In the United States, common law is utilized in both the criminal code and the civil code. One example of how common law developed into part of the criminal code can be found in the section of code which outlines the circumstances under which an individual might get a reward for information tendered to the United States Justice Department. The terms of such activity are outlined in Title 18, Part 2, Ch 204, section 3071 of the U.S. code.
This portion of the U.S. code identifies two specific types of crime whose resolution may yield rewards from the government upon their successful investigation. (Information…1984) One type of crime whose resolution is subject to reward is the act of Terrorism. (Information…1984) According to the code, a person may receive a reward if their information leads to the arrest or conviction of any person (either in the U.S. or abroad) who commits, attempts, or conspires to commit an act of terrorism against any U.S. person or property. (Information…1984) Further, the code indicates that a person can be rewarded for information that leads to the thwarting, prevention or a favorable outcome of an attempt at terrorism against a U.S. citizen or U.S. property. (Information…1984) The second crime for which reward may be offered is the crime of espionage against the United States. (Information…1984) According to the code, a person may receive a reward if their information leads to the arrest or conviction of any person (either in the U.S. or abroad) who commits, attempts, or conspires to commit an act of espionage against the United States. (Information…1984) Further, the code indicates that a person can be rewarded for information that leads to the thwarting, prevention or a favorable outcome of an attempt at espionage against the United States. (Information…1984)
The history of the provisions of this code has is roots in relatively recent activity in the United States. In 1984, the United States added this portion to the Criminal Code, and amended it only once since (in 1994). (Methvin, 1997) In the early 1970s, civil libertarians made it a goal to dismantle an internal American monitoring system dedicated to identifying terrorist organizations and their activities in the United States. (Methvin, 1997) The problem, as the ACLU and other organizations saw it, was that these mechanisms were being used by the FBI and other federal agencies to spy upon and thwart legitimate civil rights groups’ efforts during the 1950s and 1960s. (Methvin, 1997) In the political backlash of the 1970s, these activities by the government were monitored, and largely discredited and dismantled. (Methvin, 1997) Then, in 1981, a domestic terror organization known as the Weather underground, along with the Black Panthers, committed a robbery that resulted in the death of a Brink’s security guard and two police officers. (Methvin, 1997) Subsequent investigation revealed a network of domestic terror groups with specific targets and agendas, and the means to execute their goals. (Methvin, 1997) Public sentiment was further enflamed by the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Capitol building. (Methvin, 1997) This led to the amendment to U.S. Code described above in Title 18.
This portion of the code is a response to the perception that terrorist activities thrive when “screened” by individuals who lack the motivation or means to report suspicious activity to the government. (Methvin, 1997) By stating that it is within their power to reward information that leads to arrest of terrorists, the government has attempted to create a more permissive atmosphere for those who might be inclined to provide information. (Methvin, 1997)
This portion of the U.S. code is predicated, as is many other portions, upon common law. The U.S. codes represent a framework out from which common law is applied through judicial review and the addendum of various provisions by Congress. (Weissenberger, 1999) The attempt to formalize historical common law by statute is an ongoing process. The advantages of the use of common law are obvious. (Weissenberger, 1999) Its use prevents the creation of obscure, topical or specious statutes whose existence would make the practice of law more difficult. (Weissenberger, 1999) Also, common law provisions tend to reflect fundamental fairness in purpose, having derived from the practice of law over a long period of time. (Weissenberger, 1999) On the other side of the coin, common law is notoriously disorganized, inconsistent and incomplete. (Weissenberger, 1999) The constant attempts to fill gaps in the law through statute or alteration of existing code is slipshod, and can lead to gross miscarriages of justice that are only remedied after the fact. (Weissenberger, 1999)
“Information for which Rewards Authorized” U.S. Title 18, Part 2, Ch 204, section 3071 (1984)
Methvin, E. (1997) “Anti-Terrorism: How Far?” National Review, Vol. 47, July 10, 1995.
Weissenberger, G. (1999) “Evidence Myopia: The Failure to See the Federal Rules of Evidence as a Codification of the Common Law”. William and Mary Law Review, Vol. 40, 1999.