The readers of this blog are amazing. I had originally planned to do a few introductory posts giving an overview of how legal systems work, but the comments to last week’s post raised so many interesting questions that I’m going to jump into one of those.
Vonda N. McIntyre wrote:
I’m wrestling with what a legal system might look like in a future in which people travel at relativistic speeds, so there’s a lot of time involved, though the people age slowly. Suppose you’re light-years from a place where a crime happened, and you recognize the criminal. How wild-west would this be?
I quite dislike SF in which people run around shooting people with few or no consequences, so would prefer to avoid having the protagonist whip out a raygun and shoot the war criminal.
This raises all kinds of fascinating questions.
Usually people accused of crimes are prosecuted in the jurisdiction where the crime occurred, but if the person hops a spaceship traveling at what Ursula K. Le Guin calls NAFAL (nearly as fast as light) speeds, several hundred years might pass before they’re back in that area. Neither the evidence or anyone who cares about the crime is likely to still be around.
Then there’s the statute of limitations. After a certain number of years, people can’t be prosecuted for most crimes, though there is no limit for murder and a few other crimes. (This is why the activists who burglarized an FBI office in 1971 can now come forward: the statute of limitations ran out a long time ago.)
If you decide the statute of limitations is tied to the accused’s lifetime, not the time in the place where the crime was committed, you’ve still got the problems with preservation of evidence, not to mention witnesses who died a century earlier.
Thinking about this makes it clear why so many SF writers take the easy way out and resort to the vigilante justice Vonda (and I) deplore.
The easiest solution would be to have an intergalactic tribunal that has jurisdiction over certain serious crimes and can prosecute someone regardless of whether they are in the jurisdiction where the crime was committed or not. This would require some kind of digitized upload of all significant evidence and testimony, not to mention an agreement between the various planets (and nations on those planets) about what crimes would be covered. I’d guess murder and big-time fraud a la Bernie Madoff would be likely candidates, while smoking pot would probably not merit inclusion.
I don’t particularly like this solution. Likely it would be run by professional judges, with no juries. In fact, since we’re talking science fictionally, it would probably be run by artificial intelligence. The accused wouldn’t get to confront any witnesses against them, though perhaps the AI could ask hard questions of everyone involved in putting together the materials.
While I’m not fond of criminals, I do have a certain amount of passion invested in making sure the accused get fair trials. In my mind, that includes having a defense attorney who can make the witnesses stumble. This system wouldn’t allow for that.
My only other thought is just letting the person get away with it if they can get off planet. Can’t say I like that one either, especially when we’re talking about some of the really nasty things human beings do to each other.
What other solutions can people come up with? There must be some other ideas besides vigilante justice, AI tribunals, and letting the criminal get off scot-free.
Right now dealing with crime in a NAFAL travel world is just an exercise in imagination, but already today we’re confronting technological changes that don’t fit easily into existing laws.
Privacy, for example. The federal government is harvesting cell phone and computer data. Verizon and Google know where I am whenever my phone or computer is turned on – and maybe even when it’s turned off. Many people say we can’t do anything about that because the technology changes so much faster than the legislative process. Law, as I’ve said before, is inherently conservative, while technology is moving at close to NAFAL speeds.
And, of course, we want the convenience of GPS and a phone that knows what time zone we’re in when we get off the plane.
What about threats? Threats delivered via Twitter or in comments to blog posts are a major issue, particularly for women. Most U.S. jurisdictions have laws against making “terroristic threats” – that means threats designed to scare the bejesus out of someone, not threats of a terror attack – but those laws don’t work well when it’s hard to figure out who is really making the treat. And if the person is halfway around the world, the local police have no jurisdiction.
Just looking at privacy and threat issue, I can see a need for greatly improved international cooperation on our one planet right now. The world has some international law, but countries tend to pick and choose whether they will go along with it. The U.S. is not a party to the treaties that allow international prosecutions against leaders of countries for genocide or crimes against humanity, just as an example.
It’s hard enough to change the law in one country fast enough to keep up with tech; just imagine how much longer it will take to negotiate treaties with all the necessary countries to deal with threat and privacy issues on an international scale.
There’s a reason why science fiction writers like one-world governments and intergalactic federations. Legally — and fictionally — they’re a lot easier to construct!