Blue Byline

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Crime and punishment: the ethical dilemma of unintended consequences

Post by Brian O'Neill on March 17, 2013 at 12:52 pm with 3 Comments »
March 17, 2013 12:52 pm

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?


Scales of Justice/ courtesy
Scales of Justice/ courtesy

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.

Leave a comment Comments → 3
  1. Considering what we know about drunken driving hazards, and I mean what everyone knows, my position is that intent exists the instant a drunk gets in his or her vehicle. The punishment that person receives should reflect that fact.
    If someone commits a crime while in possession of a gun, the intent to commit a homicide is built in and the punishment for that person should fit the definition of attempted homicide at a minimum. People don’t brandish guns with the intent to wound.
    Why should you and I or any other person have to face either of the situations mentioned above and watch the perpetrator get off, because certain ambiguous definitions were not met?

  2. Brian O'Neill says:

    Thanks for your comments, Publico. They do raise the other side of this issue, which is that people should already understand, and therefore fully appreciate, the consequences of their actions.

    However, one of the reasons I cited the DUI example is that the legal mindset in this crime is usually recklessness, rather than negligence or intent. Except for the rare crazy person who drinks and drives with for the purpose of killing innocent people with his or her car, the recklessness definition covers it.

    Carrying a gun also does not imply homicidal intent, nor does pointing it at a person (I should know, I’ve done it a few times over the years). You pretty much have to do both those AND pull the trigger to demonstrate the intent to kill. The reason police officers are exempt from prosecution after shooting an individual who brandishes a gun is because ESP is not yet commercially available.

    In my opinion, the ambiguity in criminal sentencing lies with the consequences of the actions rather than the intent (or lack thereof) of the individual committing the act.

  3. Get a bunch of cops drunk and sitting around talking
    philosophy and you might unravel the knot. On the other
    had there might be unintended consequences.

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