Criminal Justice

Psychics convicted in two separate cases; what is the line between fraud and free speech?

Psychics who charged large sums for their services were recently convicted in separate trials in Florida and New York, raising questions about the line between free speech and fraud.

The Associated Press reports on the two trials and on state laws aimed at curbing abuses.

In one trial, psychic Rose Marks was accused of bilking customers, including historical-romance novelist Jude Deveraux, out of millions of dollars over the years, the AP story says. Deveraux claims she paid Marks $17 million over 20 years. Deveraux says Marks told her she could transfer the spirit of Devereaux’s dead son into another boy’s body and reunite them.

Marks, of Fort Lauderdale, was convicted in September of 14 charges, including mail and wire fraud, money laundering, and filing false tax returns, the Palm Beach Post reported at the time. The defense had claimed the “victims” were actually satisfied customers.

In the other case, psychic Sylvia Mitchell was accused of swindling two women out of tens of thousands of dollars by claiming she could help them with bad spirits. She was convicted of grand larceny and a conspiracy to defraud, the New York Daily News reported last month. Mitchell’s lawyer had argued his client’s efforts were sincere.

Many cities and states have laws restricting or banning soothsaying, the story says. In Salem, Mass., for example, psychics can forecast the future and read the past, but “curses are a strict no-no,” the Boston Globe reports.

Local warlock Christian Day questions applying fraud laws to psychics, according to the Boston Globe account. “If they’re a fraud, then we’re all frauds, and all religion is a fraud,” he said. “They’re not regulating the priest who absolves you of your sins and tells you to put some money in the collection basket, or the old lady who sends all her money to Pat Robertson. They pick on us for one reason: They’re afraid of us. They’ve always been afraid of us.”

Meanwhile courts have differed on psychic regulations, the AP story says. A federal appeals court upheld a psychic licensing law in February, but some courts have struck down fortunetelling bans as free speech violations, the story says.

The blog RLUIPA Defense summarized the February opinion (PDF) by the Richmond, Va.-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in the case of Patricia Moore-King, who practiced under the name “Psychic Sofie.” The court concluded that fortunetelling is a “way of life” and not a religion protected by the First Amendment or the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. Nor was there a free speech violation, the court said.

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