Excess of Laws Entangle Law-respecting People

A lack of knowledge traps ordinary citizens

In Chicago, the city calls cameras that track speed for the purpose of issuing tickets "automated safety cameras."

Nobody wants to feel like a criminal. In fact, most people want to respect the law, but the bigger government gets, the more laws it writes, and the harder it becomes to not break the law. The Wall Street Journal reports that 1 in 3 Americans is in the FBI’s criminal database, which makes it likely that someone you know could be defined as a criminal. You may not feel they are a threat, but the government does. Perhaps your government even considers you to be a criminal.

In Michigan, a lot of things will get you into trouble with the law, such as expanding a parking lot into an area the state deems a wetland or drinking alcohol and being under the age of 21. People in Michigan have been prosecuted for such offenses.

If you are arrested, judges can make it difficult to plead “not guilty.” For example, a district judge in Ottawa County insisted on random drug tests and banned out-of-state travel for college students charged with possessing alcohol while under 21. Hundreds of these students have decided it would be easier to pay the $200 fine and plead guilty, not realizing they would now have a criminal record, something they may have to divulge on a school, loan or job application.

Once a person has a criminal record, expunging it is not easy. It requires a separate court action and even that is no guarantee the public won’t learn of the arrest. County and other jails post mug shots on the Internet, before the detained person is even charged with a crime. Private companies copy these photos and post them on websites until the individual pays a fee to remove them.

Most of us drive, and when it comes to the traffic code, there is no shortage of laws that can trip up motorists. Many states have installed cameras at traffic lights and on highways, ready to nab drivers for violations, including a rolling right turn at a red light. Michigan has banned the use of cameras for traffic-law enforcement but the Michigan secretary of state will add points to your license if a camera in a state where they are legal charges you with a violation. (How would the secretary of state in Michigan know about your speeding ticket in Florida? States talk with each other, of course.)

Speed limit enforcement and traffic cameras have been little more than a money grab for government and have questionable impact on traffic safety. For example, the safest speed limit, according to traffic engineers, is the speed not exceeded by 85 percent of cars driving under normal traffic conditions. Many speed limits, however, are far lower than that, making it easier for police to pull someone over at any time. Enforcement becomes selective.

Police may want to search a car without a warrant. A surprising number of drivers agree to this, feeling they have nothing to hide. But if more people understood civil asset forfeiture laws, fewer would surrender their rights. If police find cash on you or in your vehicle and suspect it has anything to do with illegal drugs, they can seize it until you prove in court you earned it legitimately. That’s right — police can seize your cash and force you to beg for it back, based only on a slight suspicion that you might be involved in some wrongdoing. And you have to prove a negative (“I didn’t do anything wrong.”)

Civil asset forfeiture laws allow government to seize not just cash, but any property. This can happen before you’re ever charged with a crime, or even if you’re not charged. Police can freeze bank accounts if they like, and put the burden on citizens to get it back.

Most people give up when confronted with police power, even if it has been used in a questionable manner. Police suspected Tom Williams was running a marijuana dispensary. He was never charged with a crime, but police raided his rural home in the dead of winter and took pretty much everything of value. Police told him if he wanted his property back, he had to come up with $5,000 and take his case to court. He never got his belongings back, nor did he get the chance to defend himself in court, because early this summer, he died.

Few people would describe Williams as a threat to public safety. He was interested in ways to alleviate his pain, and he lived in a state, Michigan, where voters had approved medical marijuana. Because Michigan’s broad civil asset forfeiture laws operate with little oversight, his last days were spent fighting government. Unless the public keeps better tabs on those it entrusts with the power of government, more people could end up like Williams, entangled with the law.