Different River

”You can never step in the same river twice.” –Heraclitus

October 10, 2005

A Park Bench, the Fifth Amendment, “Common Sense,” and Tyranny

Filed under: — Different River @ 8:19 pm

This sounds like a typical “weird and stupid news” story, but I think it actually reveals some serious faults in legal theory, the legal system, and the failure to take incentives into account (that is, of economic ignorance):

Woman Ticketed for Sitting on a Playground Bench with No Kids

(New York-AP, Sept. 27, 2005) – It’s an only in New York story. A woman was given a ticket for sitting on a park bench because she doesn’t have children.
The Rivington Playground on Manhattan’s East Side has a small sign at the entrance that says adults are prohibited unless they are accompanied by a child.

So, they have a park that bans adults, unless accompanied by a child. This is, of course, precisely the opposite of the rule that applies in many other places — such as amusement parks, and many other places whose prime beneficiaries are children. This reversal of the usual rule quite odd. Do they have a reason for this? We’ll see in a moment, but in the meantime:

Forty-seven-year-old Sandra Catena says she didn’t see the sign when she sat down to wait for an arts festival to start. Two New York City police officers asked her if she was with a child. When she said no, they gave her a ticket that could bring a one thousand dollar fine and 90 days in jail.

Now I’m not a lawyer, but I thought what a suspect said couldn’t be used against her unless they warned her that it could be. Isn’t that what a “Miranda warning” and the Fifth Amendment are all about? Isn’t a confession inadmissible in court in the absense of a Miranda warning? In which case, the prosecution ought to lose this case, since the only evidence they have that she was not accompanied by a child is that she said no when asked — and she was not advised of her rights before being asked, essentially, to confess to this crime. (Had she been so advised, she might have thought something was up and declined to answer.)

One objection might be that the Miranda requirement only applied to “real” crimes, like murder and rape, not petty crimes like sitting on a park bench without a child. But if that’s your position, you’re basically saying that vicious, violent criminal are entitled to more protection from the legal system than people who are mostly law-abiding but occassionally commit minor infractions. Is that really what you want?

Anyway, let’s continue:

The city parks department says the rule is designed to keep pedophiles out of city parks, …

Now that sounds like a good reason, doesn’t it? No one wants pedophiles to be with children, right? And children are in playgrounds, so keep the pedopbhiles out, right? So to do that, give tickets to adults in playgrounds who are not interacting with children, right. Raise your hand if you see the problem here. If a pedophile were trying to entice a child, wouldn’t that pedophile be near that child, talking with that child, and so on? Wouldn’t that pedophile appear to a passing police officer to be “accompanied” by that child? In that case, it is practically guaranteed that no pedophile would ever get a ticket for violating this law — and that everyone who ever got such a ticket would be a non-pedophile. Such as someone resting her feet before an arts festival.

This law accomplished nothing towards its objective. It is probably a product of what Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay of “Yes, Minister” call the “Politician’s Syllogism”: Something must be done; this is something; therefore, we must do it. Whether it actually gets you toward solving the problem is irrelevant. What’s important is that we do something.

… but a parks spokesman told the Daily News that the department hoped police would use some common sense when enforcing the rule.

The spokesman told the paper that ticketing a woman in the park in the middle of the day is not the way you want to enforce the rule.

And this, in an innocuous guise, is a very serious problem: They passed a law and planned on enforcing it only selectively.

One of the key differences between a government of democratically-chosen laws and a government of tyrants is that in a government of laws, the laws are enforced with some degree of uniformity, whereas in a government of tyrants, the laws are enforced only when the dictator feels like it, and against whom the dictator feels like enforcing them. What they are soothingly calling “common sense” is really “selective enforcement.”

Imagine, for a moment, the potential for abuse of laws passed to be enforced only with “common sense.” They could pass laws prohibiting talking loudly, and enforce them only against people saying things with which the folksin charge disagree. They could pass laws prohibiting “lying on the internet” and enforce them only against people who criticize them. They could establish unreasonably low speed limits and enforce them only against Black drivers. They could pass tax laws so complex no one can avoid committing some violation — but they could audit onlytheir political enemies. Or, they could pass laws ostensibly aimed at pedophiles, and enforce them against innocent women on park benches — perhaps of the “wrong” ethnic group or something.

Once laws are enforced selectively, they are no longer laws. They are excuses for the people with the power to enforce them to harrass, intimidate, and persecute those they dislike, disagree with, or want to defeat.

This Should Put Hurricane Katrina in Perspective (2)

Filed under: — Different River @ 12:43 pm

AP Reports:

Guatemalan Towns Abandoned As Mass Graves

Oct 10 8:00 AM US/Eastern


Guatemalan officials said they would abandon communities buried by landslides and declare them mass graveyards as reports of devastation trickled in from some of the more than 100 communities cut off from the outside world after killer mudslides.

Guatemala’s death toll from torrential rains last week associated with Hurricane Stan stood at 652; 384 were missing.

The worst-hit communities will be abandoned and declared graveyards, officials said, after they stopped most efforts to dig out increasingly decomposed bodies.

“Panabaj will no longer exist,” said Mayor Diego Esquina, referring to the Mayan hamlet on the shores of Lake Atitlan covered by a half-mile wide mudflow as much as 15 to 20 feet thick. “We are asking that it be declared a cemetery. We are tired, we no longer know where to dig.”

Esquina said about 250 people remained missing. The bodies found were buried in mass graves.

Sniffer dogs trained to detect bodies didn’t arrive in time, and “we don’t even know where to dig anymore” in the acres of mudflows, Esquina said.

Hundreds of Mayan villagers who had swarmed over the vast mudslides with shovels, picks and axes relented Sunday and stopped digging for neighbors and family.

Vice President Eduardo Stein said steps were being taken to give towns “legal permission to declare the buried areas cemeteries” as “a sanitary measure.”

I’m sure this doesn’t make the victims of Hurricane Katrina feel any better, but they would probably have been worse off had they been in Guatemala for Hurricane Stan. Not to mention in Kashmir for the earthquake a few days ago.

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