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traffic laws

Police and prosecution roundup

by Walter Olson on September 24, 2014

  • “Shaneen Allen’s prosecutor might be having second thoughts” [Radley Balko, earlier] Sequel: Indeed.
  • “If you get a parking ticket, you are guilty until you have proven yourself innocent …. And that’s worked well for us.” — “senior” Washington, D.C. government official [Washington Post quoting inspector general report; also includes details on traffic camera protocols]
  • Not an Onion story: Eleventh Circuit chides use of SWAT methods in Florida barber shop inspections [ABA Journal ("It's a pretty big book, I’m pretty sure I can find something in here to take you to jail for"), Volokh, Balko, Greenfield] Militarized cop gear is bad, routinized use of SWAT tactics is worse [Jacob Sullum]
  • New England Innocence Project looking at several shaken-baby cases [Boston Herald, background]
  • Innocence commissions like North Carolina’s not a big budgetary line item as government programs go, alternatives may cost more [A. Barton Hinkle]
  • New evidence continues to emerge in Ferguson police shooting, but is nation still listening? [Scott Greenfield]
  • Prosecutors arrayed as organized pressure group is very bad idea to begin with, and more so when goal is to shrink citizens’ rights [AP on "Prosecutors Against Gun Violence"; Robert H. Jackson on prosecutors' power and role in society]

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Perhaps because it uses police for revenue collection rather than public safety. Last year the tiny town of Beverly Hills issued six traffic tickets and two ordinance violations for each resident. An investigation of the string of towns that includes Ferguson, Mo. finds heavy reliance on speed cameras and intensive traffic enforcement on sometimes-tiny stretches of road, oversized police forces, various anecdotes of assault and misconduct, and, in the case of the town of Edmundson, Mo., a memo from the mayor in April 2014 ordering the writing of more tickets. [Lisa Riordan Seville, NBC News; earlier]

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And thinks to blame economic inequality, but not municipal coercion [David Sheff, Time] For a Northern California tow-and-impound saga that makes even San Francisco look mild, see earlier coverage here, here, and here.

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As I and many other writers have noted lately, the town of Ferguson like several nearby suburbs in St. Louis County has a reputation for raising revenue through aggressive use of tickets for minor traffic and vehicle infractions, a practice that many suspect weighs more heavily on poorer and outsider groups. Blogger Coyote, who now lives in Arizona, has some reflections about police practice in that state and also adds this recollection from an earlier stint in Missouri:

I worked in the Emerson Electric headquarters for a couple of years, which ironically is located in one corner of Ferguson. One of the unwritten bennies of working there was the in house legal staff. It was important to make a friend there early. In Missouri they had some bizarre law where one could convert a moving violation to a non-moving violation. A fee still has to be paid, but you avoid points on your license that raises insurance costs (and life insurance costs, I found out recently). All of us were constantly hitting up the in-house legal staff to do this magic for us. I am pretty sure most of the residents of Ferguson do not have this same opportunity.

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July 29 roundup

by Walter Olson on July 29, 2014

  • Say nay, laddie: Unsettling new Scotland law will assign each child state interest guardian (“named person”) [BBC, Scottish government, Josie Appleton/Spiked Online, opposition group and another] More: Skenazy.
  • Why Judge Alex Kozinski doesn’t like jury nullification [Reason interview last year]
  • “Asbestos Ruling Boosts Transparency —- and Threatens Plaintiffs’ Attorneys” [Paul Barrett, Business Week, on Garlock ruling]
  • Winona, Minn. town cap on rental conversions violates property owners’ rights [Ilya Shapiro, Cato]
  • Challenger claims Ohio attorney general’s hiring of debt collection firms amounts to pay to play [Columbus Dispatch]
  • Mixed verdict in Philadelphia traffic court prosecutions [Inquirer, ABA Journal, earlier]
  • Save the date! Cato’s annual Constitution Day returns Wed., Sept. 17, with panelists and speakers like P.J. O’Rourke, Nadine Strossen, Tom Goldstein, Judge Diane Sykes, Roger Pilon, and a host of others [details]

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If you last saw it in the small town of Hamlet, N.C., it might have been impounded by the police on low-level charges and then sold for scrap to junkyards in a series of what appear to be irregular and under-monitored transactions. “In police files were two court orders, signed by a state district court judge, but otherwise left mostly blank. Those pre-signed court orders, which judicial experts say are extremely unusual and do not seem appropriate, appear to have been copied and then used to dispose of at least seven vehicles.” [News and Observer last November via Balko]

More from New York City: “TLC Wrongly Accused Hundreds of Being Illegal Cabbies in Past Year.” And when they accuse, they can and do seize your car, which you may have to go to a lot of trouble to get back. [DNAInfo] Related: “City investigators wrongfully accused a black man of being an illegal taxi driver after they spotted him dropping off his wife at work, believing she was a white livery cab passenger, a lawsuit charges.” [DNAInfo via Alkon]

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  • Cop caught on camera stealing dying motorist’s $3700 and gold crucifix “walked out of courtroom with big smile on face” [Bridgeport; Connecticut Post]
  • Durham, N.C. police officer testifies department would illegally gain access to homes for purposes of search by lying about getting 911 calls [IndyWeek]
  • “California Highway Patrol Seizes Medical Records Of Woman An Officer Was Caught On Tape Beating” [Tim Cushing, TechDirt]
  • Drivers routinely expected to give up otherwise-basic civil liberties in exchange for right to use the roads [Michael Tracey, Vice]
  • Teen sexting prosecutions in Virginia and elsewhere: “We must destroy the children in order to save them” [Radley Balko]
  • Narcotics officers get training credit at tax-funded seminars in how to argue in favor of drug laws [Missouri pro-legalization site via Balko]
  • Back from the ashes: advances in fire and arson forensics cast doubt on earlier convictions [Texas Monthly]

Time mag asked arch-leftwinger Barbara Ehrenreich about the best single way to reduce income inequality. I’d never have dreamed that David Henderson would agree with the answer she gave — or that I would too. More here on Ehrenreich’s views on the “criminalization of poverty” (which, not surprisingly, head off in directions very different from mine once you’re past the initial area of agreement).

One reader points out that laws against behaviors like driving with broken headlights or lapsed insurance are of universal benefit and improve road safety. But I don’t think Ehrenreich’s point (or Henderson’s or mine) amounts to “let’s legalize driving with broken headlights.” Not so long ago, many petty offenses of traffic and street life were illegal but the consequences of violation were much less harsh. The other day I got a transponder toll in the mail amounting to maybe $10, which would jump to $150+ if I didn’t get in a payment within 20 days; being your basic organized middle-class person, I dashed off a check that same day. Add one complicating factor — say I was a person whose mail was forwarded to me from another address — and it would have been a closer thing.

Why has government chosen to escalate once-petty fines over the past couple of generations? 1) It wants revenue and likes the idea of making agencies self-financing or better; 2) it listens more closely to its own agencies than to the populace; 3) when middle class policymakers (as they nearly always are) consider the issue, they think of what level of fine it would take to deter someone like themselves and worry less about whether fines at that level might capsize the little guy or small business (I hear often about how this framework of punitive small fines is a key deterrent to trying to run a small business with a couple of delivery trucks and maybe an urban commercial building or two to run up inspection and property fines.)

The reformist consumer finance literature, to which Elizabeth Warren was a big contributor as an academic, and with which Ehrenreich is no doubt well acquainted, decries $30 late fees and 20 percent interest rates as a business plan by which credit card companies can turn small debts into big ones at the expense of persons without middle-class money habits and skills. Which raises the question: why spend so much time belaboring the banks if government’s own policy on late fees, bounced checks, etc. is going to be so much less merciful? (& welcome Radley Balko readers)

P.S. An example? South Carolina man says he didn’t realize you needed to pay for a soda refill at VA hospital canteen. Contemplated consequences: $525 fine, federal criminal conviction, unable to return to workplace. (Update: following national publicity, let off with warning).

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“A Baton Rouge-area defense attorney known for criticizing the use of sobriety checkpoints was handcuffed and taken to jail early Wednesday after exiting the passenger side of his vehicle while intoxicated and informing his driver of her right to refuse a sobriety test, police said.” His attorney says Jarrett Ambeau, charged with obstructing an officer, “really was just trying to protect his client.” [Baton Rouge Advocate]

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Speed traps paved the way to corruption in tiny Hampton, Fla., critics say [CNN] More: Lowering the Bar.

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“An Oklahoma state senator has filed a bill to allow law enforcement officers to issue electronic citations for traffic, misdemeanor and municipal ordinance violations.” Sen. Al McAffrey, himself a former police officer, says approaching motorists’ cars is one of the more dangerous parts of patrol officers’ job. So why not let them just skip it, even if that also means skipping the opportunity for motorists to be notified of their legal jeopardy at once, see their accusers, have a chance to explain themselves, and so forth? “If they don’t have to approach vehicles during traffic stops to give people tickets but can simply email traffic violation citations directly to the district court clerk then they’re less likely to get into a dangerous altercation, the lawmaker said.” McAffrey’s S.B. 1872 would also attach a new $5 processing fee to the tickets, of which a portion would be shared with the ticketing officer’s department. [Insurance Journal, KOCO](& welcome Above the Law, Scott Greenfield readers)

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Even if the cops wave you to the side amid flashing lights, and functionaries come out to ask you for saliva or blood samples, and keep asking after you say no, it’s all “voluntary.” Right? Right. “A recent Georgia appellate decision reversed a trial court that held the lights atop a police car were merely an invitation to chat rather than a command to stop, the refusal of which tended to produce death by a hail of gunfire.” [Amy Alkon, Scott Greenfield, earlier here, here, and, on "no-refusal" blood-draw DUI checkpoints, here]

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An extra reason to be cautious in your holiday driving:

If you live in one of 30 cities, you may find yourself pulled over soon at roadblocks where police and federal contractors ask to swab your cheeks, take your blood or give a breath sample to see if you’re on drugs without any probable cause that you’ve committed a crime. Such an exciting time for your civil liberties!

[Jalopnik via @ProfBainbridge] On the separate issue of “no-refusal” blood draws at DUI stops in states like Texas and Tennessee, see Sept. 30.

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Long Island: “The head of Suffolk’s new Traffic & Parking Violations Agency on Thursday defended the controversial policy of charging an administrative fee even on tickets that are dismissed.” [Newsday]

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Yanking drivers’ and professional licenses from dads who fall behind on their payments? David Henderson on a widespread government policy that makes little sense as a way of maximizing the payment rate for court-ordered obligations, somewhat more sense if seen as a vehicle for sentimental vengefulness. [EconLog]

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“Shannon Renee McNeal was torn from her screaming children by police who were seeking a woman with a similar name — a woman who they should have known had been murdered seven months before.” [St. Louis Post-Dispatch via Radley Balko]

More of the week’s awful-police-happenings coverage: Atlantic City beating and canine attack [Tim Lynch, Cato]; Ames, Ia. police shoot and kill son after dad calls to report he’s taken truck without permission [Des Moines Register]; “Man Dies In Jail Cell After Misdemeanor Pot Offense” [Snohomish County, Wash., severe allergies; Radley Balko again]; New Mexico man’s lawsuit alleges “worst traffic stop ever” [Jalopnik, Popehat, Lowering the Bar and more, Orin Kerr, Michelle Meyer/Faculty Lounge]

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September 23 roundup

by Walter Olson on September 23, 2013

  • Drunk driver leaves road, hits power pole, Washington high court allows suit against property owner to proceed [Lowman v. Wilbur, PDF]
  • State attorneys general pressure clothing maker to drop t-shirts with drug names [ABA Journal, related earlier]
  • More transparency needed in Child Protective Services [Reason TV] One lawyer’s critique of CPS [Laurel Dietz, Straight (Vancouver)]
  • While aspiring to nudge us into more farsighted financial practices, government has trouble staying out of dumb bond deals itself [Coyote, and more (Detroit)]
  • You can care about safety but still think some speed limits are set too low [Canadian video on Jalopnik]
  • Trial lawyers aim to extend to Indiana their Idaho victory over “Baseball Rule” on spectator liability [NWIT, earlier here, here, here, etc.]
  • New “fair-housing” assessment and planning process propels federal government into social engineering [IBD editorial via AEI Ideas, HUD]

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An idea destined to come here as well? “Under the [European Commission] proposals new cars would be fitted with cameras that could read road speed limit signs and automatically apply the brakes when this is exceeded. Patrick McLoughlin, the [British] Transport Secretary, is said to be opposed to the plans, which could also mean existing cars are sent to garages to be fitted with the speed limiters, preventing them from going over 70mph.” [Telegraph]

More: EU denies having such plans (see comments). And in the U.S., federal regulators (NHTSA and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration) have considered speed governors on heavy trucks, drawing objections on safety and other grounds from independent truckers (2007), while the idea of speed limiters on ordinary passenger cars has drawn regulatory interest in both Canada and the U.S., as well as favorable note from such commentators as Matthew Yglesias and Ryan Avent.

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