Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Her mother's keeper?

Scenario: A large pick-up truck speeds through a construction zone on a 2 lane highway, driving recklessly on the shoulder. About 20 minutes later, the truck comes back the other direction, again speeding and not staying in the one open lane. The truck strikes 3 construction workers, killing 2 of them. State troopers find the truck and begin a chase. The passenger in the car, adult daughter of the driver, calls 911. She is scared, not sure what's going on, and concerned that the troopers might shoot her mother. The truck is eventually stopped using stop sticks. Both women are taken to the county jail.

I read all of the major newspapers in the state and they all have pretty robust discussion boards. The day this story broke, I couldn't stop myself from participating in the discussion. The thing that struck me was that all of the commenters expressed horror at what "they" had done. All commenters wanted "them" locked up forever.

I posted that I found it interesting how many people were lumping them together as if the driver and passenger are equally responsible. Some people agreed with me. She was not in control of the car (there was never any dispute or question about who was driving). Furthermore, she did the only thing she really could do: she called 911. Isn't that what we ask of bystanders to crime? You don't need to handle the offender yourself. Report it to the trained professionals and let them take over.

Some people, though, were just sure the passenger was just as guilty as the driver. I was frankly shocked at the level of vitriol aimed at the passenger. She was guilty just for being in the car. She was guilty for being related to the mother. She was guilty based on the comments she made to reporters after she'd been arrested, put in an orange jumpsuit, and handcuffed. She said it was an accident and her mother didn't mean to hit anything. Clearly, she must be just as bad as her mother.

Very few posters were at all willing to put themselves in her shoes. They would not feel any sympathy for a young woman, raised by an unstable mother, who had just seen her mother plow over two men and then been chased by police for 10 miles. They just wanted to blame as many people as they possibly could with no thought.

When I did try to push them to think about some kind of principled way to apply aider and abettor liability, they all resisted, yelling at me for coming up with crazy "what ifs" to distract from the real issue. But I just wanted people to stop and think before assigning criminal liability willy-nilly. See, I think that we should at least try to formulate some principles of liability outside of the facts of a particular case rather than making things up on the fly in response to new incidents.

So I asked some posters what they think the passenger should have done to disclaim liability for the driver's actions. People suggested all kinds of ridiculous things. Pull the keys out of the ignition! (Um, physically impossible to do as the key locks until the car is back in park.) Grab control of the wheel! (Great idea at 70+ miles per hour.) Downshift the gears! (Again, no risk of danger there...) Of course, no one acknowledged the validity of my point that it's fundamentally unfair to require a person to place him or herself in personal danger to avoid being held liable for someone else's crime. People just continued to rail about the daughter's terrible immorality. Her incredible culpability for "sitting back and watching" her mother kill two people and for not stopping it.

So, here's my rant. People are so quick to judge and so utterly unwilling to put thought into it before reaching their snap conclusions. All I ask of people is to think a little bit before reaching your unshakeable conclusion. If your conclusion doesn't stand up to a little testing, acknowledge it and acknowledge that you probably need to rethink your conclusion. And before you judge a person for how she acted in a situation, do your damndest to put yourself in her position and be just a little honest about how you would have acted. I know, that's not as much fun, but try it. Instead of telling everybody that you're a better person than anyone else, you might actually become a better person!

As for the ever-increasing reliance on guilt by association: STOP IT! A daughter should not have to disown her crazy mother to avoid being held responsible for the mother's crimes. Talk about immoral. Let's please, please, please stop holding all people near a crime equally responsible. Yes, sometimes it can be hard work to sift through the facts and figure out who is culpable for what, but that's the prosecutor's job! And ultimately the jury's. We shouldn't just stop doing it at all because it's hard.

A person isn't responsible for the actions of the driver just because she's a passenger in the same car. A guy hanging out with a friend isn't responsible for murder just because his friend pulls out a gun and shoots someone. Aiding and abetting is more than being in the presence of the criminal! It's supposed to be, anyway. Courts have been hideously sliding on this point in recent years, allowing juries to infer the bystander's guilt just from his mere presence. That is just wrong. It's allowing the state to avoid its burden of proving intent. It's allowing juries to find everyone there guilty, which is so much easier than doing the critical thinking necessary to consider each individual defendant's actual culpability. But we really do owe it to all potential defendants to do the hard work. It isn't just or fair to lump everyone in together. Not in a criminal justice system that is supposed to provide due process to each individual.

The good news is that two different county attorneys could have tried to charge the daughter and see if a jury would find her guilty. Neither did. What a concept, eh? Prosecutors actually using their discretion not to charge someone that shouldn't be held criminally liable, but probably would have been by a jury. Of course, people are still complaining bitterly that the daughter got away with it...

1 comment:

G said...

My mother in law is schizophrenic. I'm afraid if we didn't let her live with us that she would be un-medicated and eventually neglected or maybe even murdered in a adult living facility because of her obnoxious behaviour (when she is medicated she is hard to take, off her medications it's unbelievable). I think we know how to handle her, but I worry I might be held responsible if when she is out on one of her walks she somehow causes a car accident or something similar. A woman hit her in a cross walk a few years ago, so I'm not unnecessarily worried. I don't want to loose my house and business because of my insane relative, but I don't want her neglected in a mental hospital or a escaping to live under a bridge somewhere. Her whole live revolves around taking long walks and smoking. What should a responsible person do in such a case?

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