This is a very insiderish post, so feel free to skip if you want.

The law reviews are opening their submission window (I’m starting to send out), and I’m wondering if people find that getting papers accepted in the Fall is more difficult now than in the past.  More journals seem to fill up in the Spring, and I just have the sense that Fall is no longer a good time to send.  Law review editors–feel free to chime in.

How We’ll Know the Wikimedia Foundation is Serious About a Right to Remember

The “right to be forgotten” ruling in Europe has provoked a firestorm of protest from internet behemoths and some civil libertarians.* Few seem very familiar with classic privacy laws that govern automated data systems. Characteristic rhetoric comes from the Wikimedia Foundation:

The foundation which operates Wikipedia has issued new criticism of the “right to be forgotten” ruling, calling it “unforgivable censorship.” Speaking at the announcement of the Wikimedia Foundation’s first-ever transparency report in London, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said the public had the “right to remember”.

I’m skeptical of this line of reasoning. But let’s take it at face value for now. How far should the right to remember extend? Consider the importance of automated ranking and rating systems in daily life: in contexts ranging from credit scores to terrorism risk assessments to Google search rankings. Do we have a “right to remember” all of these-—to, say, fully review the record of automated processing years (or even decades) after it happens?

If the Wikimedia Foundation is serious about advocating a right to remember, it will apply the right to the key internet companies organizing online life for us. I’m not saying “open up all the algorithms now”—-I respect the commercial rationale for trade secrecy. But years or decades after the key decisions are made, the value of the algorithms fades. Data involved could be anonymized. And just as Asssange’s and Snowden’s revelations have been filtered through trusted intermediaries to protect vital interests, so too could an archive of Google or Facebook or Amazon ranking and rating decisions be limited to qualified researchers or journalists. Surely public knowledge about how exactly Google ranked and annotated Holocaust denial sites is at least as important as the right of a search engine to, say, distribute hacked medical records or credit card numbers.

So here’s my invitation to Lila Tretikov, Jimmy Wales, and Geoff Brigham: join me in calling for Google to commit to releasing a record of its decisions and data processing to an archive run by a third party, so future historians can understand how one of the most important companies in the world made decisions about how it ordered information. This is simply a bid to assure the preservation of (and access to) critical parts of our cultural, political, and economic history. Indeed, one of the first items I’d like to explore is exactly how Wikipedia itself was ranked so highly by Google at critical points in its history. Historians of Wikipedia deserve to know details about that part of its story. Don’t they have a right to remember?

*For more background, please note: we’ve recently hosted several excellent posts on the European Court of Justice’s interpretation of relevant directives. Though often called a “right to be forgotten,” the ruling in the Google Spain case might better be characterized as the application of due process, privacy, and anti-discrimination norms to automated data processing.

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Citizens United and Freedom of the Press

If you want to read a great article, then go look at Michael McConnell’s paper on Citizens United.  He offers a very convincing explanation of why the result is correct on a narrower constitutional ground than what the Court used. Here is the Abstract:

The central flaw in the analysis of Citizens United by both the majority and the dissent was to treat it as a free speech case rather than a free press case. The right of a group to write and disseminate a documentary film criticizing a candidate for public office falls within the core of the freedom of the press. It is not constitutional for the government to punish the dissemination of such a documentary by a media corporation, and it therefore follows that it cannot be constitutional to punish its dissemination by a non-media corporation like Citizens United unless the freedom of the press is confined to the institutional media. Precedent, history, and pragmatics all refute the idea that freedom of the press is so confined.

The result in Citizens United was therefore almost uncontrovertibly correct. No one disputes that corporations, such as the New York Times Company, can editorialize during an election, and other groups performing the press function have the same right, even if they are not part of the traditional news media industry. A holding based on the Press Clause, though, would not have implied any change in constitutional doctrine about campaign contributions, which are not an exercise of the freedom of the press.

 

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The Location of the Bill of Rights

I thought I was done with this theme for the time being, but my research yesterday pointed to something else I thought was worth mentioning.  When you look at state constitutions, there is one important difference between their bills of rights and the Federal version.  Many states put their bill of rights FIRST (or right after a brief Preamble).  This may explain why people were unwilling or unable to see the 1791 amendments as a bill of rights for a long time.  (States also treat their constitutions like statutes–amendments are just inserted into the document and the original language is altered.  The Federal Constitution, of course, is not like that.)

It’s also worth noting that state bills of rights were modeled (I think) on the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776.  They tend to be long, contain general statements about liberty and democracy, and only occasionally ape the language of the federal bill.  Maybe I’ll explore that in greater detail.

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FAN 26 (First Amendment News) — Akhil Amar on the “First” Amendment

First: First?

Less cryptically, the first and main question that I shall explore . . . is whether [the First] Amendment is genuinely first — first in fact, first in law, and first in the hearts of Americans. In the process of exploring this question, I also hope to shed some light on the meaning of this amendment in particular and the nature of constitutional interpretation in general. Akhil Amar

Professor Akhil Reed Amar

Professor Akhil Reed Amar

Akhil Amar, the Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale, is well known in the worlds of constitutional law and history. His six books include The Bill of Rights: Creation and Reconstruction (1998) and America’s Unwritten Constitutions: The Precedents & Principles We Live By (2012). Among Professor Amar’s many honors is his 2012 National Archives dialogue with Justice Clarence Thomas. More recently, he has returned to his study of constitutional history by way of a new scholarly essay.

The essay is entitled “The First Amendment’s Firstness,” which appears in the UC Davis Law Review. The work derives from the Central Valley Foundation/James B. McClatchy lecture on the First Amendment, which Amar delivered on October 16, 2013 at the University of California at Davis Law School (see video of lecture here). Below I summarize the Essay by a series of questions and answers based on the author’s observations and conclusions.

Question: “Do the actual words ‘the First Amendment’ or ‘Amendment I’ themselves appear in what we all unselfconsciously refer to as ‘the First Amendment?’”

Answer: No.  The answer has to do with what is known as the “correct copy” of the Constitution.

Question: What, then, was the official (“correct”) name of what we now call the First Amendment?

Answer: The official title was “Article the Third” — no “First” and no “Amendment.” In this regard, what is crucial is the text that was first submitted to and then ratified by the states, which is not the same as the commonplace copy contained in all our books and those pocket-size constitutions some carry with Hugo Black-like pride.

Question: In terms of their importance, how significant is the ordering of the ten amendments in the Bill of Rights?

Answer: Not significant at all. Says Amar: “the ultimate textual ordering of the first set of amendments was a remarkably random thing.” Moreover, he adds: “the initial ordering of the proposed amendments in the First Congress had little to do with their intrinsic importance or relative rank. Rather, the amendments were originally sequenced in the First Congress so as to track the textual order of the original Constitution. Thus an amendment modifying congressional size came first, because that issue appeared first in the original Constitution . . . .”

Question: “who says that the official text of the Constitution must govern for all purposes — even for all legal purposes”?

Answer: Here is how Amar answers his question: “The brute fact that millions of copies of the U.S. Constitution . . . include the words ‘Amendment I’ or something closely approximating these words alongside the amendment’s meat — ‘Congress shall make no law . . .’ — should arguably suffice for us to treat these technically unratified words as if they had indeed been formally voted upon in 1789–91.”

Question: Does the fact that the Reconstruction Amendments were officially captioned “XIII,” “XIV,” and “XV” have any constitutional significance with reference to the Bill of Rights?

Answer: Yes. “The Reconstruction Amendments invite/compel us to read the earlier amendments in a new way,” says Amar.  In other words, at that pinpoint in ratification time “Article the Third” became “Amendment I.” Moreover, adds Amar, “a great deal of what we now think about ‘the Bill of Rights’. . . owes a greater debt to the vision of the Reconstruction generation than to the Founders’ world-view.”

In the process of answering these and other related questions, Professor Amar goes on to examine the First Amendment’s “firstness” by way of structural, historical, doctrinal, and cultural considerations.  Having done so, he raises a more fundamental question:

Might the very strength of the amendment today, its very firstness, be grounds for concern? Precisely because we all love the First Amendment — because it truly is first in our text and first in our hearts — is there a danger that all sorts of less deserving ideas and principles will cleverly try to camouflage themselves as First Amendment ideas when they are really wolves in sheep’s clothing?

Against that backdrop, he questions the First Amendment validity of decisions affirming free speech rights related to alcohol and tobacco advertising, pornography, animal cruelty, and campaign finance. Furthermore, he stresses the importance of “the deeply democratic and egalitarian structure of this free-speech principle, properly construed” — though for Amar freedom of the press “is less intrinsically democratic.”

There is, of course, more to say about this thought-proving essay, which I urge you to read . . . even if some of its claims might raise your ideological eyebrows.

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The Rise of the Bill of Rights

Before I return to research mode on this subject, I want to make two other points about why the first set of textual amendments became identified as a “bill of rights” around the beginning of the 20th century.

One hypothesis I am testing is whether state bills of rights drafted after 1791 looked like the first set of amendments.  State constitutions sometimes influence the Federal Constitution, and this may be a prime example.  Let’s say Indiana or California or Colorado wrote a self-styled Bill of Rights that looked a lot like the 1791 amendments.  It would be natural, I think, for people in those states to then see those amendments as a “Bill of Rights” in a way that was not true for the Framers, largely because the first set of amendments did NOT look like the state bills of rights in place at that time (say, in Virginia).

A second thought is that when the United States acquired Puerto Rico and the Philippines from Spain in 1898, Congress passed statutes organizing the governments for both colonies that included a truncated “Bill of Rights” for each.  This was the first time that a major federal statute used that phrase, which then led to many cases construing those provisions as increasing the usage of “bill of rights” to refer to the first set of amendments.  Why did Congress call what was given to these territories a bill of rights?  Probably it was a way of placating critics of imperialism (most notably William Jennings Bryan) and reassuring them that our rule in these places would be just.  (It didn’t work out that way in the Philippines, but that’s another story.)  It would be poetic if foreign conquests ending up strengthening the Bill of Rights at home.

Back to Magna Carta and other topics tomorrow

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Canons as Sayings

My summer-reading highlight for 2014 was Surfaces and Essences, by Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander.  The book is primarily concerned with the relationship between analogies and human thought, but it also offers some fun and interesting insights about language along the way.  My favorite such insight had to do with “mutually contradictory proverbs,” i.e., pairs of sayings/idioms that reflect starkly conflicting pieces of advice.  Hofstadter and Sander have collected several of these competing pearls of wisdom, including, for example:

  • Strike while the iron’s hot . . . but then again,  Look before you leap.
  • Two’s company, three’s a crowd . . .  but then again,  The more, the merrier.
  • Opposites attract . . . but then again, Birds of a feather flock together.
  • The pen is mightier than the sword . . . but then again,  Actions speak louder than words.

And if I may add just a few more of my own (I’ve been alertly on the lookout all summer):

  • Be yourself! . . . but then again, When in Rome, do as the Romans do.
  • You never get a second chance to make a first impression . . . but then again, Today is the first day of the rest of your life.
  • #YOLO . . . but then again, #YOLO.

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