Crime Severity and Constitutional Line-Drawing

28 Pages Posted: 23 Mar 2004

See all articles by Eugene Volokh

Eugene Volokh

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - School of Law


Some speech risks inciting or aiding serious crimes. Other speech risks causing only minor crimes. Some searches and seizures are aimed at catching kidnappers, others at catching bookies.

Should constitutional doctrine draw lines that turn on crime severity? And if it should, how should these lines be drawn? Commentators and judges have often urged that the first question be answered yes. And yet the trouble with a yes answer is that it requires courts to answer the second question - which isn't easy, given how bitterly people often disagree about the severity of various crimes (for instance, white-collar crimes, drug crimes, copyright infringement, or even burglary).

Surprisingly, this matter has rarely been discussed broadly, cutting across various constitutional provisions, such as free speech, the Fourth Amendment, the right to jury trial, and the Eighth Amendment. This Essay tries do so. It identifies four possible approaches to judging crime severity in constitutional doctrine. It discusses the pluses and minuses of each approach. And it concludes that two simple answers - that such severity distinctions are always improper, and that they are unproblematic - are mistaken.

Keywords: criminal law, constitutional law, criminal procedure, first amendment, freedom of speech, fourth amendment, search and seizure, eighth amendment, jury trial, excessive fines, cruel and unusual punishments

Suggested Citation

Volokh, Eugene, Crime Severity and Constitutional Line-Drawing. Virginia Law Review, Vol. 90, December 2004. Available at SSRN:

Eugene Volokh (Contact Author)

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - School of Law ( email )

385 Charles E. Young Dr. East
Room 1242
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1476
United States
310-206-3926 (Phone)
310-206-6489 (Fax)

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