The Dangers of ‘Caylee’s Law’

It was once suggested, as a general rule of staying alive, never to fly on an airline named after a state or the owner. As a general rule of sound government, it’s also a good idea never to enact a law named after a person. Personalizing criminal law usually stems from fruitless outrage at a freakish event.

Plenty of legislators are ignoring that risk. Their proposals, all going by the name “Caylee’s Law,” are an understandable response to the acquittal of Casey Anthony of killing her 2-year-old daughter. Swearing when you stub your toe is also understandable, which doesn’t mean it will do your toe the slightest good.

It remains an open question whether Anthony committed murder, but even if she didn’t, she was guilty of shocking malfeasance. What mother who had nothing to hide would fail to report her toddler missing for 31 days? The sponsors think that alone constitutes criminal neglect.

So in some 20 states, bills have been introduced making it a felony not to report a child’s disappearance within a given time — eight hours, 24 hours or 48 hours. Some would also make it a crime not to report a child’s death within one or two hours. If such a law had been in effect in Florida three years ago, Anthony might have gotten a lengthy sentence despite the murder acquittal.

It seems to have gone unnoticed that she did get a lengthy sentence — one year each on four counts of lying to law enforcement officers, almost all of which (with credit for good behavior) she had already served. Florida can blame itself for leniency on that offense. If she had given her false statements to a federal investigator, Anthony could have incurred five years in prison per lie.

For people given to homicide, the proposed change would have zero deterrent effect. If Anthony was willing to overlook the laws against murder, she would not have been fastidious in complying with a reporting rule.

The point of these measures is retribution against a single villain who allegedly escaped the severe penalty she deserved. But a law specifically aimed at preventing a repeat of today’s notorious case will almost certainly be irrelevant to the shocking crime of tomorrow. In these instances, the unforeseen and surprising are the norm.

From the push for Caylee’s Law, you might assume the problem with American justice is that there are not enough criminal laws on the books. In fact, there are some 4,400 such statutes at the federal level alone, on top of thousands more enacted by the states.

So pervasive are the prohibitions that journalist and lawyer Harvey Silverglate titled a book “Three Felonies a Day” to suggest how often an ordinary person may unwittingly risk imprisonment. If there is anything prosecutors lack, it’s not grounds on which to investigate or indict citizens.

Targeting parents who fail to report missing kids on a government-approved schedule will probably accomplish nothing useful. Conscientious adults with grounds for concern already call the cops. But the change would burden police with trivial cases that would soon resolve themselves.

Already kids are reported missing at the rate of more than half a million a year, usually because they run away or neglect to tell parents where they are. A 2002 Justice Department study noted that “all but a very small percentage are recovered fairly quickly.”

But a mother whose son has a habit of absconding and reappearing could go to prison for exercising sensible patience. A divorced dad whose ex-wife gets angry when he’s tardy returning the kids from a weekend outing could give new meaning to “custodial parent.”

Cops, meanwhile, would be swamped with cases that are beyond their capacity to investigate and don’t need investigating. Northwestern University law professor Ronald Allen says parents with rebellious adolescents “will go to the police, and the police will say, ‘This is the fourth time, right?’ And the cops will do nothing.”

Or maybe they won’t. But if they leap to locate all the absentees whose parents previously would not have seen the need to report them, police will have less time to focus on the few missing children who need urgent action.

These measures are good for channeling anger about something horrible that can’t be undone. But put them aside until passions have cooled, and chances are they will not be missed.



Steve Chapman


Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune, where he has been a member of the editorial board since 1981. He came to the Tribune from The New Republic magazine, where he was an associate editor. He has contributed articles to Slate, The American Spectator, The Weekly Standard and Reason, and has appeared on numerous TV and radio news programs, including The CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, and National Public Radio's Fresh Air and Talk of the Nation. Born in Brady, Texas, in 1954, Chapman grew up in Midland and Austin. He attended Harvard University, where he was on the staff of the Harvard Crimson, and graduated with honors in 1976. He has been a fellow at the American Academy in Berlin and the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and has served on the Visiting Committee of the University of Chicago Law School.

  • bill bannon

    He sounds correct and let me add that prisons should be places where prisoners are working so hard that they are too tired to shank each other with sharpened tooth brushes. Now that clothing and furniture and toy manufacture have been outsourced to China and Pakistan, let’s bring them back and have every prison make clothing and furniture and toys and sneakers… Chinese wages which the prisoners must put in a 401k. American Unions won’t object because their industries are now in Quangdong province. Had we moved the clothing industry to our prisons decades ago, many prisoners could retire after their sentences. And yes I’ve had too much expresso this morning…we have a small Krups expresso machine which America could have made in Pelican Bay prison.

    • Amy Barwick

      What an excellent idea! Why has this not happened?

      • bill bannon

        Probably because unions kept telling themselves that they were not losing jobs to China but they were….so we should have had a summit in Wash. DC wherein all parties including unions worked out something along the lines of retraining garment workers for other jobs as we transitioned garment manufacture into the prisons. Of course….you’d have to count the sewing needles at the end of each day in prison lest they be turned into shanks.

  • pammie

    How about we just enforce the laws on the books already? Particularly the one about lying under oath on the witness stand. While it was shocking to me that Mrs. Anthony blatantly lied about her computer useage, the legal reaction to it was much, much worse. Since when does giving false information under oath in order to exonerate a family member qualify as acceptable ?

  • Johann

    Too true. When I saw this ridiculous petition clogging my inbox, I thought how utterly stupid it was. After all, the only person who wouldn’t report their child missing would be a parent who had actually killed their child. So what good would this law do? If the killer could beat a murder rap, they could think up some excuse as to why they didn’t report their child missing.

  • Mark

    Maybe Casey Anthony was setting a precedent for 15th trimester abortions and we should all just get over it.

  • Regina

    I would normally disagree with the voices shouting “there oughta be a law” but in this case, I think we’ve found a legitimate void. The first 48 hours after a disappearance or a homicide are so important–after 48 hours the chances of finding the person drop dramatically. If Casey is truly innocent of killing her daughter, if she has some kind of mental blockage stemming from events from her childhood, maybe at least the threat of 8-15 for not reporting Caylee missing would have encouraged her to make that call. We’d likely have a cause of death, and a murderer in prison.