Unenforceable laws lead to police abuses
Law-enforcement excesses feature prominently in the news. Doors kicked in, people killed, dogs shot, phone lines tapped, curfews imposed -- they're all examples of official overreaching at that unpleasant intersection of private activity and state disapproval. For some people, the implication of such abuses is that more scrutiny and the right people in charge will make law enforcement an enterprise which people need not fear.
But what if that's not the case? It may be that we've assigned law-enforcers goals so frustratingly elusive that even angels couldn’t resist the temptation to escalate tactics to insane extremes, trampling liberty and decency along the way.
Deranged escalation recently resulted in the misguided marijuana raid on the home of Berwyn Heights Mayor Cheye Calvo, during which his dogs were killed. Yes, worse raids have deprived people of their lives in the past. But when even a government official like Calvo can't protect his pets from police overstepping, you know we've gone over a cliff.
But that leap into the void was probably inevitable given the government's obsession with achieving the impossible: eliminating marijuana consumption. Seventy years after Reefer Madness, decades into the War on Drugs, a survey by the World Health Organization still says that 42.4% of Americans have smoked grass.
After several consecutive lifetimes of failure, entering the homes of low-level government officials with guns blazing because somebody tried to deliver a package of forbidden weed may suddenly take on a false patina of sanity to prohibitionists driven mad.
In fact, there have been a lot of laws that are essentially unenforceable because a large segment of the population is unwilling to obey them. They involve activities in which there's no victim -- nobody to file a complaint or cooperate with police.
The hidden secret of law enforcement is that it's largely dependent on public cooperation. When laws have less than near-universal support -- when they're a majority preference jammed down the throats of the minority – they beg for defiance. Cops then are forced to become arm-twisters, trying to intimidate the minority into submission through increasingly brutal tactics, or else they just give up.
Prohibition is infamous on this count. Thirteen years of illegal liquor brought us mass disobedience, corruption and organized crime. A paper prepared in 1972 for the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse concluded, “[t]he law could not quell the continuing demand for alcoholic products. Thus, where legal enterprises could no longer supply the demand, an illicit traffic developed, from the point of manufacture to consumption.”
You'd think that history lesson would stick -- but it hasn't. Lawmakers still send the police to force people to stop doing things they want to do, even when there's nobody to complain and little interest in compliance.
So we see police breaking up friendly card games with headline-grabbing raids, like the infamous San Mateo incident in January that involved cops in riot gear. Of course, the games continue, only now a bit further underground.
People then turn to the Internet for their gambling fix. What's the government going to do about that?
Try something else crazy, it turns out -- like arresting executives of companies based in countries where online gambling is perfectly legal who merely change planes in the United States. That's like Saudi Arabia busting a Playboy employee because naughty pictures published on American Websites are frowned on in Islamic countries.
That enthusiasm for enforcing the unenforceable at all costs should have all of us – even gun control advocates -- thanking the Supreme Court for taking outright gun bans off the table with the Heller decision.
Because gun owners have a history of defying gun control laws (compliance with assault weapons bans in Boston and Cleveland has hovered around 1%). Because the authorities would be inclined to escalate enforcement. And because resistance to such escalation would inherently involve, you know, guns.
In Can Gun Control Work?, James B. Jacobs, Director of the Center for Research in Crime and Justice at New York University, concluded, "If black market activity in connection with the drug laws is any indication, a decades-long 'war on handguns' might resemble a low-grade civil war more than a law-enforcement initiative."
And that takes us back to drug prohibition -- the eternally failed crusade to make much of the population change its ways, or else.
It won't work. It can't work. It never has worked.
But the authorities try, and try and /try/ to make people knuckle under to laws that they find offensive and intrusive. And as people refuse to comply, the authorities raise the stakes, adopting tactics that most of us recognize as violations of fundamental rights and of simple human decency.
This column was published August 23, 2008 by Verde Valley Newspapers