Intent-Optional Criminal Statutes: A Plea for Reform, and a Note of Caution to Reformers

By Otis, William G. | Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

Intent-Optional Criminal Statutes: A Plea for Reform, and a Note of Caution to Reformers


Otis, William G., Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy


This Essay is adapted from a panel discussion on federal police power, or the nonexistence thereof, and the relatively recent trend of enacting federal criminal statutes to impose punishment without proof of bad intent.

I am going to say very little about the general police power, not because it is uninteresting as a matter of constitutional law, but because it is a less-than-promising avenue for those seeking to curb federal overreach.

Hoping to scale back any significant amount of federal criminal law through constitutional challenges to the police power is like hoping the courts will repeal the New Deal. Now the New Deal might have been a really bad idea, (1) and it might have begun the transformation of the country into a gargantuan welfare state confounding the Framers' vision, (2) but the courts are not going to fix it. (3) After all this time, they also are not going to fix what they have written in poorly considered decisions about federal police power. Probably the best we can hope for is that courts will help to contain the law; they will not be rolling it back.

What I would like to address instead is the growing number of federal statutes that impose criminal punishment without requiring the government to prove bad intent. (4) The most obvious problem with intent-optional federal crimes is not that they are federal, but that they are crimes at all. They break the link between punishment and intentional misbehavior that most contemporary thinkers, not to mention the Founders' generation, found indispensable to the government's authority legitimately to impose criminal punishment. (5)

The breaking of this link is not as novel as one might think, however. It is just the flip side of the coin minted many decades ago, and that the law has unwisely come increasingly to accept. The "heads" side of this coin is our hesitation to impose punishment for bad behavior. The hesitation takes root in all manner of psychobabble excuses and in the view that criminals are really victims--victims of the latest manufactured brain syndrome, (6) or forces like racism, (7) capitalism, (8) bourgeoisie culture, (9) the "one percent," (10) and the other usual suspects. This zombie-like, volition-free view of criminals and crime has been in vogue since at least the 1960s. What we are seeing now is the "tails" side of the same coin: Being reluctant to impose consequences on bad behavior, we will now take the next logical step and affirmatively impose them on good behavior, such as producing useful stuff like energy (11) or farming on your own land. (12)

One way to justify criminal sanctions for such conduct is to exile the role of intent. The dominant cultural voices in academia, (13) the press, (14) and Hollywood (15) have been doing just that for years. When the importance, or even the existence, of personal responsibility has been hectored off the reservation of criminal law, we should scarcely be surprised to find that the space it used to occupy is now ready to be filled by something else--and that is the good part. The bad part is that there is a more immediate outcropping of airbrushing intent--an outcropping illustrated by the current demand for federal gun-control legislation. (16) The demand is rooted in, first, a juvenile, and second, a diversionary view of law--a view you will not be surprised to learn doggedly, if quietly, depends on ignoring intent.

It is juvenile because it examines behavior only superficially and without reflection. After the Sandy Hook Elementary school massacre, we heard the cry to "do something," and the reflexive push for more federal statutes without any serious question about whether the absence of such statutes was the problem or whether similar statutes already on the books had any positive effect. There was similarly no inquiry into the actual cause of these bizarre mass murders, not principally because that would jeopardize the preexisting, federalizing agenda--although that too--but because it would require serious-seriousness of purpose and actual work, something the juvenile outlook tends to avoid. …

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