The victims of Steve Raucci, Schenectady’s most famous convicted arsonist and explosive setter, want compensation, and they are entitled to some. But the question before the state Court of Appeals, which heard oral arguments in the case Thursday, is whether they can get it through the seizure of Raucci’s pension.
While we have little sympathy for Raucci, or the state law on which his defense relies (it protects a public employee’s pension from garnishment or any other legal process), we have a problem with the law on which the victims rely, the state’s Son of Sam Law, which they say trumps the pension law.
The Son of Sam Law was adopted in 1977 when there was rampant speculation about publishers offering serial killer David Berkowitz large sums of money for his story. It extended the statute of limitations for torts and allowed victims to go after assets resulting from the notoriety of the crime.
There were good practical and moral reasons for this: to prevent crimes from being glorified and criminals from profiting by them, and to facilitate compensation for the victims.
But in 1992 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law for being overbroad and interfering with the First Amendment.
The state then changed it to apply not only to book-selling profits but to other profits related to the crime. The new law was considered a model law, and many other states adopted it or something very similar.
Unfortunately, the state didn’t stop there. In 2001, after a convicted cop killer who was kept in administration segregation for more than four years (isolated from other prisoners, confined to his cell 23 hours a day) sued and was awarded $660,000 for having his due process rights violated, the Legislature rashly and drastically expanded the Son of Sam Law.
Now, victims could go after any and all assets of someone convicted of a serious felony (excluding the first $1,000 in a personal bank account and the first 10 percent of compensatory damages won in a civil judgment), from any source, whether related to the crime or not.
They could do it again and again, any time within three years of learning of the assets — for as long as the person is under the watch of the criminal justice system (including prison, probation or parole plus three years). And they are sure to learn of the assets because the law requires any earned income over $10,000 to be reported, by either the payer or criminal, to the Crime Victims Board.
The Son of Sam Law still had the same name, but no longer the original, limited, valid purpose: to keep criminals from profiting from their crime.
In the interest of compensating victims, the amended law disregarded longstanding restitution, reparation, tort and statute of limitations provisions that aim to strike a balance between victims’ and criminals’ rights. And it subjected criminals to extraordinary financial punishment that continues long after the crime is committed, regardless of their economic condition. What is a criminal’s incentive to rehabilitate himself, rejoin society and become self-sufficient if he knows any wages he earns are subject to taking?
A state Supreme Court judge sided with Raucci, saying the pension law prevents his $79,000-a-year pension from being seized. The Appellate Division overturned that decision, saying the Legislature didn’t specifically exclude pensions. That’s true, but it did include areas that could be sought, such as gifts, inheritances, lottery winnings, judgments in civil lawsuits (over $10,000) and investment income.
Whatever the Court of Appeals decides in this case (and we certainly wouldn’t grieve if it went against Raucci), the Legislature needs to revisit both these laws. New York’s Son of Sam Law, which goes far beyond other states’, needs to be scaled back to its original purpose. And the pension law needs to be changed so that victims can get access to at least some of the criminal’s pension, but through ordinary lawsuits and the usual means of compensating victims.