Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Nevada Supreme Court Overturns State "Son of Sam" Law

June 22, 2005

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The original "Son of Sam" law was enacted in 1977 in New York to ensure that the infamous serial killer David Berkowitz, known as the "Son of Sam," would not profit from any future memoirs he might publish from prison regarding his murders. Several other states, including Nevada, followed New York's lead and implemented their own "Son of Sam" laws, regardless of the fact that the United States Supreme Court struck down New York's law as unconstitutional. Generally, such laws provide that all proceeds that a felon receives from published materials about his offense must be turned over to his victim's family.

Jimmy Lerner is a Nevada felon, convicted for the murder of Mark Slavin. Lerner wrote a book in prison, "You Got Nothing Coming, Notes From a Prison Fish," which describes both his life experiences in prison as well as Slavin's murder. Pursuant to the Nevada "Son of Sam" law, Donna Seres, the victim's sister, sued Lerner for all the profits from his book. The Nevada Supreme Court ruled against Seres and confirmed what the lower courts had held, that the "Son of Sam" law failed to satisfy the strict scrutiny test that the First Amendment required be applied to it, and thus that the law was unconstitutional.

The First Amendment requires that all content-based restrictive legislation must satisfy strict scrutiny. In other words the law must address a compelling state interest and must be narrowly tailored to achieve that interest. While the law did serve Nevada's compelling state interest in "the compensation of crime victims and the prevention of direct profiteering from criminal misconduct," the Nevada Supreme Court held that the law was not narrowly tailored enough to be upheld.

Under the construction of the law, victims would be able to recover profits from felons' works that merely mentioned their crimes but were virtually unrelated to them, such as memoirs about prison life. The Nevada Supreme Court also found that it would be impractical to try and measure what percentage of the profits were aptly related to the crime and thus potentially recoverable by the victim's family. As well, the Nevada Supreme Court found that the law was broad and over-inclusive as it applied to all those who had "committed" a felony rather than only those persons actually "convicted" of such a felony.

Seres v. Lerner, 102 P.3d 91, 2004 Nev.LEXIS 12733 (Nev. 2004).


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Copyright 2005, Mark Litwak