Supreme Court bars states from seizing criminals' royalties to pay victims Ruling casts doubt on Maryland's law

December 11, 1991|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court blocked states yesterday from getting money for victims of crime by taking over the fees or royalties that criminals get for telling their stories in books, magazines, movies or broadcasts.

In a unanimous ruling, the court struck down a New York law designed to stop criminals from making profits out of their crimes, saying the law violated the free speech rights of criminals whose storytelling itself is not a crime, and the rights of publishers and others who pay for criminals' stories.

In voiding the New York law, the court raised serious constitutional doubts about similar laws in Maryland and 41 other states, as well as a federal victim compensation law.

But the court's main opinion made it clear that states could pass laws to shift money or property from criminals to their victims -- so long as such laws did not single out the proceeds of storytelling as the sole source of payments to victims.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who wrote the ruling, indicated that the court was sympathetic to states' goals of "ensuring that victims of crime are compensated by those who harm them" and of "ensuring that criminals do not profit from their crimes."

But, the ruling said, New York's law did not seek to achieve those goals by a law that was written carefully or narrowly enough to avoid interfering with rights of free expression under the First Amendment.

The state law was so sweeping, the court noted, that it might have applied to books by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Malcolm X and other famous people who had had brushes with the law -- sometimes involving noble personal acts.

Nullified by the ruling was the "Son of Sam" law, adopted by New

York in 1977 when lawmakers feared that serial killer David R. Berkowitz -- who called himself "Son of Sam" -- would sell his story.

The New York law was never used against Berkowitz, even though a book, "Son of Sam," was later published about his crimes. He voluntarily paid his share of royalties to his victims or their survivors.

But the state's "criminal speech" law has been used to go after the proceeds of the stories of other well-known criminals, including school headmistress Jean Harris, convicted

killer of "diet doctor" Herman Tarnower, and Mark David Chapman, convicted of killing John Lennon.

The court noted that the New York law sought money for victims only out of the proceeds of criminals' "storytelling" and made no attempt to get at other funds held by criminals.

Eight justices supported the outcome. Justice Clarence Thomas, who did not join in the ruling, was not on the court when the case, Simon & Schuster vs. New York State Crime Victims Board (No. 90-1059), arose.

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