The Volokh Conspiracy

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More on the New York Trump Case and the First Amendment

A reply to Steve.


I thank Steve for his clarification below about his theory of why Trump might have a First Amendment defense in the New York case.  As I understand it, Steve's argument can be understood as being about the phrase "another crime" in New York Penal Law 17.50:

A person is guilty of falsifying business records in the first degree when he commits the crime of falsifying business records in the second degree, and when his intent to defraud includes an intent to commit another crime or to aid or conceal the commission thereof.

Steve's argument is that the element of concealing the commission of "another crime" has to refer to an act that doesn't just satisfy the elements of a criminal statute, but that, interpreted independently, is a crime that satisfies independent First Amendment review.  And so he argues that, if the jury identifies those elements of another criminal law as having been satisfied, that is not "another crime" if there would be a First Amendment defense to liability for those elements independently — either under current law, or, if needed, on a better understanding of law as changed by the Supreme Court on appeal from Trump's conviction by overturning the Court's precedent.

This is an interesting argument, and I confess it is not what I thought Steve was arguing in his first post.  So I certainly appreciate the clarification, and I apologize to Steve for the misunderstanding.  One thought I have in response is that there's a pretty interesting interpretive question raised by Steve's argument.  When the New York legislature uses the phrase "another crime" as part of an element, does "another crime" mean the elements of some other criminal law, or is "another crime" more of an independent constitutional concept meaning the elements of some other criminal law only to the extent that the elements could be a free-standing criminal offense without violating the Constitution?

I take it Steve believes the latter. That might be right.  But I'm not entirely sure about that.  Off the top of my head, I would think it's a question of statutory interpretation rather than the  constitutional law of elements of crimes.  Offenses have to satisfy the First Amendment as a whole, obviously, but I don't think there is a constitutional problem with a particular element of a crime involving First Amendment protected activities. For example, if a legislature says that it's a crime to punch someone during a protest, the fact that the protest is protected by the First Amendment doesn't mean that punching someone during a protest would be.  If I'm right about that, then I would think this ends up an interesting question of statutory interpretation assuming that Steve is right about the First Amendment issue (either under current law or possible future law).

I poked around on Westlaw briefly to see if I could find New York cases on this question, but I didn't come across anything useful. It's a hard question to research, as the relevant terms end up bringing up a lot of unrelated cases. But thanks again to Steve for the clarification, and I'd be interested to know if others make more headway on the statutory question than I did.