American Lawbreaking

Introduction
The law, lawyers, and the court.
Oct. 14 2007 8:03 AM

American Lawbreaking

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At the federal prosecutor's office in the Southern District of New York, the staff, over beer and pretzels, used to play a darkly humorous game. Junior and senior prosecutors would sit around, and someone would name a random celebrity—say, Mother Theresa or John Lennon.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer. Click image to expand.

It would then be up to the junior prosecutors to figure out a plausible crime for which to indict him or her. The crimes were not usually rape, murder, or other crimes you'd see on Law & Order but rather the incredibly broad yet obscure crimes that populate the U.S. Code like a kind of jurisprudential minefield: Crimes like "false statements" (a felony, up to five years), "obstructing the mails" (five years), or "false pretenses on the high seas" (also five years). The trick and the skill lay in finding the more obscure offenses that fit the character of the celebrity and carried the toughest sentences. The, result, however, was inevitable: "prison time."

As this story suggests, American law is underenforced—and we like it that way. Full enforcement of every last law on the books would put all of us in prison for crimes such as "injuring a mail bag." No enforcement of our laws, on the other hand, would mean anarchy. Somehow, officials must choose what laws really matter.

This series explores the black spots in American law: areas in which our laws are routinely and regularly broken and where the law enforcement response is … nothing. These are the areas where, for one reason or another, we've decided to tolerate lawbreaking and let a law—duly enacted and still on the books—lay fallow or near dead.

Why are there dead zones in U.S. law? The answer goes beyond the simple expense of enforcement but betrays a deeper, underlying logic. Tolerated lawbreaking is almost always a response to a political failure—the inability of our political institutions to adapt to social change or reach a rational compromise that reflects the interests of the nation and all concerned parties. That's why the American statutes are full of laws that no one wants to see fully enforced—or even enforced at all.

This political failure can happen for many reasons. Sometimes a law was passed by another generation with different ideas of right and wrong, but the political will necessary to repeal the law does not exist. Sometimes, as we'll see with polygamy or obscenity, the issue is too sensitive to discuss in rational terms. And sometimes the law as written is a symbol of some behavior to which we may aspire, which nevertheless remains wholly out of touch with reality. Whatever the reason, when politics fails, institutional tolerance of lawbreaking takes over.

There will, of course, always be some lawbreaking that goes unpunished simply because law enforcement is expensive—not every shoplifter is caught, and it's not worth expending the resources to catch every kleptomaniac. But the areas we will look at here are different: What's going on here is that the parties all know the law is being broken, accept it, and—while almost never overtly saying so—both the "criminals" and law enforcement concede that everyone likes it better that way. The law in question thus continues to have a formal existence, and, as we shall see, it may become a kind of zoning ordinance, enforced only against very public or flagrant behavior. But few, except sometimes a vocal minority, actually think we'd be better off if the law were fully enforced.

The importance of understanding why and when we will tolerate lawbreaking cannot be overstated. Lawyers and journalists spend most of their time watching the president, Congress, and the courts as they make law. But tolerance of lawbreaking constitutes one of the nation's other major—yet most poorly understood—ways of creating social and legal policy. Almost as much as the laws that we enact, the lawbreaking to which we shut our eyes reflects how tolerant U.S. society really is to individual or group difference. It forms a major part of our understanding of how the nation deals with what was once called "vice." While messy, strange, hypocritical, and in a sense dishonest, widespread tolerance of lawbreaking forms a critical part of the U.S. legal system as it functions.

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