April 9, 2013

When A Crime Becomes A Crime

In a perfect world, the line between innocent behavior and a criminal act would be bright, clear, and flashing like a neon sign on the Vegas strip. Alas, this isn’t a perfect world and sometimes that line gets very blurry, if it doesn’t evaporate completely. Two cases in the news recently show just how hard the line can be to find and how easy it is to cross it.

The first, and more notorious, is the case of the “cannibal cop” in New York, Gilberto Valle. As this story points out :
In July, Valle had another chat with a different online friend—a man called ‘Moody Blues.’ Their conversation flowed very well. Moody Blues, a male nurse who lives in England, pretended to be a connoisseur of cannibalism: He said he'd eaten lots of women and offered up his favorite recipes. Valle responded that he'd been working on a document called ‘Abducting and Cooking Kimberly: A Blueprint,’ and promised to send it over. That Word file had a photo of his real-life friend from college, Kimberly Sauer, and a list of supplies that he would need to carry out a crime. It also gave a set of made-up details about the victim: a fictitious last name, date of birth, alma mater, and hometown.

Then he and Moody Blues agreed to cook and eat Kimberly together over Labor Day, at Valle’s secluded place ‘up in the mountains,’ a spot accessible via ‘lots of winding roads.’ Valle lived in an apartment building in Queens.
There’s more nauseating detail in the story, but the gist of it is that, for all his talk, Vale never actually abducted, killed, and consumed anybody. Nonetheless, he was charged with conspiracy to commit such a grisly murder. As another story explains:
The bulk of the evidence regarding Gilberto Valle's plot consisted of online communication between the ‘cannibal cop’ and fellow cannibal-role-playing kinksters at a social media site called DarkFetish.net. The defense team had argued that while Mr. Valle had gruesome fantasies about roasting women on spits, they were just that: fantasies.

Prosecutors examined 24 online conversations Mr. Valle had and determined that three appeared to be real. The defense team argued to the jury that the 21 conversations the FBI considered ‘fantasy’ were no different in substance than the three they singled out as ‘real.’ Either way, Mr. Valle had a right to free speech, they said.

The jury disagreed and found that Mr. Valle had acted in furtherance of these grisly schemes – researching recipes for chloroform, downloading photos of his intended victims – to conclude he had crossed into the realm of criminal intent. In a separate charge, he was also convicted of unauthorized use of a law enforcement database to look up the women.
As both stories note, there is concern in some circles that Valle was convicted purely for his own fantasies, rather than any tangible act that put someone else in danger. While the specter of “thought crime” is enough to make anyone sit up and take notice, I’m not sure Valle’s case is the best one to use as an example. Regardless of what he said online, he took actions in the real world that appear to be part of a scheme. Most critically, he committed another crime – accessing the database – along the way. I can buy, somewhat, the idea of playing out the fantasy through some of the other acts doesn’t show intent to actually do anything. But once you’ve subjected yourself to criminal liability in the process, it seems clearly enough that the line has been crossed.

More troubling to me is the tale of Alfred Anaya, as detailed over at Wired.

Anaya was a car stereo installer in California who branched out into what are called “traps” – hidden compartments in cars in which items can be stored. They can be staggeringly complex:
In recent years, trap makers have competed to see who can dream up the most elaborate opening tricks. The acknowledged masters of this art are the Dominican-born installers of the Bronx, many of whom work out of auto body shops on Jerome Avenue—a gritty strip that DEA agents call the Silicon Valley of trap making. ‘The Dominicans started doing voice activation about six years ago,’ says [Maryland sheriff Michael] Lewis, who teaches classes in trap recognition to law-enforcement agencies nationwide. ‘I have videotape of a Dominican trap—you have to activate cruise control, pull one window up while you pull another window down, and you speak. And when you speak, you complete a circuit and activate the compartment. It’s pretty badass.’
Having said that, the most effective traps are the ones that aren’t detected in the first place. That was where Anaya really excelled.

“Now wait a second,” you’re saying to yourself. “I’ve seen Star Wars. I know that hidden compartments in a vehicle are used for smuggling.” And, of course, you’re right. But they’re not only used from that purpose. After all, what is a closed locked trunk if not a compartment used to hide from view objects you don’t want seen by the general public? Traps are just a further extension of that principle, for people who have particular valuables they want to protect.

That’s what Anaya thought, anyway, until a guy named Esteban came to him to fix a trap he had previously installed:
Anaya was unsettled by this request, for he had suspicions about the nature of Esteban’s work. There is nothing intrinsically illegal about building traps, which are commonly used to hide everything from pricey jewelry to legal handguns. But the activity runs afoul of California law if an installer knows for certain that his compartment will be used to transport drugs. The maximum penalty is three years in prison. Anaya thus thought it wise to deviate from his standard no-questions-asked policy before agreeing to honor his warranty. ‘There’s nothing in there I shouldn’t know about, is there?’ he asked. Esteban assured him that he needn’t worry.

* * *

Anaya punched a precise hole through the upholstery with his 24-volt Makita drill, probing for the screws that anchored the seat to the hydraulics. After a few moments he heard a loud pop as the drill seemed to puncture something soft. When he finally managed to remove the backseat, he saw what he had hit: a wad of cash about 4 inches thick. The whole compartment was overflowing with such bundles, several of which spilled onto the truck’s floor. Esteban had jammed the trap by stuffing it with too much cash—over $800,000 in total.

Anaya stumbled back from the truck’s cab, livid. ‘Get it out of here,’ he growled at Esteban. ‘I don’t want to know about this. I don’t want any problems.’
But it was too late. Esteban was part of a big drug ring that shipped drugs from California to Kansas. Once they were all arrested in the heartland, the feds came for Anaya, too, charging him with conspiracy, even though he really knew nothing about the actual drug smuggling operation. It didn’t matter. He made the mistake of going to trial and, with actual conspirators cutting deals to testify, didn’t stand a chance:
When the trial started on January 25, 2011, the lead prosecutor, an assistant US attorney named Sheri McCracken, argued that Anaya was one of the main reasons the smuggling ring had evolved into a multimillion-dollar enterprise. The organization ‘moved up in the world when they met Mr. Anaya,” she told the jury. ‘He built supreme compartments, and because he did that, drug hauling became easier … But for Mr. Anaya’s compartment building, lots of loads would be lost.’

* * *

McCracken took no pity on him. ‘He makes the drug world work,’ she told the judge. ‘He is equivalent to what I consider somewhat of a genius that takes cocaine and molds them into shapes so that they can be moved in plain sight … I don’t feel bad at all today. In fact, this is a pleasure. And Mr. Anaya says that he’s part of this big group of people that puts in compartments. He’s part of this secret society, I guess. Well, I hope he tells a friend, because we’re coming for them.’
Not only was Anaya was convicted, he was sentenced to more than 24 years in prison, double what the guys who actually ran the drugs received.

In both cases, the defendants involved have a good argument that they never knew what they were doing was illegal. Nor is it a coincidence that both were convicted under the squishier heading of “conspiracy” rather than for substantive offenses. But should the law reach that far?

It’s a common legal maxim that a person’s intent can be inferred from his actions. But what if the actions themselves are susceptible to multiple interpretations? A man shoots a gun and kills another man. Is it murder? If the shooter acted with malice and intent. Or was it self-defense? It was if the shooter was in reasonable fear for his life. Ultimately, Valle’s and Anaya’s behavior is the same thing – conduct that could be innocent, or it could be criminal.

At the end of the day, the line between crime and innocence is often blurry. That’s why we have juries, who get the awesome power to decide on which side of the line a defendant stands. They probably get it more right than wrong, but I’m sure that’s cold comfort to guys like Valle and Anaya. But in an imperfect world, imperfect justice is the most we can hope for.

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