Whatever Happened to ‘Protect and Serve’?

Apparently having, doing or being near something that makes a police officer suspicious of your behavior may soon be against the law. The extent to which law enforcement and legislators are willing to go in the name of protecting us is getting really creepy. Why do I say that? I will explain. What? Is this going to be a rant? Yeah, I guess it kinda is. Proceed at your own risk.

I will start with a quote from John Ross at reason.com.

Last fall, Ohio state troopers pulled 30-year-old Norman Gurley over for speeding. Detecting an “overwhelming smell of raw marijuana,” officers spent hours searching the vehicle and found no contraband.

But they did discover an empty secret compartment.

For that, police hauled Gurley, who has no criminal record, off to jail. Gurley became the first person arrested under a new Ohio statute that makes it a crime to “knowingly operate … a vehicle with a hidden compartment … used or intended to be used to facilitate the unlawful concealment … of a controlled substance.”

Lawmakers in Ohio are not alone in enacting or envisioning bans on unauthorized empty space. California, Georgia, Illinois, and Oregon have similar prohibitions on the books. Legislators in Iowa, Maryland, and New Jersey may add them this session. Similar bills have been filed in Delaware, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia in recent years.

The man was arrested because the car he was driving had an empty secret compartment. Just contemplate that for a moment. Sit there and think about it. The man was arrested because the car he was driving had an empty secret compartment.

Someone somewhere believed that in order for law enforcement to do a better job of catching drug dealers and traffickers there needed to be a law that says having a hidden compartment intended to be used to conceal drugs should be a crime. So now, in Ohio and a several other states, one’s vehicle need not have any drugs in it; just an empty hidden compartment is sufficient grounds for arrest.

State legislatures all over the U.S. keep trying to find new ways to enable law enforcement with new reasons to arrest people and/or confiscate property. If a police officer stops you while you are driving, and he finds you have a several thousand dollars with you, he will likely confiscate it and you may very likely never see that money again. If a police officer claims he can smell marijuana near you, then he can force you to submit to a search of yourself, your vehicle and/or your house.

You don’t actually have to be doing anything illegal. Law enforcement officers just have to suspect that you might be intending to do something illegal. And apparently, doing something that a police officer considers suspicious may soon become illegal. Reason number seven million, four hundred and umpteen thousand why the old saw “if you’re not doing anything wrong then you have nothing to worry about” is no longer true (though I doubt it ever was).

For reasons that make no real sense, we keep letting local, state and federal legislators get away with passing laws that create and/or contribute to a situation where in agents of law enforcement consider most if not all non-law enforcement citizens as criminal suspects. And the sad thing is, we might all actually be law breakers at this point. There are so very many laws at the local, state and federal levels, I doubt anyone could say with any true certainty any more that he (or she) has never done anything illegal.

And every month, more new laws get passed. And few laws ever seem to get repealed.

Do not misunderstand me. I want there to be laws and people who enforce the laws. And I want law enforcement to have appropriate tools to do their job. But the purpose of laws is not supposed to be to catch bad people. The purpose of laws is supposed to be to protect individual human beings by protecting the rights of individual human beings. And the job of law enforcement, therefore, is not to catch bad people. The proper job of law enforcement is to serve individuals by protecting the rights of those individuals.

But we have to allow the police to do their job. Yes, but that it not a reason to continually expand the law and the powers of law enforcement. Others have said it before, and I have said it before, and I will say it again. Police work is only easy in a police state.

So no, having a hidden compartment, empty or full, in one’s vehicle should not be against the law. But, but, but what about the drug dealers? So you buy a car from a used car dealer. A police officer pulls you over for speeding or a broken tail light. The officer decides he smells drugs in your car. There are no drugs in the car, but the police officer finds a hidden compartment you did not know was there. Do you think the officer is going to accept “but I didn’t know it was there” as a reasonable excuse?

But law enforcement officers are good people, and they would never abuse their position that way. Really? Look into asset forfeiture abuse. Look into cases like that of the West Memphis Three. Then talk to me about what law enforcement won’t do because they are good people.

Am I saying all law enforcement people are bad? No. I am saying we are allowing a culture within law enforcement that increasingly has more to do with being seen as doing whatever it takes to catch bad guys and ever less to do with protecting the rights of the public that law enforcement is supposed to serve. Most of the people within law enforcement are probably good people with good intentions. However, when there are so many laws that no one can ever know that he or she is not breaking the law, and when law enforcement keeps claiming more authority to do more things to catch law breakers, this is a recipe for abuse of authority in which even good people with good intentions are bound to get involved.

I will say it again, because it bears repeating. Police work is only easy in a police state.

Yes, I want police upholding the law. But I also want the law and law enforcement to be about protecting people, not seeing how many people can be incarcerated. I want just laws, not unjust laws. I want justice, not arrest quotas.

We should expect not merely that law enforcement catches criminals and punishes them, but also that it be so focused on protecting people’s rights that it puts as much effort into preventing wrongful incarceration as it does into enforcing the law. Justice is not simply putting criminals in jail. Justice is ensuring that innocent people are not punished for crimes they did not commit. Justice is also ensuring that the laws we have are just laws which protect people and their rights.

I am concerned that we are forgetting that part of justice. We elect politicians who tell us they will be tough on crime. We petition and lobby for more laws. We almost never talk about getting rid of laws we do not need. All those news pundits on television almost never talk about examining laws to weed out those which are unjust. We praise people who get new laws passed. We scoff at those who suggest paring back laws.

In the perpetual need to Do Something, we make sure laws get passed. We seem to have forgotten that getting unjust and unnecessary laws repealed is also doing something. In the drive to be tough on crime, we demand our police and government attorneys work hard to put criminals in jail. We seem to have forgotten that our law enforcement personnel have an equal responsibility to make sure people not guilty of the crime are kept out of jail.

What should be done? We should start start putting pressure on law makers to review and repeal unjust and unnecessary laws. We should put pressure on local and state governments to work with groups like the Innocence Project to help people who have been wrongly incarcerated get out of jail. We should demand our law enforcement at all levels be held to a higher standard than the one we seem to be settling for these days.

The personification of Justice is depicted as being blind (with a blindfold covering the eyes). Justice being blind is supposed to indicate impartiality before the law, not ignorance of abuse of power within the system. More than that, Justice being blind is supposed to indicate that those who enforce the law are restricted from the things that constitute abuse of power within the system. We would do well to remember that.

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