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10 Appalling Legal Loopholes That Enabled Dangerous Criminals

by A.C. Grimes
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Lawmakers have the noble but difficult task of crafting deterrents and responses to wrongdoing. These statutory safeguards are largely successful in preventing society from devolving into a crime-plagued, Hobbesian hellscape. But legislators sometimes fail to anticipate an impending evil, resulting in laws that inadvertently enable heinous behavior.

10 The UK’s Antique-Gun Exemption


Known for rigorous firearms restrictions, the UK is a nation of largely atrophied trigger fingers. But even in a gun control mecca like Great Britain, criminals can legally get their hands on guns. The nation’s laws give Brits carte blanche to buy firearms classified as “antiques,” regardless of functionality.

The term “antique” may evoke images of modern crooks brandishing blunderbusses and muskets, but more formidable, 20th-century weapons like shotguns, Uzis, and machine guns are also fair game under the exemption. These items can be purchased at European gun fairs or online and brought into the country with nary a legal hurdle. As a result, increasing numbers of crooks have declared open season on old guns.

Unsurprisingly, these vintage weapons go on to become inanimate accomplices in modern-day violence. In 2015, the London Metropolitan Police reported that at least 31 shootings had taken place in the past three years using antique firearms, resulting in three homicides. Of the 94 antiques confiscated from criminals during that period, at least one was involved in the shooting of a police officer.

These developments have understandably fostered significant concern among police. The law commission, a panel established in 1965 to recommend changes to the law when needed, is also prepared to act. In an effort to nip the growing gun problem in its antiquated bud, Law Commissioner David Ormerod plans to propose a legislative fix in 2016.

9 The US’s House-Stealing Loophole


Common sense might tell you that as long as you purchase a house and have the appropriate paperwork, you own it. But throughout the United States—from the gritty streets of New York and Chicago to the cities and counties of Missouri—people are discovering that it’s incredibly easy for dishonest interlopers to swoop in and claim their houses.

Fail-safes against processing fraudulent real estate deeds are often nonexistent. When a person walks into a recorder’s office with a notarized title, there’s no vigilant authenticator waiting in the wings to assess the document’s legitimacy. The law in most US locations prohibits county employees from performing title searches or other checks. However, if they know a transaction is fraudulent, they can obviously call the police.

In Cook County, Illinois, the recorder has admitted to knowing that fraudulent transactions take place in general, although she doesn’t say that she knows of specific fraudulent transactions that she can’t stop. For the most part, recorders simply accept the appropriate fees and treat documents as valid. Once ownership is transferred, the unlawful owner can attempt to sell or rent the property to others, a tactic often employed with unoccupied houses.

Victims are often blindsided by these shenanigans, which can cost a lot of money to fix. That was the case for Stanley and Evelyn Ho of Kansas City, Missouri, who were informed by news investigators in 2012 that the deed to a house they’d owned for 25 years had been signed over to a person who died in 1988. The naturally upset Hos were able to right this unexpected wrong but only with the help of a trusty lawyer and thousands of begrudgingly spent dollars.

In cities like New York, some notaries have joined law enforcement in a united front against fraud. But elsewhere, deed and notary fraud seem to be virtually unstoppable, meaning that untold numbers of homeowners may be Hos in the making.

8 Costa Rica’s Shark-Finning Allowances


Humankind’s taste for shark fin soup spawned the brutal business of shark finning, where a fisherman amputates a shark’s dorsal fin before dumping the helpless animal back in the water to die. It saves cargo room in commercial fishing boats but kills tens of millions of sharks annually. Rampant shark finning went unchecked in Costa Rica for roughly 20 years before being banned in 2005. But in the post-ban period, money-hungry gangs and seamen hailing from China, Taiwan, and Indonesia found ways to skirt the law.

One of those ways was the use of private docks. Guarded by barbed wire and gunmen, private ports provided an ideal hub for secret shark finning. Security was so tight that even abrasive celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay found himself face-to-barrel with an armed guard while investigating Costa Rica’s shark fin trade. To a large degree, the private docks lost their appeal when legislators finally intervened in 2010.

But the people involved in shark finning are creative. Kathy Tseng, a woman connected to the seafood industry, resorted to an inventive tactic called “shark spining.” Costa Rica’s shark-finning ban requires shark fins to be attached to the body when transported for sale or export but doesn’t define the term “body.”

Tseng reasoned that she could comply with the law by leaving the fins attached to the spine but removing everything else. In 2011, she loaded a boat with 332 spine-attached fins, which were eventually flagged by police. But in court, she maintained that the sharks hadn’t technically been finned. Latching onto the commerce criterion, she further asserted that she hadn’t meant to sell the shark carcasses.

Disturbingly, a Costa Rican judge declined to rule on the legality of shark spining and agreed with the rest of Tseng’s defense. The government was ordered to pay her $6,500 for the confiscated fins.

7 The UK’s Ironic Legal Aid Liability


The UK’s 2002 Proceeds of Crime Act sought to financially defang crooks by freezing their assets and prohibiting their use to pay defense bills in criminal trials. The purpose of the law was clear: to prevent the disgustingly rich and ruthless from buying their way out of punishment with dirty money. But the law unintentionally gave savvy crooks a new way to evade justice. With their assets inaccessible, millionaires could claim financial difficulty, forcing the state to pay their legal costs.

That’s how Syed Ahmed and Shakeel Ahmad, two big-time VAT fraudsters who owned fancy cars and over 20 properties worth tens of millions of pounds, received over £100,000 in legal aid. Likewise, major fraudster Raymond May received about £411,000, despite being worth over £3 million. The list of money launderers, violent extortionists, and drug kingpins who have also benefited is staggering.

In addition, most of the wealthy wrongdoers who are convicted usually refuse to compensate their victims or repay court fees afterward. Even worse, attempts to force their hands in separate court actions have often favored the criminal. According to The Evening Standard, wealthy convicts owed the state over £1 billion in unpaid confiscation orders in 2012.

Thankfully, this all changed in June 2015. That’s when the UK finally clamped down and allowed courts to appropriate the assets of convicted criminals to pay fees and compensate victims.

6 The UK’s Deadly DNP Loophole


On April 12, 2015, 21-year-old bulimia sufferer Eloise Aimee Parry sent an ominously apologetic text to her university lecturer, expressing deep regret and fear after ingesting unregulated diet pills containing the hazardous industrial chemical, dinitrophenol (DNP). Hours later, she died. Parry is one of five people who have died of DNP consumption in the last three years. Sadly, she may not be the last because selling DNP is perfectly legal.

DNP increases metabolism but is banned for human consumption due to its extreme toxicity. However, the substance can also serve as a pesticide or chemical dye, preventing a complete prohibition on its sale. Online vendors eager to profit from people’s weight loss anxieties have exploited this fact and regularly tout DNP as a “fat burner.” Bodybuilders and people with eating disorders flock to these devious merchants hoping to buy a better body. But their purchases come with sinister side effects like nausea, vomiting, and occasionally death.

Unsurprisingly, some of the people associated with this illicit trade have been known to fail at other aspects of basic humanity. Violent British gangsters and at least one suspected identity thief have been linked to the distribution of DNP. As with young Eloise Parry, not all of their customers have lived to reap the benefits of a speedier metabolism. In the days after Parry’s death, UK lawmakers sought to forbid the sale of DNP once and for all, but ultimately, their efforts floundered.

5 New Mexico’s Lewd-Image Omission


In 2013, New Mexico resident Pete Lopez Jr. ran blatantly afoul of the law. He had coped with a breakup by relentlessly hounding his ex-girlfriend in true stalker fashion. But what sets Lopez apart from the typical stalker is that when his ex ignored his unhinged advances, he began sending her 11-year-old son digital photos of male genitalia. Authorities sought to convict Lopez of criminal sexual communication with a child, which is a fourth-degree felony and a sex crime. But the charges wouldn’t stick.

Surprisingly, New Mexico’s prohibition on adults bombarding children with penis pics only applied to people sharing their own privates. Exposing kids to someone else’s was completely legal. Prosecutors could nail Lopez on contributing to the delinquency of a minor, but that wasn’t a sex offense. According to Police Detective Kacee Thatcher, this glaring legal omission was a boon for child predators.

Throughout New Mexico, would-be child rapists tried to prepare children for unspeakable abuses by providing photographic primers on the human anatomy in various carnal capacities. But most predators used nude images of other people to protect themselves from sex crime charges. This pervert-sized loophole rightly hijacked the attention of Republican legislator Kelly Fajardo, who introduced a bill to close it. But partisan strife prevented the bill from coming to a vote in the state senate in early 2015.

4 Ohio’s Importuning Opportunity


Photo credit: Mark Strozier

If you don’t know it by name, you may recognize the crime of “importuning” more informally as the premise of To Catch a Predator: attempting to arrange sexual trysts with minors. You’d expect that type of behavior to earn someone a spot on their state’s sex offender registry along with a complimentary prison stint. In Ohio, however, these would-be molesters often avoid both consequences.

It has nothing to do with wonky legal wording or the shrewdness of the state’s pedophile population. Instead, prosecutors and judges often make deals with adults caught in importuning sting operations. In exchange for pleading guilty to a lesser charge such as child endangerment, alleged offenders are often let off the hook while concerned parents are often left in the dark about these deals.

Between January 2010 and September 2014, a review of 93 resolved importuning cases revealed that only about 20 percent of perpetrators spent any time behind bars. Sometimes, prosecutors believe it just isn’t practical to pursue these cases. Prison space is limited, so declining to jail importuners saves room. Some judges also believe that attempts to rendezvous with undercover cops posing as children are “victimless crimes.”

But investigative journalists have rooted out clear cases in which convicted child molesters were later caught importuning and still escaped punishment. Elected leaders alerted to this problem were understandably unhappy, and at least one Ohio senator has vowed to correct the problem with new legislation.

3 The UK’s Abuse-Denial Loophole


Evidence of a caretaker perpetrating grotesque violence against a child or helpless adult should be enough to file criminal charges, regardless of whether the suspect admits guilt or points fingers. But until 2012, that would have been wishful thinking in the UK. In 2010 alone, at least 133 instances of child abuse and 20 cases of criminal cruelty against vulnerable adults went unprosecuted because the caretakers refused to play ball with authorities.

Back then, a child abuse case had to meet three conditions for prosecution. First, the caretaker knew or should have known of the threat to the victim’s well-being. Second, that caretaker failed to adequately address the threat. Third, the unremedied threat resulted in the victim’s death.

These rules were created in 2004 to address an old loophole in which caretakers who enabled abuse but did not personally contribute to it were not legally responsible for their ward’s death. This allowed many abusive caretakers to avoid prosecution by remaining silent as to which adult was responsible for the abuse.

Without that loophole, the tragic and highly publicized story of Baby Peter in 2007 might have ended differently. Peter was subjected to months of agonizing abuse by his parents, even as social workers paid regular visits to assess the child’s well-being. Although the baby had suffered over 50 injuries at the hands of one or both parents, authorities were powerless to intervene until after his death. With the 2012 amendments to the UK law, caretakers who commit or allow nonfatal abuse of a child or vulnerable adult now face a 10-year jail sentence.

2 New York’s Fatal Social Services Oversight


In January 2014, police responded to a 911 call from a Manhattan apartment where they found four-year-old Myls Dobson lying motionless on a bathroom floor. Kryzie King, Myls’s 27-year-old caretaker and torturer, was also there. For weeks, King had bound and beaten the boy, seared him with a hot oven rack, starved him, and forced him to endure freezing temperatures outdoors. When the child’s battered body finally gave out, King called for help. But it was too late. Myls passed away. Sadly, his murder may have been prevented if New York’s child protection laws had operated differently.

King wasn’t the boy’s legal guardian. The child’s actual custodian—his father, Okee Wade—was in jail and had left his son in King’s care. During that time, social workers visited his apartment nine times. Wade had a long criminal rap sheet and was required to meet with caseworkers as a condition of keeping custody of Myls.

Had those social workers known about Wade’s incarceration, they could have taken him into protective custody. But police weren’t obligated to keep New York’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) informed of such matters. King repeatedly misrepresented Wade’s whereabouts before Myls’s death.

The boy’s senseless death seemed like a wake-up call for New York lawmakers, who introduced a bill called “Myls’ Law” to change police reporting requirements. But fears that government agencies would be overburdened by the change thwarted its passage.

1 Extensive Criminal Immunity For Nonnatives On Native American Reservations

Violence Against Native Women aired 10-18-13

Unless you’re a highfalutin diplomat, you should expect to be prosecuted to the full extent of a foreign country’s laws if you break any of those laws as a visitor. However, that’s not true of Native American reservations. There, the vilest of predators can often commit the worst crimes with impunity as long as the victim is Native American and the perpetrator is not.

Tragically, Native Americans have little say in the matter. They’re legally hamstrung by the 1978 US Supreme Court ruling in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, which bars Native Americans from prosecuting nonnatives who commit crimes on tribal lands unless there is a congressional treaty or statute that authorizes it. US prosecutors have free rein to pursue or ignore such cases, and they largely prefer inaction. The results have been devastating.

A motley assortment of child molesters, drug gangs, and other human blights has flooded Native American reservations to exploit these unintended legal protections. As long as they restrict themselves to raping, robbing, and murdering people governed by tribal law, these evildoers are all but guaranteed a free pass. It’s a horrifying reality that likely explains why a staggering 86 percent of reported sexual assaults committed against Native American women are committed by nonnatives.

In recent years, the US took a baby step to combat the problem. In 2013, it updated the Violence Against Women Act to grant greater power to tribal courts to prosecute nonnatives who sexually assault Native American women. However, the law falls short of prosecuting all such cases, instead focusing only on domestic violence. While the new provision promises much-needed support for women and children who’ve suffered years of agonizing abuse by spouses or parents, countless others are still neglected, voiceless ghosts caught in a callous legal machine.

fact checked by Jamie Frater