Nevada Supreme Court rules ‘Son of Sam’ law unconstitutional
December 21, 2004
The Nevada Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled the Nevada law unconstitutional which allows victims to claim any profits felons make from publishing their stories.
The law was created by New York State amid rumors that David Berkowitz – the so-called Son of Sam serial killer – was planning to publish his memoirs. The law was designed to prevent such felons from profiting from their crimes by taking away any proceeds they receive from a book or other publication deal.
The federal government and numerous other states followed suit – including Nevada in 1981.
But over the years, several courts have found problems with the “Son of Sam” laws including the U.S. Supreme Court which voided the original New York law as violating the First Amendment.
Specifically, the Supreme Court found the New York statute overly inclusive because it confiscated all proceeds from published works on any subject that even incidentally mentioned the crime an inmate committed. And the court objected to the statute allowing seizure of an author’s proceeds, even if he was never prosecuted or convicted if the author had admitted to the crime.
The Nevada case was filed after Jimmy Lerner, who was convicted of manslaughter in the death of Mark Slavin in 1998, wrote a book titled “You Got Nothing Coming, Notes from a Prison Fish.” The book detailed Lerner’s imprisonment and contained descriptions of Slavin’s death.
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Slavin’s sister, Donna Seres, sued on behalf of her mother to claim any proceeds from Lerner’s book, but the Washoe District Court dismissed the claim citing the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the New York case. District Judge Brent Adams ruled that the statute as written would allow them to claim all the proceeds from a book that is 90 percent about religion and 10 percent about the crime.
Nevada’s Supreme Court agreed and upheld the dismissal, ruling Nevada’s law – like the New York statute it was based on – an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment.
All six justices who participated in the case cited the law’s provisions allowing the victim to recover proceeds from “any contribution to any material that is based upon or substantially related to the felony” and the fact that potential defendants don’t even have to have been convicted of the crime involved. As written, they agreed the law was a “content-based restriction” on speech which allows victims to recover proceeds from works that include material unrelated to the crime.
The law, the justices wrote, imposes “a disincentive to engage in public discourse and the nonexploitive discussion of it.” The existing Nevada law is unconstitutional.
Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 687-8750.