“Caylee’s Law” Petition Amended to Avoid Con-Law Problem; Now Just a Bad Idea

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Last week I wrote about how hundreds of thousands of Americans were demanding a federal law making it a felony to delay making a missing-child report, although the federal government doesn't have the authority to do that. I acknowledged that lots of people were probably signing the petition to show support for state versions of such a law, but it was still a fact that what they were signing called for something unconstitutional. The petition has since been amended to drop the reference to "federal law," so that takes care of that problem.

Now what we have is (as of Sunday night) 1,084,759 Americans voting for a law that's just a really bad idea.

I was quoted on this issue in a New York Times article over the weekend, although I will tell you right now that the quotes are not funny, nor do they have much to do with the con-law point I was trying to make. But I guess one of the advantages of having a blog is that you can try to explain what you really meant.

Here's the first of my two quotes:

"When lawmakers name it [a bill, that is] after a sympathetic figure, especially a child, it increases the likelihood that people will vote for it on an emotional level,” said Kevin Underhill, a San Francisco lawyer and legal blogger[, who is reportedly funnier than this might suggest.] But he warns that the bills cover very rare situations and could be overused. He offered the example of a parent whose child runs away from home.

Not terrible, I guess, but my point was not just that voters might have an emotional reaction, but that this leads people to vote based on emotion rather than their common sense as to whether we really need a new law on something. By saying the bills might be "overused" I meant that a law passed due to an emotional reaction to something that just happened is likely to have unintended consequences, and they are likely to affect innocent people.

  • Example A: the law that created the TSA. Passed in reaction to 9/11. Does little if anything to make us safer, but has a lot of stupid and dangerous consequences. Like that law, everything the TSA does is a reaction to what just happened – but the bad guys have moved on to something else, so they're off planning that and meanwhile you've got a TSA dude's hands down your pants. Not really what we were hoping for.
  • Example B: Caylee's Law. Would be passed in reaction to Casey Anthony getting away with murder (probably). So who's the one person we know will never be punished under this law? Casey Anthony. (Unless you think she is likely to do the same thing again and that a second jury would let her get away with murder again.) Somebody else may be, though, and it's not likely to be another Casey Anthony.

My "runaway" example wasn't great – I was thinking of a parent who accidentally lets the 24-hour deadline go by while he or she is actually out looking for a missing child – and a better one might be a parent who's just dazed by a child's sudden death and lets 61 minutes go by before reporting it. Under the proposed laws, that would be a felony. Of course, the vast majority of parents don't need a law to get them to do everything they can for their child (my second quote), and the few freaks are not likely to be deterred by a reporting requirement.

Anyway, none of this is very comical, unless you count the fact that the NYT asked for my input in the first place, or that it ended up sounding like I was commenting mainly on parenting issues. I have posted a few times on what I guess you could call "parenting issues," like:

I'd really be more comfortable commenting on that kind of thing.

[Update: this post by Radley Balko does a much better job of explaining why this is such a bad idea, with better examples – e.g., the one-hour time limit ignores the reality that time of death often can't be calculated that precisely, so that's trouble waiting to happen.]