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August 21, 2007

Victim impact technology and the Vick sentencing

This intriguing news release discusses a new webpage created by the City of Minneapolis that enables persons to submit victim impact statements online.  Here are highlights from the news release:

Residents and business owners know how livability crimes affect their neighborhoods.  Now, an Internet tool makes it possible for them to share that information with the courts, so the true impact of crime in the community can be taken into account when sentencing an offender.

For the first time, the City of Minneapolis has made it possible to give a community impact statement online rather than in person.  By filling out a short community impact statement, people can tell the courts how crimes really affect the livability of their neighborhood.  Prosecutors can then present these statements to judges during sentencing....

Before the creation of this tool, people had to go to one of the five Minneapolis Police Department precincts to file community impact statements.  And even then, they did not have the ability to browse cases like they can now.

The online tool covers people charged with livability offenses, such as trespassing, consuming in public, disorderly conduct, loitering with intent to buy or sell narcotics, lurking and public urination. These offenses can have a significant impact on people who live and work in the area. By giving a voice to these affected people, community impact statements show the court that these are not victimless crimes.

This news release has me thinking not only about all the unexpected ways in which technology can impact sentencing, but also about what whether a tool of this sort ought to be developed to enable community input at the sentencing of Michael Vick.  I am sure there are lots and lots of folks that would be eager to share their insights with the sentencing judge. 

Some recent related posts about victim input and the Vick sentencing:

August 21, 2007 at 09:09 AM | Permalink


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It seems to me that there are no victims (at least, no human victims) in the Vick case. His neighbors were clearly unaware of anything going on at his property. The only reason anything was discovered is because his cousin had been arrested on a marijuana charge and listed the property as his address. Idiot! A subsequent search of the property discovered the dog fighting paraphernalia. Therefore, there appears to be no community impact because no one was aware this was going on.... it was essentially private conduct except, of course, for the impact on the dogs.

The post seems to imply that the concept of "victim impact statements" should be extended to the whole community... in this case, the whole world it seems. While I understand that anyone with an opinion on the case is free to write the judge and express that opinion, it is something of a stretch to assume that anyone with an interest in the case is a "victim" who has been "impacted" merely because he is offended by the conduct.

One of the purposes of the rule of law is to detach sentencing from "the mob" and tie it to more objective, consistent criteria so that no one defendant is treated better or worse based on his status... in this case, his celebrity. Given the current hysteria about Vick's case and based on the comments I have read on the internet, I have no doubt he would be lynched if the judge based his sentence on "community input" and "insights." The rule of law is Vick's greatest protection at the moment.

Posted by: Dr Bill | Aug 21, 2007 10:10:57 AM

long live the sixth amendment!

Posted by: jp | Aug 21, 2007 11:10:39 AM

I'm confused. Wouldn't the confrontation clause prevent this? Or is it because it would be in the sentencing phase?

Chalk another one up for the mob lynching due process.

By the way, federalist's posts impact me. Who do I write to?

And that jest leads to a serious question: Where in case law can I find the legal definition of "victim impact"? Please, someone, if you can, cite a SCOTUS or at least a circuit case.

The history of this Minneapolis law would be interesting. Who promoted it and what is the "underground" reasoning for it?

Posted by: George | Aug 21, 2007 11:14:28 AM

The Supreme Court decided 60 years ago that the conftrontation clause does not apply at sentencing (Williams v. NY), though many have suggested it should reconsider this ruling.

Posted by: Doug B. | Aug 21, 2007 11:19:24 AM

Thank you, Doug.

I wonder if someone in Minneapolis can challenge the law then.

For one, a biased sample is inevitable. Those who do not feel victimized enough would not file a victim impact statement and would have no reason to post their comments. Experts in surveys would probably laugh (or cry) at the results.

Second, if not directly related to the charged defendant like an eye witness, how could the statements be relevant to that defendant? Can "in general" testimony apply to a particular defendant?

Since the subject is Vick and dogs, how long before we return to the dangers of Buck v. Bell for the same reasons pit bulls are shamed into extinction based on generalities? If enough of the biased sample speak often enough and loudly enough, the exception becomes the rule and appears to be the majority. Pit Bull owners who never had any problems with their dogs cannot overcome the panic and must pay the price though their dog never harmed anyone even if the dog got out of the yard and was a nuisance once or twice. There is the very real danger that a "victim" could claim the loose dog terrified him/her not because the dog was actually dangerous, but only because the dog looked like a dog in the news that was dangerous. So the victimization would be media created and have nothing to do with the dog itself.

Very slippery slope.

Posted by: George | Aug 21, 2007 12:09:17 PM

For one, a biased sample is inevitable. Those who do not feel victimized enough would not file a victim impact statement and would have no reason to post their comments

I fail to see how this is "bias," as opposed to common sense.

Posted by: | Aug 21, 2007 12:18:09 PM

There will be bias in an online submission.

The kind of people that complain about things online are incessant complainers. They are angry about something, and can hardly be expected to present all sides of the “story.” In fact, it is hard to do research on products, locations, etc. without finding some person that takes the time to complain about it. Try this: research an insurance company. True, there are good ones and bad ones (from the insured’s perspective), but without fail, every insurance company has someone complaining about how they ruined their life. It may well be that the insurance company has a good reason to deny their claim. The result is, at least for me, that general internet is next to useless when it comes to researching products. (Certain listservs and blogs have more credibility.)

The other problem with the use of on-line submissions is that there may be some people that like a certain amount of crime in a neighborhood. Some forms of crime keep the neighborhood safer in terms of limiting small property thefts.

Some kinds of criminal activity are tolerated because people like it! (I mean, let’s face it, if drugs were really so bad, wouldn’t people simply not take them, and the market would dry up? Or, does a large portion of the otherwise law-abiding population indulge, and their indulgence is inextricably connected to criminal activity? Whatever the case, few people are going to write that they think an injustice was done to them when their dealer was busted.)

Obviously I don’t agree with all these positions. In fact, I generally think that most insurance companies are fair. I also think that a tolerating a crackhouse in the name of safety is a fool’s bargain, and I think that middle class people smoking pot really does support more criminal activity and violence then they care to admit. But all these attitudes contribute to the extent of perceived victimization.

Posted by: S.cotus | Aug 21, 2007 12:33:17 PM

Where does "victimhood" end? Will we be seeing restitution orders for diminution of property value because the weeds in the neighbor's yard reduced the value of a property? Is someone really a "victim" of a crime just because they are momentarily offended by someone's obnoxious behavior? Grow up! Get over it!

As for the sentencing process, one of the major problems with federal sentencing today is that the rules of evidence, right to confront witnesses, proof beyond a reasonable doubt and other trial rights don't apply to sentencing. Thus, defendants are routinely sentenced based on acquitted conduct and unproven conduct. They can even be sentenced twice for the same conduct because, even if a particular act (such as carrying a gun) is considered relevant conduct and therefore used to enhance a sentence for, say, drug possession, a second charge for felon in possession of the same gun can be made and second sentence imposed. Or, alternatively, first the feds and then the state prosecute for the same conduct, a prospect that Vick is facing.

Posted by: defense attorney | Aug 21, 2007 12:33:27 PM

Organized postings are also inevitable. One well organized group could post in relation to all these laws. For example, "Alexandria's Parent's Television Council responsible for 23,542 out of 23,547 (all but five) FCC indecency complaints in one one-month period."

Posted by: George | Aug 21, 2007 12:48:52 PM

Will Ms. Jackson's reign of terror ever be over? Will our children ever NOT be victims?

Posted by: S.cotus | Aug 21, 2007 1:18:10 PM

Defense attorney--maybe we'd take seriously your whining about victimhood ending if the defense bar didn't expect us to swallow every sob story about some criminal who came from a broken home.

Posted by: federalist | Aug 21, 2007 1:35:34 PM

Right, S. Cotus, but I don't think most people with common sense would misunderstand the import of the sample.

If 100 people call an insurance company and 95 of them do so to complain, I don't think any sane person would suggest that only 5% of the insurance company's customers are content.

Posted by: | Aug 21, 2007 1:42:56 PM

I know I sure as hell am not posting to the internet about how my health insurance company (AETNA) seemlessly paid for my new glasses as per the terms of their policy.

Posted by: S.cotus | Aug 21, 2007 2:51:02 PM


Posted by: | Aug 21, 2007 4:08:45 PM

Could ALEC be behind this?

Posted by: George | Aug 21, 2007 5:30:17 PM

Where's S.cotus when you need him (or her)? Does my proposal to seize members of the family's property "work corruption of Blood"

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