Here is a law that needs to be re-worked. Are you familiar with the “Son of Sam Law,” which forbids felons from profiting by telling their stories in books and movies regarding the hideous deeds in which they took part? Well, the California Supreme Court unanimously ruled in February of this year that this state’s Son of Sam Law violates the First Amendment. What this means is that Barry Keenan, the individual who helped kidnap Frank Sinatra, Jr. in 1963 can now collect approximately a half million dollars from Columbia Pictures who wants to pay Mr. Keenan that amount for the rights to his story.
The goal of the law is to not permit felons to collect from media treatments of their crimes. The law was put into place to use whatever money the felon would collect to compensate the victims and the families of the victim.
The State Supreme Court based its decision on the fact that the law was too broad. The Court was concerned that the statute went too far and could have interfered with constitutionally protected speech.
California’s law was first passed in 1983 and later amended in 1995 to address defects pointed out by the United States Supreme Court in the New York law upon which it was based. New York rewrote its law when it was struck down in 1991 and was able to craft a law that has been deemed constitutional. California amended its law to conform with the New York law, and two lower courts upheld our law and ruled against Mr. Keenan.
In 1963, Frank Sinatra, Jr. was kidnapped at gunpoint and later released after his father paid approximately a quarter million dollars in ransom. Mr. Keenan was convicted along with two others of kidnapping charges and was later approached by Columbia Pictures regarding a proposed motion picture entitled “Snatching Sinatra.”
Mr. Sinatra’s attorney appeared to be startled at the State Supreme Court’s decision. He stated that a law very similar to the one in California has been approved by 43 other state supreme courts, and he doesn’t understand why this court has reached a different conclusion.
My proposed solution to this would be a law which doesn’t permit the felon to profit; however, is not so over broad that it treads upon the all-important First Amendment. One of the State Supreme Court Justices suggested that if California wants to, it can pass a law similar to the one in Virginia, which “avoids the constitutional pitfall of discriminating against speech by barring a criminal defendant from exploiting his or her notoriety by any means.” This sounds good to me. There is no reason to single out speech, and the state law in Virginia wipes out the felon’s ability to collect whether it is speech, tee shirts, or any other memorabilia. Hopefully, the state of California will craft a more careful law so that felons will not profit from their felonious acts, as we certainly don’t want to motivate people to commit crimes by having them think there is a big payday ahead; however, we need a law that is properly respectful of the First Amendment of the Constitution.
Charlie Unger is a criminal defense attorney in the Glendale law firm of Flanagan, Unger, Danis & Grover, and a psychotherapist at the Foothill Centre for Personal and Family Development. Mr. Unger writes a bimonthly column on legal and psychological issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (818) 244-8694