Can Poor Writing Be a Crime?

I doubt it, but a post today at ABAJournal.com entitled “Lawyer-lawamker blames poor writing for bill that would criminalize abortions by rape victims” suggests that poor writing can create a crime where (if the drafter of the law is to be believed) there was no intent to do so:

A New Mexico lawmaker says the critics misinterpreted her proposed bill that appeared to criminalize abortions by victims of rape and incest.

The bill said procuring abortions in cases of rape and incest could constitute tampering with evidence, a crime meriting a sentence of up to three years in prison, the Washington Post, ABC News and the Carlsbad Current-Argus report. The exact wording: “Tampering with evidence shall include procuring or facilitating an abortion, or compelling or coercing another to obtain an abortion, of a fetus that is the result of criminal sexual penetration or incest with the intent to destroy evidence of the crime.”

News of the bill led to creation of a Facebook page calling for resignation of the bill’s sponsor, New Mexico state Rep. Cathrynn Brown. But Brown says poor writing is to blame for the furor. Brown says she wanted to make it a crime for a rapist or perpetrator of incest to force the victim to have an abortion.

Brown, a lawyer, said the bill “was never intended to punish or criminalize rape victims,” according to the Post account. She told the Current-Argus that she didn’t catch the drafting error when she reviewed the bill. “I missed this one,” she said.

It is difficult to overstate how important writing correctly is for legal professionals. (Check out the “Consequences of Sloppiness” category.) Even the presence or absence of a comma can make a difference in the meaning of a sentence. Compare these two sentences:

A woman had people over for dinner, but served her children first while the others looked on hungrily. She said, “Eat, my children.”

A woman had people over for dinner, but served her children first while the others looked on hungrily. She said, “Eat my children.”

Yet this point seems to be getting increasing difficult for paralegal educators to make with students. Students often seem to get indignant that we require them to write correctly. Many seem not to have been required to do so in high school – even in English class!

Of course we all make mistakes and can all stand improvement. I subscribe to “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing” podcast. The “lessons” are short, well-done and easy to fit in while waiting for a class to start or waiting on line at the ATM. http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/

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