NewYorkUniversity
LawReview
Current Issue

Volume 85, Number 4

October 2010
Articles

Safety in Numbers? Deciding when DNA Alone is Enough to Convict

Andrea Roth

Fueled by police reliance on offender databases and advances in crime scene recovery, a new type of prosecution has emerged in which the government’s case turns on a match statistic explaining the significance of a “cold hit” between the defendant’s DNA profile and the crime-scene evidence. Such cases are unique in that the strength of the match depends on evidence that is almost entirely quantifiable. Despite the growing number of these cases, the critical jurisprudential questions they raise about the proper role of probabilistic evidence, and courts’ routine misapprehension of match statistics, no framework—including a workable standard of proof—currently exists for determining sufficiency of the evidence in such a case. This Article is the first to interrogate the relationship between “reasonable doubt” and statistical certainty in the context of cold hit DNA matches. Examining the concepts of “actual belief” and “moral certainty” underlying the “reasonable doubt” test, I argue that astronomically high source probabilities, while fallible, are capable of meeting the standard for conviction. Nevertheless, the starkly numerical nature of “pure cold hit” evidence raises unique issues that require courts to apply a quantified threshold for sufficiency purposes. I suggest as a starting point—citing recent juror studies and the need for uniformity and systemic legitimacy—that the threshold should be no less favorable to the defendant than a 99.9% source probability.

Incomprehensible Crimes: Defendants with Mental Retardation Charged with Statutory Rape

Elizabeth Nevins-Saunders

Criminal law generally assumes that all defendants are alike. Social science research, however, has demonstrated that most defendants with mental retardation are unlike their peers of average intelligence in their cognitive and behavioral capacities—a difference with profound effects on their blameworthiness. The law acknowledges these differences in a few limited areas, most notably in the Supreme Court’s recent decision excluding defendants with mental retardation from death penalty eligibility. But while that decision arguably has begun to percolate into the rest of criminal law, consideration of the unique circumstances facing defendants with mental retardation has not yet reached the law of statutory rape.

When framed as a strict liability offense, statutory rape precludes the fact-finder from considering the defendant’s state of mind altogether. This exclusion of mens rea is an anomaly in criminal law, where a finding of guilt typically requires proof not only of an “evil act,” but also of an “evil mind.” Commentators have criticized strict liability but have ignored its increased injustice when applied to defendants with mental retardation.

A close analysis of statutory rape law reveals several assumptions which are thought to justify departing from a mens rea requirement for such a significant offense: Would-be defendants are presumed to have notice that sex with underage partners is unlawful; to be in the best position to prevent any harm from occurring; and to be deviant, immoral aggressors. When examined in light of research about mental retardation, however, these assumptions collapse. Further, punishing persons with mental retardation without regard to their awareness of the law, social cues, and the nature of their conduct may also run afoul of constitutional due process and proportionate sentencing principles.

This Article therefore argues that legislators, prosecutors, and judges should modify the ways that defendants with mental retardation may be prosecuted for statutory rape. In particular, the government should have to prove that a defendant with mental retardation had the appropriate mens rea. This Article also recommends formalizing the existing ways of addressing differences in culpability of defendants with mental retardation through charging and sentencing.

A Civilized Nation: The Early American Constitution, the Law of Nations, and the Pursuit of International Recognition

David M. Golove, Daniel J. Hulsebosch

This Article argues, contrary to conventional accounts, that the animating purpose of the American Constitution was to facilitate the admission of the new nation into the European-centered community of “civilized states.” Achieving international recognition—which entailed legal and practical acceptance on an equal footing—was a major aspiration of the founding generation from 1776 through at least the Washington administration in the 1790s, and constitution-making was a key means of realizing that goal. Their experience under the Articles of Confederation led many Americans to conclude that adherence to treaties and the law of nations was a prerequisite to full recognition but that popular sovereignty, at least as it had been exercised at the state level, threatened to derail the nation’s prospects. When designing the Federal Constitution, the framers therefore innovated upon republicanism in a way that balanced their dual commitments to popular sovereignty and earning international respect. The result was a novel and systematic set of constitutional devices designed to ensure that the nation would comply with treaties and the law of nations. These devices, which generally sought to insulate officials responsible for ensuring compliance with the law of nations from popular politics, also signaled to foreign governments the seriousness of the nation’s commitment. At the same time, however, the framers recognized that the participation of the most popular branch in some contexts—most importantly, with respect to the question of war or peace—would be the most effective mechanism for both safeguarding the interests of the people and achieving the Enlightenment aims of the law of nations. After ratification, the founding generation continued to construct the Constitution with an eye toward earning and retaining international recognition, while avoiding the ever-present prospect of war. This anxious and cosmopolitan context is absent from modern understandings of American constitution-making.

Lectures

Reading the Fourth Amendment: Guidance from the Mischief that Gave it Birth

The Honorable M. Blane Michael

Madison Lecture

The Supreme Court begins the twenty-first century with increasing use of a cramped approach to Fourth Amendment interpretation. That approach, championed by Justice Scalia, gives determinative weight to outdated common law rules from the framing era in assessing the reasonableness of searches and seizures. In the annual James Madison Lecture, Judge Blane Michael urges a fundamentally different—yet still traditional— approach. He argues that Fourth Amendment interpretation should be guided by the basic lesson learned from the mischief that gave birth to the Amendment in 1791: Namely, there is a need for constitutional protection against intrusive searches of houses and private papers carried out under grants of open-ended discretion to searching officers. This need for Fourth Amendment protection remains compelling in today’s ever more interconnected world. Above all, the Court should not weaken the Fourth Amendment’s protection by exclusive use of antiquated common law rules from the framing era.

Notes

“[We] Can Neither Confirm nor Deny the Existence or Nonexistence of Records Responsive to Your Request”: Reforming the Glomar Response Under FOIA

Nathan Freed Wessler

Under normal Freedom of Information Act procedures, an individual submits a request for records to a government agency and receives one of three responses: The agency may identify responsive records and release them, determine that there are no responsive records and inform the requestor of this fact, or identify responsive records but determine that they are exempt from disclosure under one of FOIA’s nine statutory exemptions. Since the 1970s, however, a fourth type of response has arisen: Agencies sometimes refuse to confirm or deny whether responsive records do or do not exist on the grounds that acknowledging their very existence itself would reveal secret information. This withholding mechanism, known as the Glomar response, creates special problems for FOIA requestors and receives remarkable deference from federal courts. This Note assesses the justifications for such deference, which are often rooted in separation of powers concerns. Arguing that the level of deference afforded is excessive, this Note posits that both separation of powers and institutional conflict of interest considerations support greater judicial scrutiny of agency invocations of the Glomar response. This Note concludes by offering proposals for judicial, legislative, and administrative reform of the Glomar response.

“Cooperative Prosecution” and the Fifth Amendment Privilege Against Self-Incrimination

Gregory O. Tuttle

In United States v. Balsys, the Supreme Court held definitively that the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination does not apply to fear of solely foreign prosecution. The Court also recognized in dicta that the privilege might apply under a narrow set of circumstances when a witness can prove “cooperative prosecution” between United States law enforcement officials and a foreign sovereign. Subsequent witnesses claiming this “exception” have, however, been unsuccessful. I argue, first, that the “cooperative prosecution exception” is constitutionally mandated by the traditional justifications for the Fifth Amendment privilege and should be elevated above the status of mere dicta. Second, I argue that the Supreme Court dicta as well as subsequent lower court interpretation of this language impose such a high burden on witnesses that the exception (to the extent it is recognized) is essentially nonexistent, even for meritorious claims. Borrowing from recent case law, I propose a prophylactic solution to vindicate the privilege in a manner consistent with Supreme Court precedent.

What Remains of the “Forfeited” Right to Confrontation? Restoring Sixth Amendment Values to the Forfeiture-by-Wrongdoing Rule in Light of Crawford v. Washington and Giles v. California

Rebecca Sims Talbott

Under the forfeiture-by-wrongdoing rule, a criminal defendant loses his Sixth Amendment right to confront a government witness when he intentionally prevents that witness from testifying at trial. As the rule currently operates, any and all prior statements by the missing witness can be admitted as substantive evidence against the defendant, regardless of whether they have been subjected to any of the procedural elements of confrontation. In this Note, I argue against such a “complete forfeiture” rule and propose a more “limited” rule in its stead. I argue, contrary to most courts and scholars, that forfeiture-by-wrongdoing cannot be justified by its punitive rhetoric, rendering its sweeping “complete forfeiture” result vulnerable to criticisms based on the primary lessons of Crawford v. Washington.

Imagining a Federal Emergency Board: A Framework for Legalizing Executive Emergency Power

Rachel Goodman

In the United States, the tripartite system ensures the rule of law by dividing the power to make laws between Congress and the President. The system, however, makes virtually no provision for moments of grave emergency, in which the President is expected to act before authorization from Congress can be secured. As a result, presidential discretion—exercised first in emergency—creeps into nonemergency governance, corroding the rule of law.

This Note employs John Locke’s concept of the federative power to define the emergency moment as limited to that period of time during which it is logistically impossible for Congress to approve executive action. From there, it proposes an administrative agency, the Federal Emergency Board, with the power to declare an emergency during this interval, thereby authorizing and legalizing the exercise of executive power.

Without ignoring the somewhat fantastical nature of this proposal, this Note engages seriously in a discussion of its constitutionality. It explores the remedies that would remain available to individuals whose rights were violated during a declared emergency. Finally, it examines whether a sitting President would be likely to seek authorization for his emergency action. It concludes that, at the very least, the existence of the Federal Emergency Board would remind Americans that the system of checks and balances does not disappear during moments of emergency.

The Bogeyman of “Harm to Children”: Evaluating the Government Interest Behind Broadcast Indecency Regulation

Jessica C. Collins

Although the government’s interest in preventing harm to children has played a central role in justifying regulation of broadcast indecency by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), courts generally have failed to examine this asserted interest. In this Note, I argue that this failure has added great uncertainty to indecency regulation and that more thorough consideration of this interest may provide greater clarity on the boundaries of permissible speech. I first review the doctrinal history of the regulation of indecency, both within broadcasting and in other media, to demonstrate that the interest in preventing harm to children, though a central justification of the regulatory scheme, has been ill defined. I then examine the recent case of FCC v. Fox Television Stations, Inc. to illustrate that the vagueness of the current FCC indecency standard raises constitutional concerns. I contend that the vagueness may derive, at least in part, from courts’ failure to identify the type of harm to children that the government seeks to prevent through restrictions on indecent speech. Although the FCC’s structure may be inapt for identifying speech that is harmful to children, courts should undertake an investigation into the nature of the harm that indecency regulation seeks to prevent in order to provide limits on the scope of government authority. In the final Part, I therefore analyze five potential government interests, each stemming from a distinct potential harm that indecent broadcasting may create, and demonstrate how identifying the harm that indecency regulation is trying to address may restrict and define the scope of permissible government action.

The Law of Neutrality and the Conflict with Al Qaeda

Tess Bridgeman

Many aspects of the United States’s armed conflict with al Qaeda and associated forces have been intensely debated by legal scholars and policymakers, yet one important question has thus far been almost completely ignored: Where, if at all, does the law of neutrality fit into the legal framework governing the conduct of this armed conflict? I argue that neutrality is one of several principles that ensure the completeness of the modern law of armed conflict (LOAC) framework. Neutrality is particularly important in achieving geographic completeness of the legal regime. The 1949 Geneva Conventions (GCs) that form the bedrock of our LOAC framework were written against the background understanding that neutrality would operate wherever GC protections did not apply. In sharp contrast to most wars, the geographic distinction between belligerent and neutral territory is highly unstable in the conflict with al Qaeda. Ironically, at the point in modern warfare when the law of neutrality may be most important, it is being ignored.

The Obama administration has begun to apply analogous provisions of the LOAC rules developed in inter-state wars to its current conflicts—a recognition that this conflict, like all others, should be waged according to a complete legal regime. To date, however, the United States has not recognized the role of neutrality in its conflict
with al Qaeda. This Note begins to fill that gap. While arguing that the law of neutrality is more important in this conflict than many others due to the conflict’s global nature, this Note concludes that recognizing neutrality will only be a partial solution. Neutrality instructs, however, that the LOAC rules themselves may be applicable almost globally because of the asymmetrical nature of the conflict. I argue that the central purpose of recognizing neutrality in our current conflicts is to avoid selectively applying parts of a comprehensive legal system, thereby leaving legal black holes in which some individuals have no protection. What matters most is that the intended fundamental feature of the LOAC regime—its completeness—is not abandoned each time a new form of conflict is recognized.