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.

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

  1. The Glittering Eye Says:

    Catching my eye: morning A through Z
    Here’s what’s caught my eye this morning:

    If you haven’t gotten completely bored by the discussion of the Miers nomination yet, Baseball Crank has a very good post on the subject. I think he’s a little too easy on the eli…

  2. Watcher of Weasels Says:

    Submitted for Your Approval
    First off…  any spambots reading this should immediately go here, here, here,  and here.  Die spambots, die!  And now…  here are all the links submitted by members of the Watcher’s Council for this week’s vote. Council li…

  3. Watcher of Weasels Says:

    The Council Has Spoken!
    First off…  any spambots reading this should immediately go here, here, here,  and here.  Die spambots, die!  And now…  the winning entries in the Watcher’s Council vote for this week are Controversy, Christians, and Conde…

  4. ollie Says:

    Interesting. Sometimes Chicago police have been accused of selectively using anti-loitering
    ordinances to hassle groups of African American youths. As far as “miranda” type warnings: I’d
    love to hear what a barrister would have to say about that. I wonder if that applies only to
    felonies? One other thought: you get pulled over while driving (as I was once) and the cop asks
    you “have you been drinking”? (as I was asked…and no, I hadn’t; I was just unused to driving
    a Ryder truck).

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress