Criminal Law

Crime Doesn't Pay: Taking the Profits of Crime

The old adage, "crime doesn't pay," is usually used as a reminder if you commit a crime, you're going to pay a price, like go to jail or pay a fine. It means much more, though. To make sure crime doesn't pay at all, practically every state has some sort of law for taking the profits of crime out of the defendant's pocket, often making sure it never reaches his pocket to begin with. These are usually called "Son of Sam" laws, and they're designed to make sure defendants can't cash in on their crime's fame or notoriety.

Some History

In the late 1970s, David Berkowitz went on a killing spree in New York City. In a year, he killed seven and wounded several others, mostly women. In letters Berkowitz left at the crime scenes or sent to newspaper reporters, he described himself as a "monster," the "Son of Sam," and claimed demons and dogs were telling him to kill women.

After his capture, there were reports that book and other print publishers were frantically trying to buy the rights to Berkowitz's story. To prevent Berkowitz from making a fortune off of his crimes, the New York legislature passed the "Son of Sam" law. Many states followed New York's lead and passed similar laws.

How They Work

Each state's law is different, but here some of the things you may see in any particular Son of Sam law:

What's covered?  Practically just about anything a criminal defendant might gain or profit from his crime. Some state laws generally define "profit from crime." For example, a law may state it's "any property obtained through or income generated from the commission of a crime." Other states are very specific and may, for example, state "profit of crime" is money or other property with value a defendant may receive for a book, movie, television show, play or newspaper article about the defendant and his crimes.

Who's covered? In some states, only the criminal defendant is covered. In other states, members of his family are covered, too. They may be related by blood or by "affinity" or kinship, such as a spouse or father-in-law. The idea is to make sure a family member doesn't get the money and hold it for the defendant.

Payment. Most states require the person paying the defendant - the book publisher, movie producer, etc. - to pay the money directly to a court or special state agency, like the state's Crime Victims Assistance agency. The money is held in a special account for the crime's victims.

Getting the money to the victims. In most states, once money is deposited, the court or the state agency in charge of the money will notifies victims the money is available. In other states, the person or company paying the defendant must notify victims. Either way, victims are usually notified by ads or "legal notices" in local newspapers where the crime was committed. It's also possible the names of specific victims may be found in the court records connected to the case, and those victims may get personal notification, such as by mail.

Once notified, victims usually have to file a civil (or "non-criminal") lawsuit to claim any portion of the money. There's a time limit or "statute of limitations." This time limit varies from state to state, but it's usually three or five years from the date notifications were sent or published. In some states, victims may be contacted directly by the court or state agency holding the funds and given instructions on how to file a claim for money from the fund.

Excess money. If no victims come forward to claim the funds, or if there's money leftover after the statute of limitations expires, any number of things might happen, depending on the laws of the state. This may include:

  • Depositing the excess into the state's general Crime Victims fund to help pay for emergency housing, medical bill and counseling for other crime victims 
  • Using the excess to pay for the court costs of defendant's case, the defendant's attorney's fees, and the costs associated with the defendant's sentence, like the costs of feeding, clothing and providing education and training to him while he's in prison 

Make It Work

It's important that you check the laws in your area for the details of the Son of Sam law. As a crime victim, you play a big role in making sure the defendant who injured you doesn't profit from crime. Keep tabs on the defendant: Check newspaper articles, or keep in contact with your prosecutor's office about what's happening with him. And talk to an attorney if you have any questions about getting the money you're entitled to.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Can a court order a defendant to sell his story for a book or a movie to make money for his victims?
  • Do I have to pay taxes on any money I get from the book deal the defendant made?
  • My father was a crime victim, and I've learned the defendant signed a movie deal and the money is being deposited in court. Can I make a claim in my father's name?
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