Impossible attempts were first officially recognized as non-criminal in 1864, the idea being that a person whose anti-social bent poses no appreciable risk of harm is no criminal. To reassure myself the subject doesn’t “smell of the lamp,” I tapped “impossibility” into Westlaw, which designated over 3000 criminal cases as on point, 1200 or so more recent than 1999. Impossible attempts thus turn out to be not merely a professorial hobby horse, but instead, expressive of a non-trivial tension between risk-taking and harm-causing within the very real world of criminal litigation.
Although it is now hornbook that impossible attempts are punishable as crimes, there remains a sense of a non-trivial difference between failing at larceny by picking the empty pocket of a passerby on a sidewalk and by picking the empty pocket of a mannequin in a department store. What remains up in the air is what accounts for that difference. Here I decode the impossibility defense by “hounding down the minutiae” of what it means to make a mistake. I am certainly not the first to insist that the impossibility defense lives on. I am, however, the first to base such a claim on the grammar or criteria of mistakes, which can get us closer to the bottom of what makes attempts impossible and why it matters.
Daniel B. Yeager,
Decoding the Impossibility Defense,
U. Louisville L. Rev.
Available at: https://scholarlycommons.law.cwsl.edu/fs/270