Punishments Don’t Fit the Crime

There is a basic concept when it comes to justice that the punishment should fit the crime. It’s a concept that in Law-and-Order America has long vanished. Some states, like California, have done this with brutish “Three-Strikes-You’re-Out” policies that have ended up sentencing young men to life in prison for something like stealing a video, because it was the perpetrator’s third crime. Others, like Florida, have done it by sentencing a pre-teen kid to life in prison for a killing because he was tried as an adult.

The mentality that does these things also operates at a lower level, before sentencing, and involves police who over-react, and over-charge people for minor violations. I was talking to a black man recently who spent four years in prison in Pennsylvania for throwing a brick through a window. “I was drunk,” he says, “and so I tossed the brick, which was stupid, but the police called that a burglary attempt, and so I got four years.”

My own experience with this mentality came with two traffic tickets involving my son. They might seem minor in comparison, but they still speak to this mentality.

The first happened earlier this year in my suburban community of Upper Dublin, PA. Jed and I were in the car early in the morning, headed for an appointment in Philadelphia. Jed, only 17, was driving for the first time in early morning and had never had the experience of driving past a school during the “flashing school zone” period, when cars had to go 15 miles per hour. A careful driver, he was obeying the law meticulously as we passed the town’s high school and elementary school. Then, just past the elementary school, at the intersection where we had to turn to go a few hundred feet to the entrance to a divided highway, Jed made the turn and began accelerating towards the ramp entrance.

I immediately spotted a black unmarked police car parked deceptively on the side of the road, but before I could even tell Jed to slow down, it took off behind us, lights flashing.

I told Jed to pull over, because there was a cop behind him. He asked innocently what he had done, and I said he had been speeding.

“But I was going 35 mph — the speed limit!,” he protested.

The problem was, of course, that the school zone extended around the corner, as a tiny sign 100 feet down the street saying “End School Zone” indicated belatedly.

So the cop, an Upper Dublin Police officer, came up to the window, and, after checking Jed’s license and our car’s registration, handed him a ticket for going 20 mph over the speed limit in a school zone — a serious offense that threatened to raise his insurance rates prohibitively for years to come.

Bummed out, I returned to the scene of the crime later to see why we’d missed the sign. There on the opposite side of the street, at the point opposite the little “End School Zone” sign, I saw the back of a big sign that, for oncoming traffic, was yellow and featured a blinking yellow warning light during the early hours when kids were walking to school. The back of the sign, which drivers like us leaving the zone would have seen, also had a flashing yellow light, but the whole thing — sign and light –were completely obscured by a year or two of growth of a dense cedar bush.

Outraged, I took pictures of the obscured sign, from several points of view, including the spot in the street where Jed would have been as driver. I brought these pictures to the town’s chief of police.

I said, “We both agree that making drivers slow down in front of schools is an important thing to do, but if that’s the goal, then the first thing is to make sure the signs are visible. How could your officer have just parked his car on the side of the road to catch ‘offenders’, all the while looking directly at the obscured flashing warning sign ahead of him on the opposite side of the street?” His first response was that clearly the sign needed to be cleared, but then when I asked him if he could cancel Jed’s ticket, he said, “No, you have to get a judge to do that.”

Okay, so we had to blow a morning going to court, but then there was no guarantee we’d win, especially with Jed being an Asian kid with lip rings!

I at least wanted a note from the chief saying that the sign had been obscured.

“No I can’t give you a letter,” he said, flatly.

Why not? “Because the decision about that is the Highway Department’s,” he said.

I went to the Highway Department, and they said it was up to the town manager.

Okay, I knew him, so I called his office, but even though, seeing my photos, he agreed that the brush needed trimming, and said he would ask the Highway Department to “check it out,” he was afraid to take a stand and write me a letter. Finally, after several calls, he wrote a very weak letter saying that he had asked the department to clear the view of the “courtesy” light at the back of the sign.

It seemed pretty clear to me that the town officials were afraid to criticize the police for entrapping citizens with poor signage. In the end, fearing that justice would not prevail, I hired a friend who is an attorney, and he went in and got us justice, convincing the judge to toss out the ticket, at a cost of $150 in legal fees. What would a poor person do in such a situation? Pay the fine, which would have been at least $200, get slapped with a huge increase in insurance costs, and probably have to give up owning a car.

The second incident also involved Jed. He had been driving on a notoriously overcrowded four-lane highway into Philadelphia at noon, and was in stop-and-go traffic, traveling at most 20 mph. A car was tailgating him, and making him nervous. He looked up at it anxiously in his rear-view mirror, and by the time he looked forward again, the big pickup truck in front of him had stopped, and he didn’t have time to fully stop. They truck had a tow-bar and towing ball sticking out behind it, which was so high it was above the bumper of our little Honda Civic. Although by the time he hit, he was probably doing no more than 5 mph, the impact of that ball bent up the hood, bent the two fenders, and pushed in the radiator. ($4000 damage to the car.)

Jed said the driver of the truck, a returned young veteran, got out, checked to see if Jed was okay (he was fine, just shaken up over his first accident), then checked his truck and saw there was no damage. They traded insurance information, and he drove off. Later, he saw a state trooper, and alerted him to the accident, saying Jed was stuck on the highway back aways.

The officer, a young State Police officer, drove to Jed’s location, and slapped him with a 3-point charge of “careless driving.” It was a case of over-charging. There had been no damage to the other car, and had the driver of the truck owned an ordinary car, with a bumper that was at the same level as our car, instead of a big truck with a too-high bumper, there would have been no damage to either car beyond a few scratches in the paint on the two bumpers.

The cop obviously knew this, and that all the damage was to Jed’s car, but because he was dealing with a kid, and an Asian kid at that (with lip rings!), he chose to throw the book at him. There was no investigation. He had no way of knowing if Jed had actually been “careless.” There were no skid marks, which would have indicated speeding. Perhaps Jed had been following too close, but every car in the jammed-up traffic on that highway travels too close. (If you don’t, someone cuts in front of you right away, and you’re too close anyhow.) This was a simple case of a cop abusing his power.

Again, we had to go to court to challenge the ticket. Again I had to hire my lawyer friend, and again he got the charge tossed, but I had to pay a fine and a $200 fee to the lawyer. (This time it was downgraded to a non-moving-violation charge of “failure to obey a traffic device,” and I have no idea what that might mean, but it carries no points.)

Then came another surprise. A fine of $117.

I looked at the receipt. It listed the actual fine as $25, which seemed reasonable. But there was a whole list of other charges, tacked on.

There was $10 for Emergency Medical Service, but Jed had not been injured and there was no EMS involved. There was $30 for “Medical Care Availability,” which I guess is a subsidy for the town having an ambulance service. There was $8 to help finance the court’s “computerization project.” There was $19.70 for “Court costs,” though we didn’t actually have to go to court. The lawyer and the cop worked out a deal in the waiting room before our hearing date even came up. There was $7.90 for state court costs, which I don’t understand because this was a county court. There was another $7.90 for state costs, which was just defined as “House Bill 627”–obviously some state legislative grab at more money at the expense of people who are dragged into the court system. And there was a $7 charge for “hearing costs,” though we never had a hearing. The judge was just sitting in the court clerk’s office shooting the breeze with the court workers, and we never had to see him. But my favorite was a $2 charge for “access to justice”! Access to Justice? I thought we all had that by birthright in the US of A!

I asked a court clerk behind the payment window what “access to justice” was for, and she just shrugged her shoulders. She didn’t know. She handed me a form letter explaining some of these outrageous add-on fees. Obviously a lot of people complain.

This letter explained that the EMS charge was to “fund emergency medical services” in the state. The Medical Care Availability charge, which was bigger than the actual fine, was for the same thing. The court costs charge was for “processing the citation,” not for the hearing. And the hearing charge was only to be charged if the defendant was found guilty. (Thanks! but there was no hearing!).

The real issue here is that the “justice” system has run amok. Getting busted for “speeding” when signs are hidden is an abuse. So is getting slammed with a heavy charge of “careless driving” for what should have been an insignificant fender bender if the government would require all vehicles to have bumpers at the same height and if it banned dangerous tow bars from being left exposed. And so is adding so many extra charges to a fine that they increase what might be an appropriate penalty by almost 400% — reaching an amount that would be perhaps unpayable for a low-income person, causing them to perhaps buy less food for their children, or to miss a rent payment.

And so is a legal system where I can fix these abuses by hiring a lawyer — something that poor people simply cannot afford to do. They’re stuck with whatever that $2 charge for “Access to Justice” buys them, and I still have no idea what the hell that actually is.

Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!

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Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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