Zero Tolerance for Common Sense
In January, Adam Liston made a serious mistake. Liston, 18, a
senior at Davis, Calif. High School, dropped off a few friends at
school on his way to the gun range with a new shotgun in his gun
rack. Someone reported seeing the gun, and the next day, the vice
principal asked to search Liston's Ford F-250 truck. Liston readily
Six police cars arrived and officers swarmed the truck. As they
searched, his heart sank. He realized he had forgotten to remove
the shotgun, unloaded and still in its original box, from his truck
after target shooting. Liston broke down in tears as officers
confiscated the gun and arrested him. He was handcuffed and taken
to the Yolo County Jail.
Police charged Liston with two felony violations of California
Penal Code § 626.9, possessing a firearm within 1,000 feet of
a school -- one for when he dropped off his friends, the other for
when he returned the next day. He was released on $25,000 bail. In
February, the school board voted 3-1 to expel him from Davis
The Sacramento Bee pointed out that Liston "had been a model
citizen since the first grade" and printed several letters
expressing the community's outrage. Liston "had never been a
discipline problem in school and … never had a run-in with
the law," the paper stated. He maintained good grades and already
had college plans. His mother was president of the PTA.
No matter. Administrators, police, prosecutors and lawmakers used
mindless "zero tolerance" policies to throw the book at him.
The American Bar Association says the modern
zero-tolerance-for-children movement is a response to the school
shootings of the 1990s. No one doubts the good intentions of those
who pushed these policies; it's the enforcement that has raised
concern. And Liston is far from the only victim of this noxious
overcriminalization, although he may be one of its older
- In New Jersey, Hamadi Alston, 8, found an L-shaped piece of
paper in a schoolbook. He used it as many 8-year-olds would -- in a
game of "cops and robbers" at the next recess, after which he was
taken to the school office, interrogated to tears, then turned over
to police for "threatening to kill other students" for saying "pow
pow" during the playground game. He spent five hours in police
custody and had to make two court appearances before charges were
- In Alabama, Austin Crittenden, 9, was suspended for "possession
of a weapon -- firearm replica," when he brought a tiny plastic
G.I. Joe handgun to his elementary school. The third-grader's
principal "had to tape the gun to a piece of paper to keep from
losing it," Austin's grandmother reported.
- In Georgia, a 5-year-old kindergarten student was suspended for
bringing a plastic gun the size of a quarter to school. The
principal backed down when a local TV station inquired about the
- In Spokane, Wash., an 8-year-old was suspended for having two
tiny plastic G.I. Joe guns at school.
At another Alabama school, two boys were suspended for playing with
toy guns that one had brought in for a school project.
And those are just the school punishments. A 9-year-old in Martin
County, Fla., was arrested for aggravated assault and disrupting a
school function for playing with his toy gun as he left school at
the end of the day. A 10-year-old in Alabaster, Ala., was arrested
for supposedly engaging in threatening behavior with a toy
A 12-year-old boy in Louisiana with hyperactivity disorder was
arrested for making a terrorist threat after he told students ahead
of him in the lunch line to leave some potatoes, or "I'm going to
get you." He spent two weeks in jail awaiting a hearing.
Zero-tolerance policies mock the legacy of Anglo-American
jurisprudence. As Roscoe Pound, a preeminent legal scholar of the
early 20th century, explained, "Criminal law is based upon a theory
of punishing the vicious will. It postulates a free agent
confronted with a choice between doing right and doing wrong and
choosing freely to do wrong."
Does anyone believe these children chose freely to do wrong?
Perhaps it's time we penalize overzealous adults who don't check
their predilections for overcriminalization at the door of common
Paul Rosenzweig is senior legal research fellow in the Center
for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation
(heritage.org) and adjunct professor of law at George Mason
University. Trent England is a legal policy analyst in the Center.
Read more about these issues at overcriminalized.com.
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune Wire