Hello, and welcome to the 7th weekly recap of Yada Yada Law School – where the Seinfeld series is used to teach foundational lessons on the law. This week, we are going to jump into the topic of Criminal Law with a Lecturer in Law at Harvard Law School, Guha Krishnamurthi. Let’s get started!
First of all, it is important to recognize that criminal law is a system that deals with appropriately administering punishment to those who commit acts that are deemed to be crimes. As this deals with the taking away of civil liberties, it is essential that this system is made as effective and fair as possible. Of the many things that need to be present in order for this system to be fair, it is clear that the laws we wish to impose must be clear and concise so that they can be applied consistently. Otherwise, our court system would mirror the officiating crew of every NFC Championship game.
Elements of Dance
One way we reduce ambiguity in our criminal laws is by using elements. To illustrate this, Professor Krishnamurthi offers the law from Footloose which prohibits dancing…
“An individual commits a violation when, in a public gathering, the individual intentionally moves one’s body in a rhythmic manner, to the accompaniment of music.”
To apply this law consistently, we need to break it down into elements, like this…
An individual commits a violation when:
- In a public gathering,
- The individual intentionally moves one’s body
- In a rhythmic manner,
- To the accompaniment of music.
With this, to prove that someone did in fact violate this law, we must be able to prove that each element of the law is met. In the 8th season of Seinfeld, this law could be put to the test in the instance where Elaine “dances.” To figure out what the law has to say about these abnormal movements, let’s go through our elements: (1) Public gathering? At a party, check. (2) Individual intentionally moves their body? Check. (3) Rhythmic manner? We’ll have to come back to this one. (4) To the accompaniment of music? You bet.
So the argument here would revolve around element #3. Did Elaine move her body rhythmically? George, a witness, says “Sweet Fancy Moses,” no. Rather, the movement resembled a “full-body dry heave.”
If you were a juror in this case, would you decide that Elaine danced poorly, or did not dance at all?
A Few Ignorant Crimestoppers
To practice this elemental test again, Professor Krishnamurthi then directs us to the finale of Seinfeld where the gang witnesses a carjacking. Believe it or not, there is such a law in Massachusetts and in other states that would criminalize the inaction of the characters. The Massachusetts statute (broken down into elements, of course) reads…
- Whoever knows that another person is a victim of aggravated rape, rape, murder, manslaughter, or robbery and
- Is at the scene of the crime shall,
- To the extent that said person can do so without danger or peril to himself or others, report said crime to an appropriate law enforcement official as soon as reasonably practicable,
Well, all four characters watched the robbery take place, they were at the scene of the crime, and they failed to report the incident at all. After meeting each element, it is safe to say that they are in violation of this statute. But should they be found guilty? In reality, they “didn’t even know” about this law!
This is called Ignorance of the Law and it is not a real legal defense. It didn’t work for Martha Stewart and it definitely won’t work for the beloved Seinfeld characters.
To avoid a similar situation, try looking up some unique laws in your own state! In Texas, for example, did you know there are some major cities where you cannot walk around barefoot unless you have purchased a $5 foot permit? (Don’t worry mine came in the mail pretty quickly.) Or in Michigan, did you know that it is technically illegal to sell a car on Sunday? While these are pretty far fetched examples, it is important to know your laws. It could keep you out of jail!
Thanks so much for reading this week’s recap of Yada Yada Law School. If you would like to watch the actual lecture, you can do so for free here. Come back next week to read about what Seinfeld has to do with Business Law!