April 4, 2001
By Dave Kopel
Are burglars entitled to safe working conditions? That’s a fair question for Colorado’s new United States Attorney, Richard Spriggs.
The United States Attorney is the boss of Department of Justice lawyers in Colorado. After losing a close race for U.S. Senate in 1996 to Wayne Allard, Democrat Tom Strickland was rewarded with the U.S. Attorney job. As a political appointee, Strickland stepped aside last week, making way for a Republican choice. In 1999, Strickland had convinced Denver District Court Judge Richard Spriggs to join the U.S. Attorney’s Office as Chief of the Criminal Division. With Strickland gone, Spriggs takes over the entire office, until President Bush names a replacement who is confirmed by the Senate.
In 1990, when Spriggs was still a judge, a gang of burglars broke into an auto-repair shop in a rough part of Denver. The leader of the gang hit a trip-wire, and was instantly killed by a booby-trap shotgun.
The owner of the repair shop, Philip Connaghan, had been burglarized twice times before by the very same gang. The gang made off with the tools that Connaghan needed to make a living. They stole family heirlooms too. Connaghan had tried everything: locks, alarms, guard dogs. Nothing worked. Nor did the police stop the burglaries. In frustration, Connaghan rigged up the booby-trap.
After the burglar’s death became a big news story, a Denver citizen’s group sprang up to re-legalize booby traps. Opponents –including the powers that be in Denver — pointed to dangers to fire-fighters who might enter the property, and to the principle that human life is always more important than property. (To be consistent, opponents should have urged that guard dogs be outlawed, since dogs too can endanger firefighters or kill a criminal.)
Enforcing the existing law against booby traps, Denver District Attorney Norm Early brought charges against Connaghan. Early was hardly a proponent of armed defense; in 1985 he testified against the “Make my day” law, which allows homeowners to shoot criminal intruders.
Yet Early recognized that no jury would convict Connaghan of murder. And Connaghan, unlike many defendants, was a first-time offender. Accordingly, D.A. Early offered a plea bargain: Connaghan would plead guilty. If he stayed out of trouble for the next several years, he would not go to jail, and would have no felony record.
Connaghan (unlike most defendants) was deeply sorry for what he had done. There was no risk he would ever repeat his offense.
A fair result? Not according to Denver District Court judge Richard Spriggs. Spriggs rejected the plea bargain, and demanded tougher terms. He wouldn’t let Connaghan’s record be wiped clean, no matter how well Connaghan behaved in the future.
Spriggs said that Connaghan had perpetrated a “bushwhack.” The word “bushwhacker” is, according to the book “Slang and Euphemism,” used for an outlaw who lives in rural places, and is not to be trusted. Yet no-one ever denied Connaghan’s trustworthiness and honesty. And unlike the gang of burglars, Connaghan wasn’t leading a life of crime. He was trying to protect his ability to make an honest living.
Yet because Judge Spriggs insisted on treated Connaghan like a bushwhacker, Connaghan was forced to plead guilty to manslaughter under terms that would leave him with a permanent felony record. Spriggs said he wanted to send Connaghan to prison, but would not do so because Connaghan might be murdered there by skinheads. Indeed, Connaghan had already been receiving death threats from the dead burglar’s skinhead friends.
Under the Spriggs mandate, Connaghan has a permanent felony record. He can never vote again, and is barred from many jobs.
Notably, because of the felony record, he was also barred from possessing firearms for the rest of his life. So at the precise time when Connaghan and his family were in mortal peril, Spriggs ensured that Connaghan couldn’t protect himself.
In effect, Judge Spriggs determined that exacting vengeance for the death of a burglar was more important that protecting the life of a decent citizen. The Judge, of course, has no idea what it’s like to have people break into your business and steal your livelihood again and again and again. Every moment the judge is at work he’s protected by an armed guard.
To add insult to injury, the judge ordered Connaghan to pay restitution to the burglar’s family. But restitution is what criminals are supposed to pay to victims. A burglar (and therefore the dead burglar’s family) has no moral claim to restitution. A burglar has no right to complain that the premises he attacked were more dangerous than they should have been.
And now, former Judge Richard Spriggs has become interim U.S. Attorney for Colorado. That’s great news for burglars who want on-the-job safety.
Dave Kopel is Research Director with the Independence Institute, a civil liberties think tank in Golden, https://i2i.org.
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