Son of Sam Law

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The phrase Son of Sam Law refers to a type of law designed to keep criminals from profiting from their crimes, often by selling their stories to publishers. Such laws often authorize the state to seize money earned from such a deal and use it to compensate the criminal's victims.


The first such law was created in New York after the Son of Sam murders committed by serial killer David Berkowitz. It was enacted after rampant speculation about publishers offering large amounts of money for Berkowitz's story. The law was invoked in New York eleven times between 1977 and 1990, including once against Mark David Chapman.

In certain cases a Son of Sam law can be extended beyond the criminals themselves to include friends, neighbors, and family members of the lawbreaker who seek to profit by telling publishers and filmmakers of their relation to the criminal. In other cases, a person may not financially benefit from the sale of a story or any other momentos pertaining to the crime—if the criminal was convicted after the date lawmakers passed the law in the states where the crime was committed.

Critics disputed the law on First Amendment grounds. It was argued that "Son of Sam" laws take away the financial incentive for many criminals to tell their stories, some of which (such as the Watergate scandal) were of vital interest to the general public.

In 1987, lawyers for publishing giant Simon & Schuster sued the New York authorities to prevent enforcement of the Son of Sam law with respect to a book they were about to publish called Wiseguy, written by Nicholas Pileggi. The book was about ex-mobster Henry Hill and was used as the basis for the film Goodfellas. The case reached the Supreme Court in 1991. In an 8-0 ruling, the court ruled the law unconstitutional. Simon & Schuster v. Crime Victims Board 502 U.S. 105 (1991). The majority opinion was that the law was overinclusive, and would have prevented the publication of such works as The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Thoreau's Civil Disobedience, and even The Confessions of Saint Augustine.

The Supreme Court ruling actually stated that Son of Sam laws could conceivably be constitutional, but only if written very carefully with regard to First Amendment concerns. Though this original New York law was struck down, various states (including New York) have laws to prevent felons from capitalizing on their crimes written with an eye towards adhering to the First Amendment ruling laid out by the Supreme Court.


In 1991, New York's "Son of Sam" law was challenged in Simon & Schuster, Inc. vs. New York Crime Victims Board, 112 S. Ct. 501 (1991). The United States Supreme Court held the law to be and unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment right to free speech.

The Court first determined that since the laws targeted only profits that resulted from activities related to speech (such as books, movies, interviews, etc.), in order to be constitutional the law must be narrowly written to achieve a compelling government interest. The Court acknowledged that providing financial recovery to crime victims was a compelling interest. It also found that it was not necessary that the particular victims compensated be the victims of that offender; payment to other victims, through the state compensation fund, was also acceptable. However, the Court found that the law was not narrowly written. The law was overbroad in that it applied not only to convicted offenders, but also to those accused of a crime. In addition, the law made no distinctions between materials that were substantially about the crime and those in which the mention of the crime was only tangential or insignificant. For example, books by persons such as St. Augustine, Thoreau, and Malcolm X would have fallen under the purview of the law since they all had mentioned in their works crimes they had committed.

While the Supreme Court's decision involved only the New York law, nearly all notoriety-for-profit statutes had similar language, so their constitutionality was also called into question. As a result, legislatures have begun to amend their laws in order to make them constitutional.


Although "Son of Sam" laws across the country are fairly similar, the wording of such laws varies from state to state. In most states, the victim must sue the offender in civil court and obtain a judgment for damages before being eligible to make a claim against the offender's profits. In others, claims are made through the established state victim compensation program. The laws generally apply to convicted offenders, including those who plead guilty, as well as those who are acquitted on the grounds of insanity. A few states include persons accused of a crime, provided there has been an indictment or some other preliminary determination that the defendant may have committed the crime.

Ordinarily, states require that the profits be paid to the state, and be held in escrow. Generally, the state agency that receives the funds then attempts to contact the offender's victims, either directly or by publishing notices regarding the availability of funds in local newspapers. Victims then have a limited number of years (usually three to five years) from the date the escrow account is established to file a civil suit against the offender. Any resulting judgment can be paid out of the escrow account.

Where no victims bring a civil suit, or when excess funds remain in the account, the law designates the disposition of the funds. Some states return the funds to the defendant. Others provide a list of payees and an order of priority of payment, including the payment of such things as victim restitution orders, court costs, defense attorney fees, costs of incarceration, and other expenses. Often any remaining funds are deposited into the state crime victims compensation fund.


New York, after numerous revisions, adopted a law in 2001 again known as the "Son of Sam" law.[1] This law requires that victims of crimes be notified whenever a person convicted of a crime received $10,000 (US) or more—from virtually any source.[2] The law then attaches a springing statute of limitations, giving victims an extended period of time to sue the perpetrator of the crime in civil court for their crimes.[3] This law also authorizes a state agency, the Crime Victims' Board, to act on the victims' behalf in some limited circumstances.[4] Thus far, the current New York law has survived constitutional scrutiny.

The state of California's Son of Sam law was struck down in 2002 after being used against Barry Keenan, one of the men who kidnapped Frank Sinatra, Jr. in 1963.

In Texas in 1998 a civil jury awarded $1.001 billion to the siblings of Holly Maddux, invoking the Son of Sam law. The Maddux family is not expectant to receive the money, rather the lawsuit was based on the rumor that Holly Maddux's murderer Ira Einhorn was expected to sign a book deal with a European publisher. The siblings had refused to allow Einhorn to make money over the tragedy, and their lawyer had argued in court "we seek to seize any earnings of Ira Einhorn or his wife. If he can spend it, we want it." [5]

In high profile cases and cases that are closely tied to national security, namely convictions for terrorism and espionage, a Son of Sam law is often worked into any plea bargain. This had been the case in the convictions of John Walker Lindh and Harold James Nicholson. As a result of their plea bargains, any profits made from book deals or movie rights would be redirected to the government. Neither the convicts nor their families would be able to profit. However, as of 2008,neither Lindh nor Nicholson have had their crime cases publicized in such a manner.

With the advent of the Internet and online sales, many Son of Sam laws are now targeting the sale of murderabilia. The constitutionality of many of these new laws is mostly untested at this point.


The "Son of Sam" Law in Florida is codified at F.S. 944.512.

In Rolling v. State ex rel. Butterworth, 741 So. 2d 627 (1999, FL 1st DCA), Appellee State, pursuant to Fla. Stat. ch. 944.512, sought imposition of a lien against property in an action against appellant, convicted criminal, especially seeking proceeds from sale of a book containing accounts of the crimes for which appellant was convicted. Appellants argued that Fla. Stat. ch. 960.291(7) violated U.S. Const. amend. I and was, therefore, unconstitutional both on its face and as applied to each of them. Under the plain language of the statute the lien encompassed appellant's art, autographs, and proceeds from them, as well as proceeds from his book. Appellant publisher was receiving benefits on appellant offender's behalf and thus the lien attached to the proceeds she garnered from sale of property. Appellant offender could not transfer his property to appellant publisher to avoid the lien.

The Order was affirmed; imposition of the lien upheld under the statute because upon petition, the court could enter a civil restitution lien against the real or personal property of a convicted offender, and appellant's art, book and proceeds were encompassed by the lien.

Note, the depiction must be of the crime for which defendant was convicted. See Shaw v. State, 616 So. 2nd 1094 (1993, FL 4th DCA).

To determine the value of the lien, see, generally, F.S. 960 et seq. Also, see F.S. 960.291 et seq.


California 'Son of Sam' law struck down

By AP News

SAN FRANCISCO (02.22.02) — Citing free-speech concerns, the state Supreme Court yesterday unanimously struck down a law that barred felons from profiting from the sale of their crime stories. The 1983 statute, nicknamed the "Son of Sam" law, required that convicted criminals give all money earned from book, movie or other deals to their victims or the state.

The nation's first such law was passed in New York after "Son of Sam" serial killer David Berkowitz was offered big money for his story. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down that law in 1991. Yesterday's ruling in Keenan v. Superior Court came in a case involving the kidnapping of Frank Sinatra Jr., who was abducted from Harrah's Casino at Lake Tahoe in 1963. The law was challenged by Barry Keenan, the leader of three kidnappers who abducted the 19-year-old son of musician Frank Sinatra. He was released unharmed after the Sinatra family paid a $240,000 ransom. After a magazine interview with Keenan was published in 1998, he and the writer sold the movie rights to Columbia Pictures, which is developing "Snatching Sinatra." The younger Sinatra, however, won a court order preventing the $485,000 payment to Keenan.

California's justices overturned that order yesterday.

"This is a very important day for freedom of expression," said Keenan, who said he planned all along to donate his earnings to charity or to Sinatra. Sinatra's attorney, Richard Specter, said the ruling "doesn't bode well for victims' rights statutes." He added that "it will be interesting to see if he will follow through on what he claims he is going to do with the money."

Keenan, who blamed his actions on drugs and alcohol, spent less than five years in prison and is now a land developer in Texas. In its ruling, the court expressed First Amendment objections and said the law could threaten "numerous works." The court noted that the law, if it was on the books in other areas or at other times, would have "applied to numerous works by authors whose discussions of larger subjects make substantial, and often vividly descriptive, contextual references to prior felonies of which they were convicted."

One book, the court points out, is The Autobiography of Malcolm X, in which the murdered civil rights leader describes early burglaries for which he was convicted. Another is Eldridge Cleaver's 1968 Soul on Ice, in which he discusses his rapes of white women, for which he was convicted, saying they were committed out of racial rage.The court added it might be receptive to a Son of Sam law that does not forfeit "all of a convicted felon's proceeds from expressive materials."

The court also pointed out that California grants crime victims other legal avenues to receive compensation from defendants. The justices said victims may sue defendants for compensation, which is what happened after O.J. Simpson's criminal trial. In 1997, a civil court jury that was charged with deciding whether Simpson should be held liable for the slayings of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman found Simpson liable, and ordered him to pay $33.5 million in damages.

An estimated 40 states have Son of Sam laws. New York's was the only one to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, and California's was the only one to go before the state's highest court.


1. N.Y. Executive Law § 632-a (McKinney 2005).
2. N.Y. Corrections Law § 500-c (McKinney 2006).
3. See N.Y. C.P.L.R.
4. N.Y. Executive Law § 632-a(2) (McKinney 2005).
5. Crime Library: crime stories on serial killers, the mafia, terrorists, spies, assassins and gangsters

Contributors: forum_admin, chicago, sandra
Created by chicago, Jan 21st, 2009 at 01:27 PM
Last edited by forum_admin, Feb 8th, 2016 at 03:14 PM
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Old Feb 9th, 2012, 11:45 AM   #2
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Thanks for this information, this has clarified some questions that I had about the Son of Sam Law. However, this does not answer all of my questions. I suppose that I would have to speak with a wrongful death lawyer to answer all of my questions regarding my situation. I have some concerns about a an individual who seems to be attempting to profit from their crime, and this only adds to the pain of his victims. I am really not sure if, or how this law applies in my state, but I need to find out. Thank you for this great thread!

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Old Feb 9th, 2012, 03:39 PM   #3
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I know this usually pertains to criminal convictions but didn't the Goldman family use this to bar OJ from publishing a book due to his civil conviction?
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