Dateline: February, 2022, Issue 1

How do the letter and spirit of the law affect culpability decisions?

Violations of the letter of the law can be distinct from violations of the spirit of the law. The letter of the law is a formal boundary between that which is legal and illegal, such as driving over the speed limit or parking in a handicapped parking spot without a special permit. The spirit of the law is the perceived intention of the law which is often shaped by political, moral and social values about how people should act. A person, technically, can be held culpable for any violation of the letter of the law, yet jurors do not always judge culpability this way. A person, technically, cannot be held culpable for a violation of the spirit of the law, but jurors sometimes do anyway.

Garcia and colleagues (2014) conducted 5 experiments examining how people make judgments of culpability in response to violations of the letter of the law, violations of the spirit of the law, or violations of both the letter and spirit of the law.

In this research, participants were asked to judge culpability for many different actions, including: speeding in a 55 mph zone; double-parking in a parking garage spot; traveling 80 mph to get home before dark due to one's vision becoming impaired; doing taxes and not reporting a $500 honorarium; fishing and having 2 more fish than the 6-fish limit; parking in handicapped spots; and shooting an elderly man with Alzheimer's when he trespassed on a homeowner's property in the middle of the night. Participants were asked if a specific action related to each scenario was a violation of the letter of the relevant law, a violation of the spirit of the relevant law, and if they would ticket, fine and/or hold culpable the person who had done each action.

Across the 5 studies, the researchers found that people do not assign culpability according only to the letter of the law. People assign culpability to themselves and others largely when the spirit of the law is violated.

Study 1 looked at perceptions of culpability for speeding when either (a) both the letter and spirit of the law were violated (going 87 mph in a 55 mph zone) as compared to (b) only the letter of the law was violated (going 57 mph in a 55 mph zone). Only 40% of participants ticketed the driver violating only the letter of the law, whereas 88% ticketed the driver when both the letter and spirit of the law were violated. Violations of both the spirit and letter of the law are perceived to be more serious than violations of the letter of the law alone.

Study 2 looked at perceptions of culpability for double-parking when either (a) both the letter and spirit of the law were violated (another parking space was encroached on) or (b) only the letter of the law was violated (parked over the line of the space but toward a wall and so was not encroaching on another parking space). While participants recognized that both drivers' parked illegally, 97% ticketed the driver who violated both the spirit and letter of the law as compared to only 52% ticketing the driver who violated only the letter of the law. Once again, violations of both the spirit and letter of the law are perceived to be more serious than violations of the letter of the law alone.

Study 3 looked at perceptions of culpability for the situations of a driver speeding home before dark for vision reasons, having more fish than the fishing limit, and not reporting an honorarium on taxes. Across all three scenarios, when actions were perceived to violate the spirit of the law, participants held the person doing the action more culpable regardless whether the actions were committed by oneself or another person.

Study 4 compared violations of only the letter of the law (but not the spirit) to violations of only the spirit of the law (but not the letter). The letter of the law (but not the spirit) was violated when a handicapped driver, who had a handicapped license plate on their car at home, drove a friend's car that did not possess a handicapped license plate and parked the friend's car in a handicapped spot. The spirit of the law (but not the letter) was violated when a driver who was not handicapped but did have handicapped plates on their car parked in a handicapped spot. Even though 100% of participants should ticket the handicapped driver who violated the letter of the law, only 57% did. While technically no participant should ticket the car of the non-handicapped driver, 33% did. Violations of the letter of the law (but not the spirit) are not always punished (even though technically they should be) and violations of the spirit of the law (but not the letter) are sometimes punished (even though technically they never should be).

Study 5 looked at a "stand your ground" law and the shooting dead of an elderly man with Alzheimer's by a homeowner when the elderly man trespassed the homeowner's property in the middle of the night. Violation of the spirit of the "stand your ground" law was the most important factor in predicting participants' judgments of culpability of the homeowner.

The researchers conclude that violating the perceived intention of the law determines judgments of culpability above and beyond violating the letter of the law. A person can violate the letter of the law (but not the spirit) and not incur culpability. A person also can violate the spirit of the law and incur culpability, even without violating the letter of the law. The greatest culpability is assigned when both the letter and the spirit of the law are violated.

Source Garcia, S.M., Chen, P. & Gordon, M.T. (2014). The letter versus the spirit of the law: A lay perspective on culpabilty. Judgment and Decision-Making, 19(5), pp. 479-490.