Relatively uninhibited philosophizings on self and kosmos whenever the mood strikes...
Saturday, July 28, 2007
Exploring Legal Responsibility
On Wednesday morning, Danny Takemoto, 46, drove to his office at a medical equipment company in Concord, California. Seven hours later, his wife called to ask why he had not dropped off their 11-month-old son, Ian, at the daycare center that morning. Mr. Takemoto ran outside and found his son strapped to his seat in the back of the van. He was dead, apparently from hyperthermia. Mr. Takemoto was arrested and later released pending thorough investigation of the incident.
On Friday afternoon, two TV news helicopters were covering an incident in Phoenix, Arizona in which police were pursuing a man who had stolen a work truck and later another truck. Suddenly, the helicopters collided and fell to the ground in fiery heaps leaving the four occupants dead. Christopher J. Jones, 23, was arrested on numerous counts including vehicle theft and aggravated assault on a police officer, and the Phoenix police chief suggested that he might also be charged with the deaths of the helicopter crews.
What do both of these stories have in common? To me, they raise the complex issue of legal responsibility. Is Danny Takemoto legally responsible and should he be legally punished for the death of his young son? Is Christopher Jones legally responsible and should he be punished for the deaths of the four men in the two helicopters?
I do not believe that Danny Takemoto should be charged with the death of his son. There is no indication that he killed his son on purpose or habitually engaged in conduct that imperiled his son's life. By all accounts, he was a hard-working and very loving and devoted father who had changed his routine that day and simply forgot that he had left his son in the backseat of the van while he went in to work. What sense does it make to legally punish a man, who is no doubt already in emotional hell, for doing something he did not know he had done?
Many would argue that that he should have remembered his son and that he deserves to be punished for the fact that he did not. But I do not understand this reasoning. If he did not remember, one can talk all day about how he SHOULD have remembered, but there is every reason to believe that he DID forget his son in the van even though he loved him dearly, and that is that.
Others would argue that throwing this man in prison will make other parents less likely to forgetfully leave their children in sweltering vehicles until they die. But it seems to me that the deterrent effect of imprisoning Mr Takemoto is likely to be negligible. Parents throughout the country have already heard or read about this tragic story and are likely to be no more deterred from forgetting their children by learning of Mr. Takemoto's imprisonment than by simply knowing that Ian Takemoto died a terrible and tragic death.
Yet, if we stop holding people legally responsible for failing to do what they should do, because they either forget to do it or do not know that they are supposed to do it, does this mean that police should not ticket parents for forgetting to buckle their children into their safety seats, or cite people for breaking laws of which they are ignorant? Where and how do we draw the line between cases like Mr. Takemoto's and cases such as these?
As for the case of Christopher Jones, it seems evident to me, as it probably does to most people, that he should not be held responsible for the deaths of the helicopter crews. Yes, it is true that had he not stolen those vehicles and led police on a chase through the streets of Phoenix, those two news helicpoters would not have collided, and four men would be alive who are now dead.
One could argue that Jones should not be held responsible because the helicopter crews were engaged in a COMMERCIAL activity aimed at bringing higher ratings and thus higher profits to their news organizations; they were not working in a LAW ENFORCEMENT or PUBLIC SAFETY capacity. But does this mean that if deaths of POLICE OFFICERS had resulted from the crash of a police helicopter or police car involved in the pursuit, Mr. Jones should be held responsible? And what if a police helicopter or car involved in the pursuit had killed an inncoent civilian? Should Mr. Jones be held responsible for THAT death?
These are questions for which I do not have ready answers. Intuitively, I feel that neither Mr. Takemoto nor Mr. Jones should be held legally responsible for the deaths that DID occur, but I am not certain about the hypothetical cases I mentioned or how one rationally draws the line between the actual cases and my hypothetical ones.