Pay the Dorner rewards

There is a dispute over whether to pay out the reward offered during the manhunt for former Los Angeles Police Officer Christopher Dorner.
(Reed Saxon / Associated Press)

What are the nature and purpose of a reward offered to help apprehend a criminal suspect? As generations of first-year law students have learned, a reward may be viewed as a contract in which someone, usually a public agency, makes an “offer” of money in return for information; a person with information then “accepts” that offer by providing the information and pocketing the cash. That’s fine as a legal definition, but it ignores the larger purpose of a reward. A reward is an inducement — a way of engaging the public in the attempt to thwart some threat to safety. Money is offered in effect to deputize and incentivize a community, enlisting its services to bring a suspect to justice. The reward is the payoff for the person or persons who achieve that purpose.

Those distinctions may seem abstract, but they undergird a dispute, detailed in The Times last week, over whether to pay out the reward offered during the manhunt for former Los Angeles Police Officer Christopher Dorner.

As a contractual matter, the offer and acceptance of the Dorner reward were complicated by the varying language used to describe what the reward was for. Donors specified that it was intended for the suspect’s “arrest and conviction.” Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told reporters it was for Dorner’s “capture,” and Chief Charlie Beck said it was for Dorner’s “capture and conviction.” Because Dorner elected to kill himself when cornered by police, he was neither arrested nor convicted. Some donors who pledged to the reward fund have thus elected to back out of their pledges.

But if the reward is viewed, as it should be, as a way of soliciting public help in locating a person who poses a threat to public safety, the conditions were met. Private citizens who collided with Dorner during his rampage alerted police. Authorities responded, closed in and eventually surrounded him in a mountain cabin. That Dorner chose to end that standoff by killing himself rather than submitting to arrest and possible conviction in no way changes the usefulness of the information that helped lead police to him.

Nevertheless, some of those who pledged reward money are interpreting the matter as one of contract and are looking for loopholes to withdraw their support. The city of Riverside, for instance, declared that “because the conditions were not met, there will not be a payment of a reward by the city.” That’s penny wise and pound foolish, not to mention a cavalier disregard of public safety. Officials should realize that it will undermine the efficacy of future reward offers if the public senses that the game is rigged. In an effort to save itself a few dollars in this instance, Riverside and others may end up paying dearly in the future when residents, told that a reward is on the table, decide to let police handle it themselves because the money may not be forthcoming.


Some observers have also complained that the payout would reward the wrong kind of behavior. Do we really want to reward people who didn’t dig up the information by clever sleuthing but merely crossed paths with the suspect? The sensible answer should be yes. If the information leads to the elimination of the threat, then it has served its purpose. That’s true whether the person providing it came upon it by chance, at great personal risk or through extraordinary enterprise.

It’s certainly possible for more than one person to provide useful information. In the Dorner case, a couple whom Dorner tied up in their condominium alerted police after he fled the residence. They have filed a claim for the reward, as has a man who, shortly thereafter, was carjacked by the fugitive. If both pieces of information truly led police to Dorner, then dividing the money between them seems within the spirit of the offer.

Finally, there is this dystopian alternative to consider: If public agencies offer rewards for arrest or conviction and then withhold them in cases in which a suspect dies, they have, in effect, created a financial incentive for police to kill suspects rather than arrest them. That’s a troubling bit of motivation.