book-reviews

Three Felonies a Day

by Harvey A. Silverglate

Rating: ★★★

Three Felonies refers to the claim that an ordinary American unknowingly commits an average of that number of felonies. This book sort-of-but-not-really backs up this claim, drawing on some pointed examples from several decades of US legal history. While these examples can be interesting, and the topic certainly is, this book seems weak, and says little of what it should.

The notable thing for any protest-marching, civil-libertarian type who picks up this book will be that the examples Silverglate draws on are not the ones which will resonate with you easily. Almost all of the defendants are wealthy, many are public figures, and some are hideously corrupt. In fact, in many cases the legal outrages pointed out rely on public sentiment being against the defendant. Silverglate may be writing for a different audience here than I expected, but his treatment is exacting: again and again, vague laws are used to transform civil infractions into crimes, and whatever the morality, it is not a rule of law that does that.

Part of this selection of the wealthy, however, means Silverglate doesn't really address his title. While doctors, lawyers, politicians and financiers may see examples of their everyday practice being described as criminal, this can't be said for the common man, and an easy (if confused) reading of the book could well support the intuition that everyone with money is necessarily a crook. The far more everyday nonsensical legalities of the US criminal code (like collecting feathers being illegal) are not covered in this volume, and it seems that it is things like that which would drive home Silverglate's message in style.

For taking an impartial approach to some easily-disliked characters, Silverglate wins some respect from me, and his discussion of the media's role in allowing miscarriage is a strong rebuke. But this book is a shadow of what it could've been. If you're a dyed-in-the-wool authoritarian American, you could learn from this. Similarly if you're the breed of radical who thinks mob justice is suitable for the corrupt. But if you already know what I'm talking about, you don't need to read this book.