Sunday, November 30, 2008

Lonely voice in the wilderness demands end to overcriminalization

I've cracked wise before at the notion that Texas has labeled 2,324 separate acts "felonies" in state law, including eleven involving oysters. Tack on perhaps 3-4,000 more misdemeanors and countless municipal ordinances and county regulations and we really are living in a bizarre period characterized by a phenomenon I've labeled "overcriminalization" - using the law enforcement machinery of the state to manage social problems like mental illness, addiction, business regulation, and a wide range of disputes that in generations past would have been considered civil matters.

The Nacogdoches Sentinel tells the quixotic story of a man who's completely fed up with this onerous trend ("A battle for personal liberty," Nov. 30):

A local business owner with no formal legal training, Craig has studied the law on his own for 15 years, preparing arguments for his case, a rebellion against tyranny and injustice that began earlier this month in municipal court.

At 44, Craig has no driver's license, but still drives a blue 1991 Ford Crown Victoria, which has no license plates, no registration, no insurance and a broken brake light. For these reasons, Nacogdoches police officers issued Craig ordinary citations in December 2007 and again in January of this year.

But Craig's case is anything but ordinary. Instead of paying his tickets — about $910 in fines for the first one — Craig filed a lengthy affidavit in municipal court denying that any crime had been committed and challenging the standing of the court to prosecute him. There, and in subsequent filings, all researched and authored on his own, Craig cited legal sources like the Magna Carta, the state constitutions of Texas and Arizona and countless subsections of state law and administrative code, all of which he believes supports his case.

Craig objects to nearly every facet of the justice system, from the lack of court reporters in the municipal court, to summonses delivered by mail instead of by hand, to judges whose salaries are paid by the city — an unconscionable conflict of interest, Craig says. But Craig's case really hinges on his worry that government has strayed too far from its original purpose, assuming powers it was never supposed to exact over citizens of a free republic.

"I am trying to be left alone," Craig said. "I want the right to travel from place to place without harassment. I want the right to use my property for its intended purpose without harassment. I want my right to not have to pay fees to anyone for the right to use my property. It's really that simple. We can't be a nation of free people if we're not really free."

The rest of the story is worth a read. I doubt Mr. Craig's claims will prevail, and his isn't a sophisticated critique, but I think it's a common one that represents a growing, justified resentment against "Big Government" - one that sometimes has been manipulated to gain votes by politicians who, once in power, never actually reduced government's scope.

Though Craig's legal point is disputable, he has a valid political one: A whopping 79% of respondents to a Dallas News online poll last spring thought petty municipal ordinances were turning Dallas into a "nanny state." Or take a look at the bills filed in the House and Senate at the Texas Legislature and you'll notice a striking trend: Many bills propose creating new crimes, new penalties, or increasing old penalties (the euphemism for which is "enhancement"), but search high and low and you'll seldom see anyone repealing useless, petty laws or ratcheting down penalties when increasing them didn't have the desired effect.

For now Craig's quixotic, pro se rebellion is just an oddity and I mention it not to back the legal merits so much as to remark upon its political and cultural implications. I suspect his complaints resonate with a significant number of people, even if most folks would never go to such extremes to lodge a protest.


A Voice of Sanity said...

The ridiculous prosecution of Lori Drew certainly is a prime example of this. Not satisfied with the tens of thousands of laws already on the books prosecutors may now invent their own at will. And by what stretch of the constitution can it be an actual offense to lie to the police or feds while not under oath? What has happened to the "Land of the Free"?

Anonymous said...

I do understand his frustrations and he probably would have some strength or movement had he enlisted many of the other people who are fed up with the harassments. If only to shake some people in their boots that the people, who voted these people in, are about to have a Holy Land voice, per say, of the cteeping "big brother" and don't want to tolerate it.

Don Dickson said...

On the merits, Craig's defenses are sure to fail. But his case, and your comments about it, reflect the fundamental change over the last thirty years in what it means to be a "conservative."

Back-in-the-day, the foundational principal of conservatism was that the people had "a right to be left alone." Now, the hallmark of "conservatism" appears to be a fervent desire to control even what I can and cannot do in the privacy of my own bedroom with another consenting adult.

We had a Trooper murdered in cold blood a few years ago by an old guy who believed the seat belt law was unconstitutional.

Our Troopers have low pay and poor benefits and working conditions because they habitually fall into the trap of supporting candidates for public office who declare themselves "friends of law enforcement." What they usually mean when they say this is that they favor more criminal statutes and longer sentences and bigger fines and more onerous conditions on released offenders. The candidates who are actually motivated to help them achieve better pay and working conditions often get labeled as "liberals" and sissies.

Anonymous said...

Charles Kiker here:

Tell Mr. Craig not to file any liens against any of the officials involved. I know very well a person who did just that, after being cited on cases similar to this. He got into a world of hurt.

Anonymous said...

Overcriminalization is exactly what we have in Texas. This is a state that applies the exact same felony offense and punishment range to someone who violently, forcefully rapes a woman as they do to a 19 year old who has a sexual relationship with his willing teenage girlfriend. Then our state wastes our valuable taxpayer resources monitoring both offenders exactly the same for life.

Anonymous said...

Overcriminalization is the only way to hold the reigns of power for most of our elected officials. As we are not a mandatory vote country, and as our population is generally un-enthusiastic on the whole voting ideal, we leave the government to itself, and the people voting it in as the minority.

Politicians know that the overwhelming group of voters are the fearful. These folks are easily manipulated to believe that the political machine is out to serve the 'people's' best interest.

Those that fear the 'criminals' will always vote for those that identify a new breed of same, and punish them accordingly.

Without law to punish all of us (realizing that ofcourse all of us should be punished, as per the bible), there would be no sanity in the USA.

So, in effect, elected officials are giving us what we want, which is the punishment that 'God, Allah, Buddha, Zeus' has mandated we should receive for our 'sins' ...

Mass stupidity has no equal...

Anonymous said...

As a criminal defense lawyer I have every sympathy with those who assert that sentencing for crime is completely out of control, but what many people overlook is that a modern, complex society can't run with the same lack of regulation that was acceptable in medieval villages. Many of the rules that irritate us at times are also there to protect us from incompetent or uninsured drivers, dangerous pharmaceuticals or tainted food and in other ways to prevent one group of citizens (or businesses) being able to damage others without a sanction.

Whatever the theoretical legal merit of some of the arguments one hears from pro se litigants like Mr. Craig, they are simply never likely to succeed because they ignore the reality of modern life and the fact that the judiciary are never going to buck the system by going back to e.g. a literal interpretation of the Magna Carta (read it! actually read the whole thing - it's a horrible document that was more of a power-sharing treaty among medieval barons than a declaration of universal rights).

For those tempted to argue that the Uniform Commercial Code trumps the US constitution, or that a court whose US flag has no fringe around it has no jurisdiction as a consequence, etc. I strongly recommend the following website:

Texas would be a drabber, sadder place without mavericks like Mr. Craig, but their curiosity value should not blind us to the fact that they are often people who simply have pronounced oppositional-defiant or paranoid character traits and who derive a feeling of martyrdom and uniqueness from their refusal to abide by rules which actually have some logical public policy basis.

Anonymous said...

I for one commend Mr. Craig. What he is doing is standing up and saying what many of us who have tried to say for many years. Prisons have far too many people behind bars, some who belong there, but very many who do not but for the "stupid" laws and the act of policing themselves, Judges, District Attorneys and Lawyers answer to no one.Think of the money that could go to more needed areas if those who should not be there were let go home, they would again become contributors to society and not a burden. This is wrong and there needs to be some control rendered in all the above mentioned areas. Judges, District Attorneys and some Defense? attorneys get together before a trial and decide who wins this one. This is not what our laws were intended for, "you are innocent, not guility when you enter a trial, but that is no longer a fact. Our Judicial System stinks and we need to replace many of the Legislators who make "stupid" laws with people who really give a "damn" about their fellow man.

Don said...

To anon 11:04 A.M. "....simply have pronounced oppositional-defiant or paranoid character traits and who derive a feeling of martyrdom and uniqueness from their refusal to abide by rules which actually have some logical public policy basis."???? Either that, or the man is just trying to make a point and perhaps get some folks to wake up. But that was quite a psych-eval. (you should charge for those).

Anonymous said...

Let's see--requiring someone to have a driver's license, have his car insured & registered, and maintain working brake lights--you're using this as an example of over criminilization and the nanny state??? Give me a damn break. This guy's a nut and a cheap skate. These aren't some onerous new laws. So what happens when someone rear ends him because his brake lights don't work? Anybody want to be he'll sue the holy crap out of them. He'll also be the first one to call & complain about the potholes on his street. He wants to be free---free to travel the world and enjoy the infrastructure and services that everyone else but him pays for.

Anonymous said...

Next thing we know, the government will determine who must get a flu shot, how must be tested for TB, who will be fined if they don't get a regular physical check-up.

Automobile registration, insurance and brake light fines really don't get much traction based upon the possibility that someone else might have an accident. If everyone doesn't get a TB test, I might get TB. Does that require a fine? Think about it, it isn't that much different.

I truly believe we are in a society that is far to criminalized.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Dickson,

I agree with everything you said.

On a sidenote, compared to an East Texas deputy sheriff's pay and equipment, state troopers have it made.

And most East Texas deputy sheriff's salaries are set by democratic party controlled commissioner courts.

Most of these commissioners claim to be friends of law enforcement too.

All levels of government, just like Texas DPS, have become "rule bounded."

Anonymous said...

Maybe the voice is lonely because it is moronic?

Don Dickson said...

I wholeheartedly concur with 11:04's comments.

And East Texas deputy, I know what you're saying is true, but I also know that comparing DPS to local agencies involves a lot of apples-to-oranges. The sheriff can't order you to spend the next 28 days, or for that matter, the rest of your career, in Falfurrias. Or worse, Austin. :-)

Anonymous said...

Mr. Dickson,

I read the post by East Texas deputy. He/she is absolutely right.

I just recently was forced into retirement by a new incoming sheriff, something that deputies have no protection because of at will employment, being political appointees, or that our views and opinions are not the same as the sheriff.

My situatiopn is nothing new and I'm certain others will follow as newly elected Texas sheriff's are sworn into office on January 1. And we have no recourse.

Troopers are not in jeopardy of losing their jobs simply because there is a change in command or they do not support a particular candidate during a campaign.

Anonymous said...

"using the law enforcement machinery of the state to manage social problems like mental illness, addiction, business regulation, and..." political cover for a county DA, state governor and state attorney general who were afraid the public might blame them for the TYC "scandal."