Civil Death

While there is disagreement about the origin of ‘‘civil death,’’ its definition is undisputed. Civil death ends a person’s legal capacity and renders him legally dead. The individual loses his property and can no longer perform any legal functions.

In ancient Athens, an ‘‘infamous’’ offender could be precluded from participating in the functions of citizenship. Through the Roman Empire, civil death was later exported to Germanic tribes and England where the practice came to be known as ‘‘outlawry.’’ It developed into a penal sanction referred to as ‘‘attainder,’’ which triggered the forfeiture of all civil and property rights. The concept ultimately took hold in the United States, albeit in an attenuated way, even though the Constitution prohibits Corruption of Blood and Bills of Attainder. Civil death applied only to those incarcerated for life or a term of years. Courts held that civil death required a statutory mandate. Until the middle of the twentieth century, consequences of criminal convictions, many of which continued after release from incarceration, included the automatic dissolution of marriage, the denial of licenses, and the inability to enter into contracts or to engage in civil litigation.

By the 1960s, however, civil death had largely disappeared from Europe and North America. Most of the rights of felons were restored, at least on their release from confinement. However, remnants of civil death remain in the United States to this day. Large-scale disenfranchisement after criminal convictions is a consequence of former civil death statutes, as are the denial of the right to hold public office and to serve on a jury.

NORA V. DEMLEITNER

References and Further Reading

  • Damaska, Mirjan R. ‘‘Adverse Legal Consequences of Conviction and Their Removal: A Comparative Study.’’ J. Crim. L., Criminology & Police Sci. 59 (1968): 347.
  • History and Theory of Civil Disabilities, Vand. L. Rev. 23 (1970): 941–1241.

See also Bill of Attainder; Collateral Consequences; Corruption of Blood

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