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Police: Policing Complainantless Crimes

Why Law Enforcement Action Is Requested For Victimless Crimes, Police Tactics Employed In Victimless Crimes, Extrapolation To Other Types Of Criminality

Certain types of criminal offenses, such as some forms of commercialized consensual sex (e.g. prostitution), nongovernmentally sanctioned gambling, public drunkenness, and drug addiction, are said to generate no complaints. These offenses are often designated as victimless crimes because of a perception that these crimes involve no specific objects of attack, which is one of the defining characteristics of larcenies, assaults, and other common law crimes. The term "victimless crimes" also assumes that the participants are adults and fully capable of making informed decisions about their participation in these activities and that they are engaged in these activities through their own volition.

The term victimless crime, when used to describe various activities that constitute a class of illegal behaviors, has been a source of considerable controversy because these crimes do cause substantial human suffering, not in the direct way that common law crimes produce clear injury to the victims, but indirectly through damaged lives and communities. For many who look at the fallout created by victimless crimes, it seems obvious that the activities forbidden by the relevant criminal laws should indeed be outlawed. They should be treated as crimes, observers argue, for they are too damaging to go unregulated. Those who hold this position argue further that victimless offenses violate various community standards and propriety that have been codified into law to protect the moral welfare of the public and the physical health of its citizens. Consequently, proponents of this position argue that law enforcement officers should police such activity in order to promote and reinforce the social order.

On the other side of the debate are those who say that the formal machinations of the criminal justice system should not be alerted or activated to respond to the activities currently known as victimless crimes. Those who maintain this position argue that because the selling and purchasing of these services is consensual, such crimes do not warrant the attention of the criminal justice system. In other words, because those who participate directly in these proscribed activities do not report the illicit behavior to the authorities, the government should not intervene. From this perspective, law enforcement activity directed at victimless crimes is unjustified and constitutes an unreasonable intrusion into the private lives of citizens. Proponents of this reasoning further argue that governmental attention to these activities greatly burdens the police, the courts, and the correctional system by diverting funds and energy away from serious crimes that directly affect their victims (Territo, Halstead, and Bromley).

This entry will not discuss the legal and philosophical issues relating to the criminalization versus decriminalization debate often associated with so-called victimless crimes, but instead focuses on the fact that participants engage in such crimes voluntarily. The point that participants in victimless crimes do not report the illicit behavior to the authorities has several crucial implications for understanding the nature of crime and social control. This entry addresses those implications and the law enforcement actions directed toward them.

The crime of prostitution is illustrative of the various rationales for taking law enforcement action against victimless crimes and addresses generally the methods that police agencies employ to combat such crimes. Other sorts of victimless crimes will be addressed in passing as a means of demonstrating the similarities manifest in this category of crime.




LYMAN, MICHAEL D. Criminal Investigation: The Art and the Science. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1999.

TERRITO, LEONARD; HALSTEAD, JAMES; and BROMLEY, MAX. Crime and Justice in America: A Human Perspective. St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing, 1992.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal Law