Magazine article Developments in Mental Health Law

Involuntary Servitude Considered

Magazine article Developments in Mental Health Law

Involuntary Servitude Considered

Article excerpt

United States v. Kozminski,--U.S.--, 56 U.S.L.W. 4910 (June 28, 1988)

In considering whether defendants were subject to criminal prosecution for violating the thirteenth amendment rights against involuntary servitude of two mentally retarded men who were laboring on the defendants' farm, the Supreme Court held that involuntary servitude must consist of the compulsion of services through actual or threatened use of physical injury or actual or threatened use of coercion through law or the legal process. Psychological coercion alone does not constitute involuntary servitude under the thirteenth amendment or the statutes making a crime the violation of rights guaranteed by that amendment.

Two mentally retarded men, Robert Fulmer and Louis Molitoris, were found working on a farm operated by defendants Ike Kozminski, his wife Margarethe, and their son John. Fulmer and Molitoris were expected to work seven days a week, often seventeen hours a day, for no pay. The men were denied adequate food, shelter, and medical care. They were in poor health, living in squalid conditions and were kept in relative isolation from the rest of society. The Kozminskis subjected the men to physical and verbal abuse for failing to do their work and directed other employees at the farm to do the same. When the men did attempt to leave the farm they were brought back and discouraged from leaving again. On one occasion, John Kozminski threatened Molitoris with institutionalization if he did not obey.

The government brought a criminal action against the Kozminskis. They were charged with violating federal statutes enacted by Congress to enforce the thirteenth amendment, including conspiracy to "injure, oppress or intimidate" Fulmer and Molitoris in the free exercise and enjoyment of their thirteenth amendment right to be free from involuntary servitude under 18 U.S.C. [section]241 and with knowingly holding the two men to involuntary servitude under 18 U.S.C. [section]1584.

At the district court level the jury convicted Ike and Margarethe Kozminski for violating both statutes and John Kozminski for violating [section]241. The defendants were placed on probation, and ordered to pay fines and restitution to the victims. The instructions that the district court gave to the jury contained a definition of "involuntary servitude" that included "situations involving either physical and other coercion, or a combination thereof, used to detain persons in employment."

The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed the convictions and remanded the case for a new trial on the grounds that the district court's definition of involuntary servitude was too broad because it would bring within the reach of [section][section]241 and 1584 cases involving general psychological coercion. Extreme examples of purely psychological pressure under the trial court's definition of coercion could include an employer's threat to give a poor recommendation to an employee if he leaves his employment or a husband's threat to seek custody of the children if his wife leaves. The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit fashioned its own definition of involuntary servitude which excluded psychological coercion, but which included the use of fraud or deceit in cases where the victim is a minor, an immigrant or mentally incompetent. Various other federal courts of appeals had developed differing standards to define the meaning of involuntary servitude, and the Supreme Court granted the writ of certiorari to resolve the conflict. …

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