Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Justice Served, Thy Revenue Collected

“If it were not for injustice, men would not know justice,” wrote the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. Everyone can agree that drunk driving is bad and indeed should be prosecuted to the extent of the law. With good reason, police in recent years have more frequently stepped up enforcement efforts; particularly, they are increasingly utilizing regular sobriety checkpoints to curb, if not stop, it. (Notwithstanding the warning system cottage industry that has sprung up in response on social media…letting you know which of your friends who follow such pages are the concerned drunks.) Yet, there is more going on at these checkpoints than just getting drunk drivers off the roads, with nary a protest of motive, or even constitutionality, by drivers cited for other less severe infractions like seatbelt violations. Yes, driving is a privilege, but even privileges have rules of conduct established by the law.

The revenue generated by these non-DUI/DWI infractions can be a windfall for municipalities, especially in times of fiscal crisis. Nevertheless, if it truly is about public safety rather than revenue generation, why institute a fine at all? Why not an old-school warning? Alternatively, give the collected fines to charities or victims’ advocacy groups. No, instead these fines go straight into the municipalities’ coffers – clear evidence that it is indeed about revenue generation. Many states also are exploring adding a "black box" to every vehicle for collecting mileage taxes. Yes, a mileage tax. Drivers taxed to use their vehicles – sales taxes, property taxes, gas taxes, etc. – not to mention registration fees, then subjectively fined for alleged improper use. Where does it end?

There is also the ongoing debate about red light and speed cameras (on top of so-called “traffic flow” ones). Specifically, their true purpose. Are they indeed just another revenue generator as many opponents contend, or are they truly meant as the safety measures that politicians and law enforcement tout them to be? What happens when the ordinances establishing them are ruled to be in violation of the law, or the cameras themselves outright violate it? What happens with the fines already collected? Does the company or municipality refund them, or does that too stay in the coffers? Since proponents maintain that these are not revenue tools, it certainly should not bankrupt either entity to give back the money. Otherwise, these cameras would seem to be exactly what opponents say they are – an (illegal) revenue generator.

In all of this, there exist the more critical issues of privacy as well as the right of protection against unreasonable searches. Throughout history, totalitarians have used checkpoints and monitoring systems as a means for the bureaucratic invasion of citizens’ lives. A chance for government officials to ask for proper documentation, i.e. license and proof of insurance, and spy on any circumspect habits deemed inappropriate for the greater good. All in the name of public safety. While the uniforms may have changed over time, the motive still has not. And it is not a case of approaching that future; we are already there.

©2013 Steve Sagarra

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