Burglars break into a warehouse, tripping a silent alarm. The police arrive and give chase. Shelves are toppled and merchandise strewn as the burglars flee with the cops on their heels.
The criminals stop at a nearby red light and pull a driver from his car. They break his neck as they toss him to the ground, commandeer the auto and race off into the night.
They are later caught at a police roadblock, but the question for this column is whether the driver can collect from the government for his hospital bills, for wages lost during recuperation, for the pain he suffered. And what about that broken merchandise and shelving? Will the state pay the company for it?
The answers depend on where the incident took place. In California, chances are good that most of the actual, unreimbursed expenses incurred by both the company and the driver would be covered by the state, but there would be no payments for suffering. Rhode Island would compensate the driver for his pain and suffering, but wouldn't pay the warehouse owner anything. The driver would have to show a serious financial need before he could collect in New York, Texas, Florida, Michigan, and the District of Columbia, but not in most other states.
Georgia would not pay any of the expenses, but would contribute up to $5,000 to a "good Samaritan" who, for instance, took after the fleeing burglars and had his own car hit in the chase. In many states, there could be no compensation if the victim and the criminal were related. And in other jurisdictions, such as Arizona, Mississippi, Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire, there are no programs at all to compensate crime victims.
But states without programs are in the minority. According to a Justice Department survey recently completed by Search Group Inc., a criminal justice consulting company, there are only 11. And that's a dramatic turnaround from just a decade ago, when state governments were becoming more respectful of the rights of accused criminals but still did little for the victims. Publicity over the plight of victims has led most states to appropriate enough money, at the very least, to pay for the hospital bills -- or funeral costs -- of innocent citizens injured or killed in criminal encounters. Many states will compensate a victim for up to $25,000; in Alaska, the limit is $40,000. NN ow, federal funds are beginning to pour into state proN grams. A law enacted by Congress last year funnels money collected by federal courts from fines or bail forfeitures -- money that used to go into the Treasury's general fund -- into state victim reimbursement plans. In a couple of years, that U.S. payout could reach $50 million a year, but no state can receive more than 35 percent of the amount it spent from its own coffers on victim compensation in the previous year.
The new federal law still allows for a lot of leeway in what a state pays for and what it does not. But it does require that any state victim compensation program that receives federal money must allow reimbursement for funeral and medical expenses and lost wages.
The federal legislation does not mandate coverage for pain and suffering, but it does say that the state programs must cover any psychological counseling the victims need to help them get over the trauma of a criminal attack. And the new law requires states to treat nonresidents and residents in the same manner -- a provision directly aimed at Nevada and New Orleans, which exclude visitors from their reimbursement plans.
Personal injury looms as much more important than property loss in the state compensation schemes. California is the only state that specifically authorizes the state to pay for damage done by the police in trying to capture a suspect -- or the suspect in trying to get away from the police. Other states try to limit awards for property damage to the neediest victims. For instance, Louisiana will make grants to repair damage done by criminals to a victim's home, but not to other kinds of property. New York will pay for some injuries to the property of the elderly and of "good Samaritans" who try to aid police or crime victims, but not the young or middle-aged who were the direct targets of the criminals.
The trend seems to be to liberalize the victim compensation programs once they have been set in place. A Search Group report to the American Judicature Society notes that Illinois originally excluded from coverage any victim of an "automobile offense," but recently changed the law to cover those hit by drivers later convicted of being drunk. And California no longer requires a showing of financial hardship to recover compensation.