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What is the Son of Sam Law?

The "Son of Sam" law refers to any American statute designed to prevent criminals from profiting from the publicity of their crimes, often by selling their stories to publishers. Named after the infamous New York City serial killer David Berkowitz, who was nicknamed "Son of Sam," these laws ensure that any income generated from such deals is used first to compensate the victims or their families. The first of these laws was enacted in New York in 1977, but similar laws have since been adopted in various forms across many states.

While the intent is to deter criminals from capitalizing on their notoriety, these laws have faced legal challenges on the grounds of free speech. In 1991, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down New York's Son of Sam law in Simon & Schuster v. Crime Victims Board, finding it overbroad and inconsistent with the First Amendment. However, this led to revised laws that are narrower in scope, aiming to balance the First Amendment rights of offenders with the rights of crime victims to be compensated for their losses.

Elizabeth Norberg
Elizabeth Norberg

The Son of Sam Law prevents convicted criminals in the United States (US) from profiting from their crimes through book or movie deals. In 1977, serial killer David Berkowitz, also known as the Son of Sam, was arrested in New York City after more than a year of killing. The Son of Sam Law is a result of the notoriety he received, and of speculation that publishers were offering him large sums of money for his side of the story. Specifically, the law is designed to allow the state to seize money earned from these deals and turn it over to victims of the crime as a form of restitution.

Sometimes, the Son of Sam Law includes the families of the criminals. This prevents them from using their knowledge of the situation for profit, as well. If a book or movie is made about the crime or is based on the criminal, the criminal must forfeit any proceeds to the state's Crime Victims Compensation Board.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

The Son of Sam Law can be applied in cases of national security, including terrorism or espionage. Any profits made from book or movie deals about the incidents must be handed over to the US Treasury Department. In these cases, neither the criminals nor the victims would have access to the money.

There have been numerous criticisms of the Son of Sam Law since its inception. Critics argue that financial incentive is important in obtaining the stories of the crimes, and that criminals may be deterred from sharing the details, even if the story is important public knowledge. The best example of this is the watergate scandal, where the story was of national importance.

The law was found unconstitutional in 1991 in the case of Simon & Shuster v. Crime Victims Board. A court unanimously agreed that the law was overinclusive and infringed on a person's First Amendment right to free speech. The court took issue with the fact that the law included people who were accused of a crime, not solely those convicted of the crime. Laws in New York and in other states have since been modified to include all economic proceeds from a crime, not only money earned through the sales of the story.

Another major criticism of the Son of Sam Law is that under such a broad scope, books by Malcolm X, St. Augustine, and Henry David Thoreau would not have been published — although it is not the purpose or focus of their books, each author mention crimes he had committed. The Son of Sam Law makes no distinction between printed material, which is specifically about the crime, or those in which the crime is mentioned in larger context. This is the reason the law is largely considered to be over-broad.

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Discussion Comments


@Animandel - I agree with you that the Son of Sam Law serves a purpose. However, I definitely think the law could use a little tweaking to address the shortcomings mentioned in this article.


I think the Son of Sam Law as laid out and explained in this article is a great idea. The thought of criminals making money on the stories of how they killed and hurt other people is disgusting. I don't buy the argument that telling the killers side of the story is so important that we need to help him or her benefit for his or her actions. Better to never know the exact details than have criminals profit from their crimes.


@Sporkasia - I am one of those people who still wonders if David Berkowitz actually committed all of those murders. I am not saying he didn't kill all of those people, but I still think there is a chance that someone else was involved, too; someone who was never caught and punished. Maybe we will never know the real story of what happened back then.


I remember when the Son of Sam killings were taking place. That was such a scary time for everyone. I was a child, so I was totally confused by the whole story. I can remember seeing reports about the killings on the evening news. For me, the whole thing was like a horror movie, something you would see in a TV movie. The fact all of this was happening in real life was like a dream; a nightmare would be a better way of putting it I guess.

When David Berkowitz was arrested we were all so relieved. Even though we were a long way from where the killings were happening, I think we all felt a bit safer when the arrest was made. However, I still had this thought in my head that if this could happen in one place then it could happen in our town.

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