‘Son of Sam’ law upheld in Sinatra kidnapper’s movie deal
CALIFORNIA–In late May, the California Court of Appeal in Los Angeles unanimously upheld a state law that bars Frank Sinatra Jr.’s kidnapper, Barry Keenan, from selling his story to a movie studio for profit.
The court held that Civil Code section 2225 — California’s “Son of Sam” statute — was not unconstitutionally overinclusive and that it may be applied to a story based upon a crime that occurred before its enactment.
The court noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has concluded that “the State has a compelling interest in depriving criminals of the profits of their crimes, and using these funds to compensate victims.” The court also rejected Keenan’s argument that California’s statute was overbroad and encroached on protected speech, in part because it applied to works on any subject, even the author’s thoughts or recollections that are tangential or incidental to his crime.
The court reasoned that the statute at issue was not triggered by a “tangential” or “incidental” reference to a past criminal act.
“To the contrary, a convicted felon’s ability to profit from his crimes is affected only when he sells the ‘story of a felony for which [he] was convicted,'” the court held. Moreover, the court found that the statute does not allow the state to confiscate the income of an author who was never actually convicted.
Frank Sinatra, Jr., was kidnaped in 1963. Keenan and his accomplices demanded a ransom, which was paid by Sinatra’s father. Keenan was apprehended, tried, convicted of kidnaping and sentenced to federal prison. He completed his sentence and was released.
In January 1998, Sinatra learned that Keenan was to be interviewed by a reporter for New Times Los Angeles magazine for a story about the 1963 kidnaping, which was to be offered for sale to the media, with the profits to be shared by Keenan, the reporter and the New Times. The January 15 issue of New Times Los Angeles carried an article about the kidnaping, entitled “Snatching Sinatra.” Shortly thereafter, Keenan, the reporter and New Times sold the movie rights to “Snatching Sinatra” to Columbia Pictures.
Sinatra’s lawyers objected to Columbia’s payment of money to Keenan under California’s “Son of Sam” statute, which bars felons from profiting from their crimes. Sinatra sued Keenan, the reporter, New Times and Columbia. He subsequently asked for and was granted a preliminary injunction directing Columbia to withhold any payments due to Keenan pending the resolution of this action.
Keenan objected and moved to dissolve the preliminary injunction, arguing, among other things, that the “Son of Sam” statute violated his constitutional free speech rights. The trial court rejected Keenan’s arguments and denied the motion to dissolve the preliminary injunction, prompting Keenan to appeal. (Keenan v. Superior Court of Los Angeles County)