D  e  s  e  r  t     E  x  p  o  s  u  r  e  April 2006

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Getting Even

The law is looking more favorably on crime victims' efforts to exact justice from perpetrators and from those whose negligence made a crime possible.

I have had the privilege to represent a number of crime victims in my personal-injury practice. Most of them have been people injured by drivers who were drunk or high on drugs. Victims of these crimes can have horrible injuries, if they are lucky enough not to be killed. One man (and his family) had been broadsided by an alcohol and drug DWI driver in broad daylight. The man's pickup was hit so hard that his head broke out the pickup's side window and hit the hood of the criminal's truck.

Even more appalling are cases involving children. A child was repeatedly sexually assaulted by a young man who was sort of an in-law of the victim. The man served a too-short sentence in the state pen. (Last I heard, he was living in Ruidoso. I fear for the girls there.) What makes this crime even worse, though, is that he had been convicted two different times before for the same thing, and was out on parole when it happened. He was living with his parents, who did not warn the child's parents to keep the child away from the pervert. His family even let him take the child into his bedroom, supposedly to play computer games.

In another case, a little girl was sexually molested over a period of time by the minister at her family's church. Most of you have probably read about Catholic priests, many in New Mexico, who molested children, mostly altar boys. Many of these victims have come forward and demanded the church pay them for what they have gone through.

Crime victims suffer in many ways. One way crime victims suffer is that they feel they have little or no control over what is happening and what is going to happen, even long after the crime. If the criminal is caught and prosecuted, "recent trends favoring recognition of victims' rights have provided victims with the opportunity to provide their own input into their cases. For example, direct victim input into plea negotiations and the submission of victim impact statements are frequently utilized. Still, in the final analysis, the prosecuting attorney, as the State's representative, calls the shots in criminal cases." (Legal Remedies for Crime Victims Against Perpetrators: Basic Principles, by Frank Carrington)

The late Frank Carrington was recognized by President George H.W. Bush (Dubya's dad) as the "father of the victims movement." He wrote the Legal Remedies manual and organized training conferences for victim-service providers to enhance public awareness of the civil legal remedies available to crime victims. "Victim-service providers," such as rape crisis counselors (in Las Cruces, La Piñon center, 526-3437), domestic violence shelters (such as La Casa in Las Cruces, (800) 376-3372 or El Refugio in Silver City, 538-2135), and victims assistance counselors in district attorneys' offices (524-6370 in Las Cruces), are often closer to violent crime victims than the others in the criminal justice system. They usually meet with and counsel victims immediately after the crime occurs. These victim-service providers can build bridges of information and understanding between victims and lawyers, so the victims can take back control by asserting their legal rights and remedies.

Carrington asserted that "our civil [non-criminal] courts are more disposed than ever before to extend favorable consideration to victims' remedies against perpetrators or against third-parties whose negligence caused victimizations." This means the crime victim can sue the criminal, or others, for the victim's injuries, medical bills, lost wages and other damages. Punitive damages can be recovered as a fine paid by the defendant to the former victim, now the plaintiff.

Who else am I talking about when I say "crime victims"? I mean murder victims, people who have been raped, molested, beaten or robbed, people whose homes have been burgled, people who have been hit by drunk drivers, victims of "white-collar" crimes, and many others.

Suing the low-life who committed the crime may give the victim a sense of power and satisfaction. But usually the victim is more likely to get the money to pay her medical bills, etc., through a "third-party" lawsuit, rather than by suing the criminal himself. If the criminal gained access to the victim through the negligence of others, those others, the "third-parties," may have to pay the victim.

One of the first "third-party" lawsuits was when the singer Connie Francis was tortured and sexually assaulted in her motel room in the 1970s. The assailant got into her room though a sliding-glass door that was known by the motel to be defective. The criminal was never caught. Francis sued the motel chain for negligent failure to provide adequate security for guests. The jury awarded her $2.5 million.

Other examples of "third-party" liability include crime victims who are: children who are victims of child abuse and neglect in government foster homes and institutions; tenants whose landlords failed to provide adequate security; customers of stores; students whose colleges conceal known crime problems and do nothing to protect the students walking on campus at night; patients and employees of hospitals in high crime areas without adequate parking lot lighting; people hit by drunk drivers who got drunk at bars that kept serving drink after drink even after the drunk got drunk; and other victims of crimes that would probably not have occurred if the "third-party" had cared enough to do the right thing.

Locally, years ago the then-Holiday Inn in Las Cruces left a rear door unlocked late into the night, even though the management knew of prior problems with men coming through the door and harassing women going to a ladies' restroom very near the back door. Such a woman was abducted by force and taken away, kicking and screaming, and a motel employee saw it happen. She recovered a lot of money from the motel for the rape and aggravated battery she suffered. (As I remember, a motel employee testified he thought she was intoxicated and her friends/family were making her go home.)

There is an organization to help crime victims, the National Center for Victims of Crime. They may be reached by calling (703) 276-2880, by e-mail at ncvc@ncvc.org, or through their helpful Web site, www.ncvc.org. The NCVC "is dedicated to reducing the consequences of crime on victims and society by promoting victims' rights and victim assistance, and enhancing the dignity and value of human life by eliminating America's acceptance of violence."

This column is an update of one I wrote years ago. We need to never forget about this subject.

Robert (Tito) Meyer practices law in Las Cruces, representing people who have been injured in accidents and the families of people who have been killed in accidents. Contact him by email at tito@zianet.com or phone (505) 524-4540, (800) 610-0555, or PO Box 1628, Las Cruces, NM 88004. This column is not intended to provide legal advice to any specific person, or with respect to any particular problems or situations. To find a lawyer, call the State Bar of New Mexico referral service, (800) 876-6227.

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