Thursday, July 02, 2009

Laws and Justice

Bear with me on this one -- I'm going to float a couple of notions first, and then get back to this in another post, if I get any responses. (It has to do with Michael Jackson.)

So let's talk about ... littering ...

Say you are walking down the street eating an ice cream sandwich in a city, state, or federal jurisdiction in which littering is illegal and punishable by a fine. Let's assume for the sake of argument, you know this, having passed twelve signs that say so, all with pictures just in case you can't read.

So, you slurp down the last bite of the delectable junk food -- which is less junky than usual, because it is made from organic cookies; ice cream produced from the milk of contented cows; sugar from happy canes, all of which are processed by workers who get paid well and have health coverage. Naturally, it costs thrice what the crappy ones cost. Doesn't really matter, any of this, but at least it's got some prana.

And finished with your treat, you toss the biodegradable made-from-cornstarch-colorful wrapper onto the ground. Watch it flutter downward, in SLOMO, M.O.S. ...

A sharp-eyed LEO happens to espy you do this, appears like magic, and promptly writes you a ticket.

Do you deserve it?

In my mind, yes. You did the crime, you do the time -- even if it's only how much work you have to do to earn the bread to pay the fine.

Scenario #2. You have no ice cream, alas, but are still enjoying a pleasant walk. You see upon the ground the wrapper of the criminal who did have the delectable treat and who littered. But because it doesn't look like the usual foil ice cream sandwich wrapper and you aren't sure what it is -- might be money, or a treasure map, or the phone number of that hot redhead in the Spandex you passed earlier, you never know. So you bend and pick it up.

Alas, it is but an ice cream wrapper, albeit one that is from a good quality product. No maps, phone numbers, like that. So you drop it, and it lands where you found it.

Before you can take a step, the sharp-eyed LEO materializes and gives you a ticket.

Do you deserve it?

According to the law, yes. Littering laws do not speak to where you obtained the material you cavalierly tossed upon the ground, nor to how long you had it before you committed litter, only to the act itself. In theory, the SELEO could stand there and write tickets all day if passersby were intrigued enough to pick up and then re-discard that same wrapper.

(Were I a local municipality, I could see that as a great way to make revenue. Cut a deal with the local ice cream stores to use wrappers the same color and rough design as, say, a twenty-dollar bill, and people would surely stoop to pick 'em up and then toss them back in disgust. Ka-ching! Ka-ching! go the cash registers at the court house. I know, I know, I have a warped mind to see this road, much less go down it.)

But as to justice: You have added no more litter to the area than was there before. Had you not happened along, the net impact on the environment would have been the same. (Another aside: Years ago, my wife used to justify tossing apple cores out the car window with the rationalization that they were organic, that they'd feed the birds and beasts and bugs, and be gone in a day or two, so no harm, no foul. Of course, one might offer the same defense for leaving one's dog's poop on the ground, and that has not been an effective defense in court, far as I know. The law does not differ in the quality of litter.)

So, do you deserve the ticket in the second instance? As a measure of justice, I don't think so, but I'm interested in hearing from folks how they stand on the question.


heina said...

This sounds like a letter of the law versus intent issue. Technically, the LEO could write you the ticket.

If you happen to be a well-endowed member of the opposite sex of the LEO affixed suitably long lashes for batting, you probably could walk away without the ticket.

If however you received said ticket, but you took the time (likely more expensive than the aforementioned fine) to wander down to the local courthouse and step in front of a judge to explain as how it was not "your" litter, then you would probably get off.

I have a certain uncle who used to use similar tactics invoking Jury rights to get out of certain potentially more dangerous violations to the safety of the general populace ahem....cough cough...

Steve Perry said...

Sounds like a swell fellow, your uncle. Just from your description I can tell that he is smart, handsome, principled, and adept at many things. You are lucky to have such a sterling example of an uncle ...

Dan Moran said...

Yes, you deserve it. If you're going to pick up trash willy nilly and then redistribute it, you should get ticketed for ... something. Unhygienic anyway ... "That's why I never kiss them on the mouth."

This heina fella sounds smart, though.

Anonymous said...

I would say, in scenario 2, the person fully deserves the ticket. They took the object into their possession, essentially making it their property. They then improperly disposed of that property, which constitutes littering.

If I could pose a scenario #3: A tourist is walking down the Las Vegas strip, and passes one of the multitude of sad-looking gents handing out fliers with scantily clad vixens on them. Flier guy holds one out in front of the tourist; it makes contact with his arm, though the person doesn't actually take it, and then it falls to the ground.

A nearby cool sees this, and has a ticket with someone's name on it. I have no doubt who gets the ticket in that case.

Tiel Aisha Ansari said...

I don't know about littering and all that, but you're going to hell for making me sit at my desk and think about ice cream sandwiches.

Worg said...

There are a whole lot of laws out there that are blindingly, astoundingly unjust. Some of them just are that way for simplicity's sake.

Others are that way because of power. For instance, what business is it of anybody else's how cancer patients manage their pain and how AIDS patients maintain their appetites in order to stay alive?

If you want injustice look no further than marijuana laws.

Some guy said...

I don't think Evildoer #2 deserves any punishment. To my mind it's a wash. His intrusion on the situation didn't make anything worse. Heinlein's observation that "The only sin lies in hurting other people unnecessarily" has always seemed like a good, quick moral touchstone. And E2 isn't adding any harm, to persons, the environment, or anything else as far as I can see.

Exaggerating the numbers in your own comment seems to support that too. If a million people walked by on that same sidewalk, committed the exact same 'crime', and went on their way, even then no harm would seem to be done. So why would a rational society penalize one of those million people?

Dave Huss said...

OK, put on my College Professor hat:
The issue here is discretion. There are a lot of laws like mentioned here which are assine. LEO'S know this going in.

I had a Mayor tell his Police Chief to have us arrest all the "Fags" in the city park who were hanging out. Had an ordinance against it and everything. Cops learn the difference between "Mala in Se" crimes like Murder and Robbery, in which you have no discretion, and "Mala Prohibita" laws Like Marijuana, which usually are less about crime and right and wrong, and more about regulating society and morality.

Your crime? It's situational morality. Throw down that same piece of paper in your own yard and the act is not a crime. This is why we give Cops discretion.

As to right and wrong, the only difference between any act being declared a crime, and someones high moral beliefs, is what idiocy can get passed in legislature.

Bobbe Edmonds said...

I read somewhere (I'm always doing that...Reading something good, forgetting where I read it) that men (mankind) don't really want justice. Justice implies "getting what you deserve", but nobody with a conscience WANTS what they truly deserve. What they really want is either vengeance or vindication. "Justice" is for the other guy. The sucker.

Personally, I believe in BOTH cases cited, you were wrong. You threw trash on the ground, whether it originated with you or you were just the last stopping point before the Good Earth, you littered.

I most agree with Dave Huss, although "Police Discretion" is sort of like saying "Military Intelligence". Some days you get El Cid, others you get Admiral Halsey. Sliding scale justice is always a bitch.

At any rate, I'm not passing judgment here. As a well-known member of The Pirate Bay and Demonoid, I skim the law when I can as much as anybody. Maybe as much as everybody. I drive in the HOV lane if I'm late for work. I speed. If I'm caught, I know I screwed up. But my point is that there's always a time when I KNOW I'm probably crossing the line. When the trash leaves your hand enroute to the ground, something should be telling you "That's what you get a citation for".

Oh, and that "Uncle" sounds like the kind of ne'er do-well that would twist words around to suit his cause when it pleases him, whilst thumbing his nose at everyone else. The sort who would create something in print, say, and then bust another person's chops for doing the exact same thing. Nothing good can come of it, I tell you.

Dojo Rat said...

Steve, here's a question:
Can you lend some clarity to these potential new knife laws that appear to outlaw assisted opening blades (thumb-studs etc.)?
Is it just for clearing customs, or nationwide everywhere?
John @ Dojo Rat

Steve Perry said...

South Louisiana is mushroom paradise -- in the summer it it hot and wet, and all manner of mycelium permeates the alluvial soil.

Possession of magic mushrooms for their -- ah -- medicinal purposes is illegal. Psilocybin, a hallucinogen, is a Schedule 1 drug, and a no-no.

They grow on old cow pies down there, these magic mushrooms, and a day after a hard rain, you could have hundreds, thousands of them growing on the south forty if you have a pasture.

You could also take a walk out to look at them surrounded by a platoon of deputies and there wouldn't be anything they could do to you.

You could bend over and eyeball the fungi from six inches away, if you didn't mind the smell. Still legal.

If, however, you pick one, they can bust you.

If you kick one and knock a bunch of spores onto your shoe and then take that to your house and dust a jar full of boiled corn and get psilocybe 'shrooms to sprout, they can bust you for that, too.

In that case, the law recognizes that these things grow wild and that you can't do anything about spores flying onto your cow pasture and sprouting.

You can make the same defense with one marijuana plant. It's a weed. If you have dozens planted in rows, that's cultivation.

As Dave said, there are two kinds of laws: malum prohibitum or malum in se -- a thing is bad because it is illegal, or bad intrinsically. Laws are supposed to protect people, and in the case of littering, by protecting the environment, you thus protect society, and thus people. I'm good with that.

But the second litterer did not damage the environment any more than it already had been damaged. The conditions were the same as if he had never been there.

Some guy trippin' on 'shrooms in his own house, listening to the Dead, not driving or running naked through the streets nor doing anything threatening or otherwise illegal is not a danger to society or anybody else, so the law is prohibitum and not in se.

Somebody shoots my neighbor and kills him. I never liked the woman, so I see her lying there dead and decide what-the-hell, I'm gonna pop a cap in her just because. She's already dead, so the the worst I could get would be discharging a firearm in the city limits and maybe corpse abuse, but murder? Naw.

Steve Perry said...

I asked Trahan about that on his blog, John,and he hasn't answered yet. But a Customs ruling? Doesn't seem as if it can be made to apply to state laws. Maybe for import/export, or crossing a national border, but that would seem beyond their purview.

jks9199 said...

Unless Rory chimes in -- I suspect that I'm the only LEO likely to respond here. (Not that cops don't read Steve's books or read his blog...)

Both cases, the person who drops the trash gets the ticket -- if a ticket is going to be issued. Why? Because, whether it was their trash originally, or they simply took control of it to see what it was -- THEY caused the trash to be on the ground after having "care, control & custody" of it.

But I did say "IF." Because I don't think I ever wrote a littering ticket when I was in patrol -- and if I've done it in my current duties, it was probably more like the cherry on an ice cream sundae (just to add one more thing to distract folks at their desks!). It's a finishing touch to someone who's actively "requested" special attention... Generally -- if I caught someone littering, they left the area a little nicer when we were done chatting, because they not only picked up what they dropped, but a few more things, too.

Cops have discretion because the letter of the law isn't always the best way to honor the social contract. Sure, we can lock you up for all sorts of stuff... but that doesn't always do much to enhance public safety and order. It's not always fair, because on any given day, the cop might be in a bad mood and NOBODY's getting a break for nothin' -- or in a great mood and anything short of murder gets a break. But, generally, karma seems to work out, in my experience.

jks9199 said...

But the second litterer did not damage the environment any more than it already had been damaged. The conditions were the same as if he had never been there.

Steve, he did damage the environment, in exactly the same amount as the guy who dropped it in the first place. He made the area better, briefly, when he picked it up. Then, he damaged it again when he dropped it. Otherwise, you can start making the same argument and justification for lots of things. Like, say, speeding... after all, if everyone else is speeding, I'm not creating any more risk, right? Or assault by mob. After all, if Ogre #1 pounds the guy, he's already been pounded, and there's no new damage when Ogres #2 through #8 stomp 'em, too.

Steve Perry said...

I was with a guy in a national park once who tossed a beer can onto the ground. A ranger was watching him and gave him a choice -- fill a burlap sack with trash or eat a hefty fine. So the park got a net benefit of a bag full of beer cans and food wrappers. That's maybe closer to justice.

I disagree with the logic of damage, though. If the second litterer had never walked that way, the net effect would be the same, viz the ice cream sandwich wrapper.

There's no law that says you must clean up litter, so the second guy wasn't required to pick it up. Putting it back restored local conditions to what they were before he arrived.

Legally, he gets the ticket, and if he knows that's the law and does it anyhow, it's on him. But that's legal. Like running a stop sign at two a.m. at a crossroads out in the country. You can see for a mile, nobody is coming, but it's always illegal. I understand the philosophy -- substituting one's judgement for the law is only as valid as the guy doing the deed, and not all of us have good judgement.

Then there was a state law here for a while that said school zones apply 24/7. At three a.m. on Wednesday morning, there aren't any children in that building next to a road where forty is the limit, but if you are going faster than twenty-five, you can get busted.

There were enough howls over that one that the legislature repealed it PDQ -- but not before a shitload of drivers got ticketed for something that was intrinsically stupid.

If I am parked in front of the ATM and somebody pulls into the bank lot and slams into my car, unless there is an injury, local law won't even come out to look. It's a no-fault situation because it is private property, and traffic laws don't apply. Be careful at Costco, those slot and rows are only suggestions. Some loon could cut across the lot diagonally and smash your car broadside and if you weren't hurt, it's no-fault ...

My insurance company has to pay unless I am willing to sue the other driver -- and I have more witnesses.

That's not illegal. But is the other driver morally responsible?

Morally, Litterer #2 can look at himself in the mirror and believe that that patch of the world was no worse after he passed through it than it was before he passed through it, and be correct. Take a photo the spot a minute before he arrived and another a minute after he departed, everything is the same.