Image a society in which the penalties for stealing a $55 welfare check are as severe as those for embezzling $100,000 from a bank.
Or, how about a legal system in which industrial polluters could be charged with "third degree (negligent) homicide" if poisons they dumped into the environment caused death?
Such laws do not exist anywhere today in the United States, but they could come into existence here under a set of far-reaching proposals draft by the District of Columbia Law Revision Commission, a congressionally created panel of attorneys and community representatives named in 1975 to help overhaul major portions of the city's turn-of-the-century criminal code.
The recommendations cover the broad areas of homicide, robbery, theft, burglary, assault, abduction, sex offenses, arson and forgery. They are aimed not only at modernizing the language of present laws but at making them more appropriate for the uniquely urban, densely populated and politically complex setting of the District, according to the commision's commentary accompanying the proposed revisions.
Thus, for the first time, the city would have specific laws against terrorism and hostage taking, whether for political or nonpolitical purposes.
Intentional disruption of a public service, such as the Metro system or the city's electrical utility, with its potential for affecting thousands of people at once, would be singled out as an especially serious offense.
The theft laws would be expanded to include such modern-day acts as computer printout theft, piracy of musical recordings and theft-by-commercial-copying of mailing lists and other documents where the "information," rather than the actual paper, is the object of value.Z
In recommending the same severe penalty for stealing a $55 welfare or government retirement check under certain circumstances as for embezzling $25,000 or more from a bank, the commission said it recognizes "the accentuated problems that may be posed to retired or poor persons by even the temporary loss of funds and . . . that the injury caused to a poor or retired person by such a crime is equivalent to the loss by a wealthy victim of $25,000 or more."
Under present law, theft of a $55 check (petit larceny) is punishable by a maximum of one year in prison and a $200 fine. Embezzlement, by contrast, is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $1,000 fine.
The 19-member commission includes a wide variety of attorneys and community representatives ranging from U.S. Attorney Earl J. Silbert and Corporation Counsel John R. Risher to David Eaton, senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Church, Public Defender Service deputy director Donald Wheeler Johns and Diana Josephson, executive director of the Washington area Civil Liberties Union. Attorney Stephen I. Danzansky is chairman.
The commission has not yet completed its study and recommendations on sentencing, probably the most difficult and politically sensitive part of its task.
While it has not yet decided precisely how long the $35 welfare check thief and the $25,000 bank embezzler should spend in prison, it has agreed their crimes are of the highest degree of theft and the two should suffer the same consequences.
"The gravity of an offense," the commission said, "is measured, in general by the defendant's state of mind and by the extent of the injury, loss or risk of injury or loss caused by the defendant's conduct. This system of categorizing permits related criminal conduct to be grouped together by subject and by the nature of the social harm involved."
The commission's proposals on sentencing are expected to be published in the next month, in time for public hearings scheduled in the latter half of November on the commission's entire package of proposals.
The hearings will be held jointly in a unique arrangement by the commission, the D.C. City Council judiciary committee and members of the judiciary subcommittee of the House District Committee.
In an effort to keep up with contemporary literary style, the revision commission also recommended that all future references in the code to victims and defendants be sexually "neutral," so that men, women, and even corporations would be referred to only as "persons" or "actors."
Commission staff members, who say rewriting the code to free it of sexual references has been a difficult and sometimes tortuous task, also note that the term "actor," unlike "defendant" or "perpetrator," is free of any accusatory taint.
The commission argued over the use of the word "rape," with some members wanting to retain it to describe the most serious of sexual offenses.
But, says the commission commentary, "the majority believes that use of the word 'rape' clearly has male-female connotations and, in obliterating distinctions, between sexes in the definition of these crimes, it becomes necessary to use neutral terminology. Consequently, the term 'sexual assault' has been substituted."
This decision has the effect of categorizing all offenses in which physical penetration occurs - rape, oral sodomy and anal sodomy - as "sexual assault," regardless of the sex of the participants. All lesser sexual offenses in which penetration does not occur are categorized as "unlawful sexual contact."
Commission staffers said this alignment of the law would permit consenting adult homosexuals to cohabit without fear of arrest while making the act of "homosexual rape," most frequently associated with male prison society, equally as serious as male-female rape.
Another major revision recommended by the commission involves the homicide statutes. The commission would junk the present structure of first and second degree murder and voluntary and involuntary manslaughter and replace them with three newly defined degrees of homicide.
First degree homicide would be "intentionally" or "knowingly" killing a person or recklessly causing death under circumstances manifesting "extreme indifference" to the value of human life. This definition merges elements of first and second degree murder under present law but eliminates traditional references to "premeditation" and "malice aforethought."
Second degree homicide under the commission's proposal would involve murder in the "heat of passion," which is now defined as voluntary manslaughter. The commission would redefine it as killing "recklessly" or under circumstances that would be first degree homicide except that the death is caused by the assailant's "loss of self control" in a situation where an "ordinary person" would be likely to lose self control.
Third degree homicide would be a broadly applicable statute on all forms of "negligent" homicide. Current negligent homicide law applies only to vehicular deaths. Under the commission's proposal, any person negligently causing death, including death by industrial pollution, would be liable for third degree homicide.
Under present law, recourse against industrial pollution deaths is generally by civil damage suit.
To combat the modern-day phenomenon of terrorism and hostage taking, the commission has written a separate set of abduction and "terrorizing" laws. These would replace the present kidnaping statute that was used, for example, when the Hanafi Muslims were arrested last March on charges of taking over three buildings in the city and holding scores of people hostage.
A terrorist could face separate and severe felony penalties for both "terrorizing" - that is, placing a person or group of people in "sustained or recurring fear" by threatening them with any crime of violence - as well as for abducting the person or group for ransom or as hostages.
The commission's most extensive revisions occur in the theft statutes where it has eliminated the present crazy quilt of larceny, false pretense, embezzlement and other laws that have been enacted piecemetal over the years and replaced them with four fundamental "degrees" of theft based generally on the value of the material stolen.
First degree theft, the most serious, includes emblezzements of $25,000 or more and the theft of any "public authority" check, such as welfare or retirement check. It also includes the theft of firearms or ammunition and thefts involving 10 or more victims or transactions.
The remaining three degrees of theft involve stolen material of decreasing monetary value.
It is understood that some commission members including U.S. Attorney Silbert question the enforcement of the "welfare check theft" as a first degree offense.
Commission staff members said, for example, that a defendant can be tried for first degree theft only if it can be shown that the stolen welfare check was the victim's only source of income. This could be difficult to prove in many cases, staffers said.
Also, if the thief should steal the "proceeds" of the check after the welfare recipient has cashed it, then the prosecution must additionally prove to the satisfaction of the jury that the defendant knew that the money in fact came originally from a welfare check.