Public Papers - 1989
Message to the Congress Transmitting Proposed Legislation To Combat Violent Crime
To the Congress of the United States:
Today I am pleased to transmit proposed legislation entitled the ``Comprehensive Violent Crime Control Act of 1989.'' As the American people are aware, our Nation is experiencing a surge of violent criminal behavior, linked in no small degree to the scourge of illegal drugs currently prevalent in our border areas, our cities, and our neighborhoods.
On May 15, 1989, I outlined a comprehensive program, consisting of both legislative and non-legislative items, to combat violent crime. This program is a logical approach to the violent crime problem that focuses on four major objectives: strengthening current laws; augmenting enforcement; enhancing prosecution; and expanding prison capacity. The seven-title proposal that I am sending you today represents the actions that we believe the Congress should take in each of these areas. Its enactment would help reduce the incidence of violent crime in our society.
Dealing with crime is not a novel problem, nor is it one with which we can ever expect fully to succeed. Nevertheless, assuring the physical safety of our citizens and inhabitants is among the very highest responsibilities of government, and it is a top priority of my Administration.
Traditionally, dealing with violent crime has been, and should properly remain, primarily the function of State and local law enforcement authorities. Yet it is clear that the Federal Government also has an important leadership role to play.
The Federal Government cannot properly discharge its duties in this regard, however, unless the Nation's criminal laws, the essential backbone of the Federal justice system, are modernized and strengthened. A substantial strengthening of our laws would help all elements of the Federal criminal justice system -- law enforcement officials, prosecutors, judges, and correctional authorities -- to execute their responsibilities with maximum effectiveness.
In recent years, substantial progress has been made toward this goal. Each of the last three Congresses, with the participation of the previous Administration, passed a major bipartisan piece of anti-crime legislation. Together, these enactments have served greatly to assist in the struggle against violent and drug-related crime.
But much remains to be done to create the statutory framework necessary to cope with the still rising incidence of drug-related violent crime. Now is the time for this Congress to act -- before the end of this year -- on the proposed legislation I am transmitting today. Long-range solutions also lie in other directions, such as better education and job opportunities for our citizens. Our immediate task, however, and the one with which the present set of proposals is concerned, is to improve the Federal criminal justice system to render it able to dispense swift, sure, and fair justice. Persons who endanger society through the commission of violent offenses must know that their behavior will not be tolerated.
The present bill would improve the criminal justice system in several important ways.
First, the laws relating to firearms possession and use need to be carefully scrutinized to insure that, while the legitimate rights of firearm owners are protected, illegitimate use and possession of firearms are subject to proper punishment. In this regard, the Congress passed a major firearms statute in 1986, which generally struck a proper balance in this area. But our examination has revealed a number of instances in which the provisions of that law should be strengthened.
For example, I do not think it was the intention of the Congress to permit convicted felons, imprisoned for dangerous crimes, to be able to purchase firearms immediately upon their release from prison, merely because State law generally restores rights of citizenship to persons who have served their sentences. Yet that result may be required under the Federal statute as it is written today. Similarly, persons who use a semiautomatic weapon to commit a violent or drug felony are punished no more severely under present law than if an ordinary handgun had been employed. Existing Federal law also contains no penalty for stealing a firearm and lacks a clear definition of the offense of burglary. These defects and others would be remedied under a package of proposed firearms amendments that is included in the proposed legislation.
Second, building on the work of the 100th Congress, which, for the first time in recent memory, created a limited Federal death penalty for certain drug-related killings, this proposal would establish procedures necessary to institute a capital sanction for murders committed in violation of other Federal statutes, such as those involving murder-for-hire and the murder of a kidnap victim or a Federal prison guard. The proposed provisions are in compliance with all relevant Supreme Court decisions, and their enactment is long overdue. I believe it is absolutely essential to bring Federal law into conformity with the law in the more than three-quarters of the States that have passed statutes to reinstate the death penalty for a limited number of heinous crimes.
Third, the proposal includes provisions designed to impose severe restrictions on ammunition clips and other ammunition feeding devices frequently used to enable so-called ``assault weapons'' to fire a large number of rounds rapidly and without reloading. Under my Administration's proposal, a magazine or other ammunition feeding device with a capacity of greater than 15 rounds would be subject to strict regulation and generally could no longer be imported, manufactured, received, or possessed. Persons already in possession of such devices would be allowed to retain and use them lawfully. No transfer to another owner would be permitted unless a record was made of that transfer, which would permit tracing in the event of a criminal misuse.
Limited manufacture or importation for purposes of export or for sale to Government agencies would be authorized, but such large-capacity devices, like a firearm today, would be subject to identification by requiring serial numbers. While an ammunition feeding device, like a firearm itself, is not inherently evil, the enhanced potential for danger to law-abiding citizens posed by the unlawful use of weapons equipped with such devices in criminal hands makes it necessary to impose these restrictions in the interest of public safety.
Fourth, My proposal would establish a nationwide program of mandatory drug testing for defendants on post-conviction release, including probation, parole, or supervised release. It is estimated that upwards of 81,000 individuals will be on some form of Federal supervised release in 1990. The known association between criminal behavior and drug abuse is such that drug testing as a condition of release for convicted persons is an essential precaution to help enhance the public safety, while also promoting rehabilitative goals. I have proposed that .7 million be appropriated for this activity in fiscal year 1990.
Fifth, the proposal contains provisions to reform the so-called ``exclusionary rule.'' Under this rule, Federal courts today exclude or suppress probative evidence obtained by searches and seizures conducted in good faith by law enforcement officials. The result is that factually guilty individuals avoid conviction and punishment. Under my proposal, any evidence that is obtained as a result of a search or seizure undertaken in objectively reasonable good faith, as determined by a court, would be admissible at trial, notwithstanding that a magistrate or judge later found that the search did not satisfy constitutional requirements.
Suppression of evidence in criminal trials -- which are supposed to represent a search for truth on the issue of a defendant's guilt or innocence -- is not an appropriate remedy to redress innocent mistakes. Law enforcement officers must frequently make split-second decisions on matters involving difficult constitutional issues on which even judges may disagree. Enactment of this proposal is necessary in order to make the justice system work effectively.
The exclusionary rule would remain, under my proposal, as a permissible sanction for intentional violations, but no longer would a criminal escape punishment because of a technical mistake in conducting a search or seizure. The House of Representatives last year passed a similar proposal, which unfortunately was deleted in the conference agreement on the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988. The proposal should be enacted this year.
Sixth, the proposed bill would restore an appropriate degree of finality to State and Federal criminal convictions by curtailing abuses of the writ of habeas corpus. Under current interpretations of Federal statutes, defendants whose convictions have been affirmed by courts of appeals may nonetheless later seek to relitigate in Federal courts the claims previously raised or waived on direct appeal. Not infrequently, defendants with nothing to lose exercise this novel opportunity, which is afforded by no other civilized society in the world, through several rounds of litigation lasting many years and tying up our already overburdened Federal courts.
With the massive delays in many Federal districts occasioned by an overwhelming caseload, we can no longer afford the luxury of this system of excessive opportunity for review of ``final'' criminal judgments. An effective justice system requires that final adjudications not be subject to continuous review. No innocent individual should be denied an avenue through which to petition the Federal courts to review his or her conviction. But at the same time, those persons who have been tried and found guilty, and whose legal claims have been rejected after full and fair consideration, should not be allowed to relitigate endlessly in the Federal courts.
Under the proposed amendments, the opportunity for certain kinds of collateral attacks upon a conviction would be limited by a time period of 1 or 2 years, with due exceptions for the assertion of rights newly created or facts newly discovered. Similarly, Federal courts would be admonished to give presumptive validity to any full and fair determination of a factual issue by a State court.
A nearly identical proposal was overwhelmingly passed by the Senate in 1984. Its enactment this year would improve the justice system and relieve the Federal courts, thereby freeing them to hear other cases and to dispense justice to others more promptly.
Seventh, and finally, the proposed bill would authorize appropriations for several activities of the Department of Justice to augment Federal law enforcement personnel, increase prosecutorial efforts, and expand prison capacity. These appropriation authorizations, along with the increased funding I have requested for the Judiciary and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in the Department of the Treasury -- a total government-wide increase of about .2 billion in 1990 -- will make possible a tougher, more vigorous and more effective fight against violent crime.
When I stood before the United States Capitol on May 15 and addressed the families of the brave and valiant peace officers who gave lives in the battle to rid America of drugs and crime, I promised them -- as I did the American people on the day I assumed this office -- that ``this scourge will stop.'' Enactment of the set of proposals that I present to you today, as well as implementation of the other initiatives that I announced last month, will be a major step in keeping that promise. I urge that these important proposals promptly be considered and enacted. We owe the people of our great Nation no less.
The White House,
June 15, 1989.