Sunday Sermon: American Justice


“American Justice” should always be scare-quoted. If you didn’t notice, the justice system has been dragooned into being part of a general push for voter suppression and forced labor that is highly racialized. It has also become a means of farming poor people for money – there are ridiculous crimes like “jaywalking”, and speed traps a’plenty to make sure that a steady stream of fines flows into the coffers of the police.

Americans accept this as a matter of course because it’s the reality we’ve known for a long time; it’s the way things are. But it’s bizzare if you start to think about it. Many Americans are passionately concerned about the 2nd Amendment and completely don’t care about the 4th – so they are comfortable with the development of a surveillance state that can retro-scope any activity they may have engaged in, for years. The same gun nuts who freak out if there is a “national registry of firearms” don’t seem to realize that the NSA has all of UPS and FedEx’s shipping records, and everyone’s banking information, and correlating firearms purchases would be a cakewalk for a tool like Palantir. That is literally the sort of thing Palantir is designed to do.

There’s no freak-out about that. And the Americans who don’t freak out are the same ones that have been targeted for farming.

A friend of mine sent me this the other day; they were asking “why am I being charged for Emergency Medical Services when all that happened was a speed trap?” The answer is simple: because they can. There’s a lot of that – that’s what “autocracy” means. It’s what you call a government that does whatever it wants, or whatever it can, and the will of the people is irrelevant. I doubt very very much that the people of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania voted to have speed traps at all, let alone that there should be random surcharges tacked on to the ticket.

Literally, unexplained surcharges. Look, there’s a line-item on the ticket: “Surcharge: $45.”

Then there’s “costs: $39.50” – costs for what? I don’t know, it’s just what it cost.

For a poor person, a $160 traffic ticket can knock them off the balance between scraping by and falling off the map. I know someone who drove uninsured for years because the insurance is the first thing you stop paying. Naturally, the state is now correlating information between the insurance companies and the Department of Motor Vehicles so they can automatically fine people if they are uninsured and don’t immediately turn in their license plates. With the new automated license plate scanners at every toll-way and on cop cars, they can farm for fines automatically.

That’s just the petty stuff, though. The real scam is that the justice system is utterly corrupted because of collusion between the DAs and the police unions – both to protect bad cops, and to protect bad DAs. [stderr] Then, you have things like the police union paying the legal bills for a cop that shot a squeegee guy. [nyt] The other day I ran across another case where the police union was giving money to a DA’s re-election campaign, coincident with a cop shooting a “suspect” (no doubt for jaywalking without insurance) – it’s a protection racket, pure and simple. I see these things in the news all the time  – if you follow Radley Balko, you can, too. Usually they make me so angry I can’t remember them for very long. It’s unbearable to think about.

Appearing to distance itself from the officer charged in the shooting of a squeegee man on Sunday, officials of the city’s police union said yesterday that they were weighing whether to continue paying his legal bills.

The officer, Michael W. Meyer, was provided with a lawyer by the union, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, to guide him through his arraignment on Monday on charges of attempted murder in the off-duty shooting of a squeegee man who was trying to clean his windshield.

One of the underpinnings of the justice system is its faith in sworn testimony. In my opinion, that’s something that has to go. For one thing, we’ve been treated to some excellent demonstration, recently, of how sociopaths will lie without any concern for the truth at all. What does “under oath” mean anymore? It never did mean much but finally, a few people are acknowledging that “testilying” is a problem.

Except, it’s also everywhere. [nyt]

A state judge handed a light sentence on Wednesday to a once-decorated detective who had been convicted of perjury, sparing him jail time and accusing prosecutors of hypocrisy in their handling of the case.

The former detective, Kevin Desormeau, 34, was convicted at trial earlier this year of lying under oath in a drug case. Justice Michael Aloise sentenced him in State Supreme Court in Queens to a three-year term of probation and fined him $500, saying he had eroded public faith in the police.

$500? That’s practically a traffic ticket. I hope they charged him for “expenses:” and “surcharge:” and “EMS:” too.

Comments

  1. says

    I doubt very very much that the people of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania voted to have speed traps at all

    Are you suggesting that people would like having no speed limits at all? Or that majority of people are OK with speed limits, but they just want them to not be enforced by the police in any way (basically, each driver gets to decide whether they want to voluntarily abide by the speed limits or not)? In my opinion, there are many illegal things that should be legal (jaywalking, smoking weed, being homeless and sleeping in public parks, begging, etc.), but I don’t think that speeding is among such things. If a person drives too fast in the wrong place, somebody else might get killed.

  2. witm says

    Speed Limits and Speed Traps are two different things.

    There are arguments against speed limits in some areas of the US and they make sense due to the scale of things. That is not what is being discussed here.

    A speed trap, at least as I view it, is where the police set up at locations where the speed limit changes drastically and it is difficult to process the change or react quickly enough. Typically city limits in rural areas, on the bottom of slopes, speed limits changing on the reverse side of a hill etc. etc. Typically locals are aware of these areas, but through traffic won’t be.

    Here in Japan I rarely see this tactic. They just set up where people like to speed — long open stretches of straight road which are uncommon enough that people tend to get a bit lead-footed.

    Regarding Balko, I had to stop reading him years ago, him and the Police Crime reporting project that Reason took over both just make me angry. I had to stop for my own sanity. If I ever move back to the US I’ll have to start reading them again.

  3. komarov says

    “Location: Off roadway / roadway not found”

    Is this one of those Heisenberg-speeding tickets? We know precisely how fast you were going, and thus couldn’t determine your location… now pay up.

    More seriously, I assume your friend wasn’t actually off-road but that the document generator had to deal with a nameless road or something similar. Do the US have an off-road speed limit, assuming it’s not outright illegal to drive off the road.* But it would be just like (some) police departments to to put speed traps in no-mans land if they thought there was some money in it. Or next to runways or railway tracks, come to think of it…

    *Next ticketing opportunity: Harvest cars’ GPS data and automatically fine anyone not on an official road. Great for states where camping is popular. People might also run into trouble if they have particularly long driveway. And there’s a fortune to be made from Elon Musk’s Marsbound ca…

    Slightly off-topic but since Palantir came up: Apparently the German police in Hessen has just bought the software to help them tackle organised crime and such. According to the article there was no “procurement process”, the reason being that there is no established, “proven” alternative available on the market. My favourite part was that the purchase price is classified because reavealing it would apparently constitute a secuirty risk. I shudder to think what Evil Geniuses can work out from the price tag alone. Well, actually I’m baffled and suspect that it’s more about the (job) security of people responsible for the purchase.

    Maybe the DoD should follow suit and classify their spending completely. “In the fiscal year 2020 we spent 4968523 trillion trillion dollars. That’s all you need to know, except that our military remains dangerously underfunded. Please send more cash.”

  4. says

    Ieva Skrebele@#1:
    Are you suggesting that people would like having no speed limits at all? Or that majority of people are OK with speed limits, but they just want them to not be enforced by the police in any way […]?

    It’s the speed traps. The cops sit there and measure the speed of everyone going by, then – if someone is going too fast – they burst out into the road and pull the person over. Or, in other cases, they find a place where people tend to speed and farm them there. There is a hill near where I live that cops like to wait at the bottom of: the big semis come down the hill and pick up speed, then, wham, insta-ticket.

    Americans’ relationship with vehicle speed is another of those places where we are silly. They could sell cars with governors on them – limit the top speed. Why not?

  5. says

    witm@#2:
    Regarding Balko, I had to stop reading him years ago, him and the Police Crime reporting project that Reason took over both just make me angry. I had to stop for my own sanity.

    Agreed. Reading Balko is a great way to ruin your morning.

  6. says

    Here in Texas on state highways there are at least two signs warning of speed changes.\; A speed change ahead, and the speed limit sign itself. Prevents surprises.

  7. says

    Or, in other cases, they find a place where people tend to speed and farm them there. There is a hill near where I live that cops like to wait at the bottom of: the big semis come down the hill and pick up speed, then, wham, insta-ticket.

    The purpose of speeding tickets should be increasing traffic safety. If cops use these tickets for earning money from fines, that’s nasty. Cops waiting at the bottom of a hill are an example of how it should not be done. However, I do support speed traps in dangerous places where speeding is likely to cause traffic accidents. For example, some years ago I used to frequently walk in a place where crossing the street made me mildly uncomfortable. It was a pretty large street with lots of traffic and the road wasn’t straight, instead there was a curve and there were trees growing on both sides of the road. As a result of the curved road and the trees, I couldn’t see far enough to feel comfortable whenever I had to cross the street. The idea of some speeding car showing up out of nowhere in that place exactly the moment when I tried to cross the street scared me. The fact that some drivers choose to ignore speed limits even in places where it’s outright dangerous indicates that speed traps are necessary. If the prospect of killing somebody isn’t enough to make some drivers slow down, then maybe the prospect of a fine will do the trick instead.

  8. Roj Blake says

    Sorry, can’t go along with the “It’s at the bottom of a hill line”. The driver needs to be in control at all times, and that includes controlling speed going downhill. A car is fitted with tools such as a speedo, a set of brakes, and gears, all of which can be simply combined to control the speed of descent.

    Do I ever exceed the speed limit? Sure do, but I do so knowingly and with thought.

  9. Roj Blake says

    Americans’ relationship with vehicle speed is another of those places where we are silly. They could sell cars with governors on them – limit the top speed. Why not?

    They do. Its called cruise control. But again, that takes skill and conscious use. It is sometimes necessary to be able to accelerate above the speed limit to avoid collision, eg, if a car is coming at you from the side, far better to accelerate than brake.

  10. Crimson Clupeidae says

    On the issue of speed traps. One of the nice things about living in a state/county with reasonably low bar of entry for citizen based initiatives, is that a lot of the really stupid government stuff gets voted out by the will of the people.

    A few years ago, a company spent a lot of money convincing the city that putting up ‘red light cameras’ at about a dozen key intersections would make traffic safer.

    What it did, of course, was increase revenue from traffic tickets, and make money for the private company that sold (and had exclusive maintenance contracts) the system to the city.

    Two years ago, we voted to ban them all. The cops need to sit at those intersections if they really think they’re all that unsafe. Oddly enough, those intersections don’t get any more police presence than any others.

  11. lanir says

    I think the disagreements about speed limit enforcement are actually due to the financial reasons that guide those decisions. No matter what the usual enforcement is like, any given policeman is going to pull over someone who is clearly driving recklessly.

    The problem comes in when those fines become the means of keeping the police department funded. Add to that statistical racism and classism and you have a real ugly mess. It becomes a situation where the white and wealthy starve the police until they have to prey upon the poor and minorities just to survive. That is the very dangerous status quo we live with. Every time you watch a video of the police murdering someone and knowing they won’t face any charges for it, you’re seeing a part of where that leads.

  12. says

    lanir@#11:
    It becomes a situation where the white and wealthy starve the police until they have to prey upon the poor and minorities just to survive.

    That seems to be a typical problem. When I was in Moscow in 2007, a got shaken down by “freelance police” who “fined” me 75 Euros on the spot for not having my passport prepared for inspection. It was so obvious, and sad, I thought it was pretty funny. I asked the cop if he could arrange me a tour of the Lubyanka for 150 Euros.

    It’s sad that governments appear to create these situations that are perfect for fostering corruption – they ought to understand, by now, the parameters of how corruption happens. They just don’t care because it doesn’t affect them.

  13. says

    When I was in Moscow in 2007, a got shaken down by “freelance police” who “fined” me 75 Euros on the spot for not having my passport prepared for inspection. It was so obvious, and sad, I thought it was pretty funny.

    Wow, this story really surprised me. Personally, I have never been in Russia, but I know lots of people who have been there. I hadn’t heard any similar stories from them. When Latvians go to Russia as tourists, they don’t worry about Russian cops stealing their money (apparently these cops don’t target Russian speaking tourists from former Soviet republics). Instead we worry about getting the cheap rate for museum tickets (and also avoiding the “tourist pricing” for other goods and services in general). Museum tickets are cheaper for Russians than for foreigners. Upon entering the museum, you don’t have to show the passport, instead your ticket price is determined based on what language you speak. Unfortunately, even if you do speak Russian fluently, people selling the tickets also listen for an accent.

    It’s sad that governments appear to create these situations that are perfect for fostering corruption – they ought to understand, by now, the parameters of how corruption happens.

    This ought to be really simple. Whoever makes the decision to charge a fine doesn’t get to keep the money, instead the money from fines goes to the state budget or somewhere else that’s totally unrelated. Thus you don’t get any nasty incentives.

    This reminds me of the fines for riding without a ticket in public transport in Riga. Ticket inspectors’ base salary is really small, but they also get to keep most of the money they get from the fines. Thus they are interested in getting as much fine money as possible. Simultaneously, there’s also no law that would allow the ticket inspector to get money from a person who simply refuses to pay the fine. Ticket inspectors aren’t allowed to touch the ticketless person, they cannot detain or arrest them. In Riga there are plenty of people who routinely don’t buy tickets for public transport. Whenever caught, they simply refuse to pay the fine, get out of the bus and leave. That’s it. No money for the ticket inspector. Thus most of ticket inspectors’ income comes from innocent victims. I know one girl who entered a bus with bags in both her hands. It took her a bit of time to put her bags on the floor and get her ticket out from her purse. At that point a ticket inspector came to her and requested that she pays the fine, because she failed to validate her ticket quickly enough. The girl actually ended up paying the fine. Unlike her, I have nerves of steel and I don’t hesitate getting into arguments. On several occasions ticket inspectors have asked me to pay a fine when they had no right to do so (yep, I had bought a ticket, yet I was still requested to pay a fine). Each time it ended with an about 10 minutes long argument, after which they realized that they won’t succeed in getting a single cent from me. That’s when they left me alone and went looking for an easier victim.

    Of course, everybody’s favorite victims are tourists. This reminds me of an occasion when I was in a train in Estonia. When I showed my ticket to the Estonian ticket inspector, she told me that I had bought the wrong ticket. Of course, the right ticket was more expensive that what I had bought. Then she simply calculated the price difference between what I had paid and what I should have paid and I just gave her that amount of money. That’s how it should happen in civilized countries. Of course tourists are bound to make these kinds of mistakes, and ticket inspectors shouldn’t be preying on them in such situations.

    Unfortunately, unlike Estonia, Riga isn’t a civilized enough place. On numerous occasions I have seen tourists make mistakes, buy the wrong ticket, fail to validate it correctly, etc. In such situations it was always painful for me to watch the happy ticket inspector speak in absolutely broken English in an attempt to squeeze money out of the confused and bewildered tourist. By the way, the fine for riding without a ticket in public transport in Riga isn’t some fixed amount. Instead, ticket inspectors can ask for whatever sum they want. Of course, whenever they find some confused tourist, they demand as much money as they can possibly get away with.

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