For the record, $450 million is a lot of money.
That is part of the reason why a federal judge decided to throw the book at Casey Fury, a New Hampshire man who just might have committed the nation’s most destructive act of vandalism. Fury was responsible for setting a small blaze which caused almost half a billion dollars in damage to one of the U.S. Navy’s nuclear subs and led to several injuries.
An AP article reported that Fury received a fifteen year prison term for setting the fire. His defense? He told authorities he was trying to cause a work stoppage so that he could go home. As far as the damage and injuries?
Aside from the mind-boggling costs and the truly asinine behavior, this case raised an issue that has bothered me for many years. Namely, should people convicted of crimes receive exceptional sentences for the unintended consequences?
I know that sounds outrageous, but before you scroll over to the comment section and engage the CAPS LOCK, hear me out.
A person’s mindset is crucial when it comes to charging and trying criminal cases. The three relevant mindsets, negligence, recklessness and intent, are clearly defined in our state law (RCW 9A.08.010. if you care). Criminal negligence, for example, exists “when a person fails to be aware of a substantial risk that a wrongful act may occur and his or her failure to be aware of such substantial risk constitutes a gross deviation…” It goes on and on, but you get the point.
Next up the ladder, criminal recklessness exists when a reasonable person is aware of the obvious dangers of their actions and does the deed anyway.
Lastly, criminal intent is present when an individual ”acts with the objective or purpose to accomplish a result which constitutes a crime.” No “whoopsies” allowed.
Let’s sum these up more plainly. First, there are idiots who are dangerous by virtue of sheer stupidity. Second, there are dangerous jerks out there who don’t care if their actions could harm others. Lastly, there are dangerous people who fully intend to steal, injure or even kill.
It seems reasonable that our system of justice would calibrate punishment based on these frames of mind. That is, however, not the case. Consider the following scenarios:
1) A drunk stumbles out of a bar, gets in the driver’s seat and is about to start the car when a police officer approaches and suggests the drunk get a cab. The drunk complies.
2) A drunk stumbles out of a bar, gets in the driver’s seat, starts his car and drives away. He swerves all over the roadway, and his dangerous driving attracts the attention of a patrol officer. The driver is arrested for DUI.
3) A drunk stumbles out of a bar, gets in the driver’s seat, starts his car and drives away. He swerves all over the roadway, and his driving eventually causes a fatal head-on collision. He is arrested for Vehicular Homicide.
Notice that in each instance the individual proceeds with the same recklessness. Despite the same circumstances and mindset, the punishments range from cab fare, to a DUI, to a Vehicular Homicide. Why? It is because the timing of the police intervention in each scenario leads to drastically different consequences. In other words, a drunk individual makes the same poor choice, but the level of his or her punishment is literally a roll of the dice.
As humans, we have a basic need to make criminals pay for what their crimes. But when you take away intent, punishment based on negligence or recklessness becomes a moving target.
I realize that this is little more than a philosophical discussion. Sure, there are inconsistencies in our evolving system, but our inherent sense of justice is unlikely to change.
But it still bothers me.