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Memorandum of Disapproval of the District of Columbia Crime Bill

November 13, 1966

Crime in the Nation's Capital affects every man, woman, and child who lives or visits here. Wealthy and poor, Negro and white, slum and suburban dweller--all suffer when our streets are not safe. For the sake of the whole community, we must do everything in our power to protect innocent people from those who seek to harm them.

I am acutely conscious of my responsibility as President to do all in my power to prevent crime. I mean to take any and all actions, within my power, which will help relieve today's unsatisfactory conditions.

I have before me the District of Columbia crime bill, passed in the closing hours of the Congress. It deals exclusively with rules for police and the courts. It does not touch the quality or quantity of law enforcement resources: more, better trained, better equipped, and better paid police and corrections workers.

In my opinion, the present bill would create problems instead of solving them.

If I thought that this bill would diminish crime in the District of Columbia, I would sign it. I believe, however, that this legislation would add endless complications and confusion to an already complex situation. It would provoke years of litigation. It would make the job of the policeman on the beat and of the public prosecutor much more difficult.

I cannot approve it.

This bill provides that a policeman may pick up a person and question him for 4 hours without making an arrest--6 hours, exclusive of interrogation, after an arrest-perhaps 10 hours of questioning--without taking him before a judicial officer. No one doubts the necessity of the police questioning persons on the street with respect to criminal activities. The law has always permitted this. The law properly provides, however, that after a person is deprived of his freedom--after he is arrested--the police must take him before a magistrate who will determine whether his arrest is arbitrary or based on probable cause. This must be done without unnecessary delay.

I am advised that the periods of questioning provided in this bill go far beyond the necessities of interrogation in practically all cases.

In the case of a material witness, the bill contains provisions even more extreme than those applicable to suspects themselves.

Any citizen at the scene of a crime-including the victim--can be taken into custody as a material witness. It is not necessary either to obtain a subpoena, or to take the witness before a magistrate, until 6 hours after be is picked up. In effect, the person can disappear from sight merely on an individual policeman's judgment that he is a material witness, and that there is a reasonable probability that he will not be available to testify at the trial.

When the citizen is finally taken before a magistrate, he can be released only by posting bond or collateral as security. He cannot be released on his own recognizance. If he were under arrest as a suspected criminal, however, the Bail Reform Act, passed by Congress this year, would permit his release on his own responsibility. These provisions are much more severe than existing law. The U.S. Attorney informs me that he can recall no case in which inability to detain material witnesses has resulted from the inadequacy of existing law.

The bill contains a provision intended to stop the taffic in obscene pictures and literature. No one can have sympathy for those who pander to degraded instincts in man. But this provision is phrased so broadly that it clearly threatens freedom of the press. It authorizes an official in the District of Columbia--the United States Attorney-to seek the prior restraint of publications. If he thinks that a newspaper, magazine, or book is indecent, he may go to court and obtain, without a full hearing on the merits, a preliminary injunction authorizing him to restrain its publication or sale.

This section also provides for a permanent injunction, prohibiting the future use of any real or personal property involved in the publication or sale of obscene material.

This language is imprecise and confusing but at the very least, it would empower a court, using its contempt authority, to imprison or fine a previously convicted publisher of a book, magazine, or newspaper, if the court concluded that one of his new publications was also offensive--even though it had never been judicially found obscene in a full trial on the merits.

The Acting Attorney General informs me that this sort of prior restraint has been condemned by the courts as unconstitutional-in violation of the First Amendment, upon which our freedom to spread, to publish, to read, and to exchange ideas is dependent.

The bill also would establish mandatory minimum sentences on conviction of certain crimes. This is a step backward in judicial and correction policy. Indeed it is directly contrary to previous action taken by the Congress. Under the indeterminate sentencing laws, the Congress has recognized that the potential for rehabilitation is increased when courts and correction systems are given flexibility to determine sentences on case-by-case basis. Moreover, there is no need for such mandatory minimum sentences in the District of Columbia. Sentences now being imposed in the District are among the highest in the United States.

I have given long and careful thought to this legislation.

I recognize that its sponsors believed it would arm the police and the courts with more effective tools in combating crime. Yet all agencies of government asked to comment on the bill--as well as the two civilian District Commissioners who live in Washington, and a majority of the District of Columbia Bar Association--have urged me to veto it.

They are convinced that it does not strengthen law enforcement in the District and does not meet the needs of the fight against crime, but rather introduces confusion and uncertainties into police and judicial practices.

The Acting Attorney General advises me that fundamental constitutional questions pervade the bill--four of its six rifles raise the most serious doubts.

We are engaged in a great national effort to lift the blight of bad housing, poor education, and unemployment from our cities. This effort is attacking the conditions that nourish high crime rates. But, in addition, State and local officials, and the Federal Government in its limited sphere, must devise more effective ways of preventing crime and bringing criminals to account.

Better trained and better paid policemen are part of the answer to crime. Last year Congress enacted the Law Enforcement Assistance Act, to finance pilot projects in the most modern police techniques. Today, I am signing into law a substantial--and well deserved--pay increase for District policemen.

Better police organization is part of the answer. Last year I appointed a District of Columbia Crime Commission and asked its members to recommend better ways of reducing crime in Washington. Many of the Commission's recommendations are designed to make the organization of the District Police Department a model for the Nation. Most are already being carried out. And the District of Columbia Commissioners have informed me that they have signed and are putting into effect the reorganization plan for the Police Department recommended by the D.C. Crime Commission.

Better staffed courts are part of the answer. This year, five new judgeships were added to the Court of General Sessions. They will help eliminate the delays which have impeded swift and effective justice.

Each of these steps has the same goal: more effective prevention, detection, and punishment of crime in the District of Columbia.

The problem of crime outside of the District of Columbia must primarily be dealt with by local officials. I have promised them the complete cooperation of the Federal Government within its proper sphere. We have already begun that cooperation with the Law Enforcement Assistance Act. We are prepared to expand our cooperative efforts. I will act promptly on the recommendations of the National Crime Commission, which I appointed in July of 1965, when they are received.

We know that criminal behavior, and the conditions out of which it springs, will not yield easily to our efforts. But we have given the highest priority to an intelligent, relentless fight to make the streets of the District of Columbia safe for law-abiding people-and we shall make them so.

I renew my pledge to pursue every avenue, use every tool, support any law that holds promise of advancing us in our drive against crime. In doing so I will need the cooperation of every man and woman whose commitment-as is mine--is to a Capital where civic order and social justice prevail.

LYNDON B. JOHNSON

THE WHITE HOUSE

November 13, 1966

Note: The Bail Reform Act of 1966 was approved by the President on June 22, 1966 (see Item 286).

The Law Enforcement Assistance Act of 1965 was enacted on September 22, 1965 (see 1965 volume, this series, Book II, Item 526).

The District of Columbia Policemen and Firemen's Salary Act Amendments of 1966, approved on November 13, is Public Law 89-810 (80 Stat. 1591).

The President's Commission on Crime in the District of Columbia was established July 16, 1965 (see 1965 volume, this series, Book II, Items 366, 381). A statement by the President upon receiving the Commission's report was made public on July 23, 1966 (Item 354 above).

The President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice was established July 23, 1965 (see 1965 volume, this series, Book II, Item 382). The President received the Commission's final report on December 31, 1966 (Item 656 below).

The memorandum was released at Fredericksburg, Texas.

Lyndon B. Johnson, Memorandum of Disapproval of the District of Columbia Crime Bill Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/238382

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