Thursday, June 23, 2011

Every arm can wield a hammer: Defending Perry's veto of Texas texting ban

When Governor Rick Perry announced his vetoes, Grits praised the Governor's decision to kill legislation criminalizing texting while driving. On Tuesday, James Ragland at the Dallas News published a column excoriating Perry for the veto ("Texas goveror's logic for vetoing texting-while-driving bill seems twisted," June 22, behind paywall), declaring that "The 'logic' that Texas Gov. Rick Perry used to veto a bill that would, among other things, prohibit TWD is twisted, if not downright hypocritical," though he granted that "I don’t know if outlawing TWD would prompt Texas drivers to stop cold turkey or merely inspire them to do a better job of hiding their perilous habit."

Setting aside the difficulties of enforcement, Ragland says if Perry supports seatbelt and DWI laws, he has no justification for vetoing this bill. But I measure the issue on a different axis: Criminalizing common behaviors is a slippery slope, and Perry is at least willing to engage in a meaningful debate, unlike Ragland, regarding at what point criminalizing more drivers becomes counterproductive, charging average, law abiding citizens with criminal offenses while diverting police efforts from more serious crime.

Apparently it's come to this in the writing of criminal law, at least according to James Ragland: It's just a good thing to make criminals of non-criminals over any subject you disapprove of even if you don't think doing so will work! Criminalizing new behaviors has become so habit forming, it's the go-to move even (perhaps especially) for liberals. The real danger from the impulse, though, is that creating new crimes or "enhancing" old ones is a purely tactical and thus a bipartisan (really a trans-partisan) approach. You can theoretically criminalize anything you don't like, after all - every arm can wield a hammer. The Wichita Falls Times Record News editorial board chimed in that it was worth passing the law just "in the hopes of saving even one person." The Midland paper called the veto a "mistake."

Seemingly to counter Ragland's opinion column, but mostly reinforcing it, the News followed up by publishing an article today from reporter Erin Mulvaney giving a "both sides of the story" (sort of) account of the topic. My favorite part of the story was this quote from a National Safety Council official:
Dave Teater, a senior director for Transportation Strategic Initiatives for the National Safety Council, said texting and driving is a new threat to public health and safety and that the governor’s decision to veto the legislation was “disastrous.”

“If the state is not willing to say whether it’s right or wrong, then it implies that it is not that dangerous,” he said. “People are crashing and causing fatalities across the country. … If our government can’t be involved in public safety, I don’t know what government is good for.”
A blogger's dream. How much is wrong with that sentiment? If state law is silent on a topic, that "implies that it's not dangerous"! In court the 5th Amendment will protect you, but in the court of public opinion Mr. Teater is willing to convict states on their silence - unless they pass this bill as some sort of loyalty oath. But the proposed solution really isn't one, despite terrible anecdotes about distracted driving and cell phones which have arisen, perplexingly and counterintuitively, accepting prohibitionists' arguments, during a period when traffic deaths are declining.

As for what else is government good for besides public safety? How about "preserving rights"? That's the foundational role of American government to which Ragland and Treater's comments seem oblivious. A LOT of otherwise law abiding people use their cell phones in the car, so the proposal is to criminalize a new segment of average people, expanding the baseline pool of who may be stopped, questioned, arrested, racially profiled, etc.. significantly. 

The bill further eviscerates drivers' remaining 4th amendment rights at traffic stops. Nearly everyone now carries a phone. Criminalizing its use in the car could give officers "reasonable suspicion" at just about every traffic stop. Would it be enough for an officer to say they saw you glancing at your lap when they ask you to get out of the car, pat you down, and search your vehicle? Probably. In fact, given erosion at the Supreme Court regarding Fourth Amendment rights at traffic stops, it's quite reasonable to make a stand here that enough is enough.(I wish the Governor had found his Fourth Amendment backbone a little sooner, in fact, but that's a column for another day.)

And for this sacrifice of liberty, we get no documentable improvement in public safety. Mulvaney did at least mention countervailing research (discussed on Grits when it came out): "A study released last year by the Highway Loss Data Institute examined insurance claims in several states before and after laws were in place banning texting while driving and found that the laws did not result in fewer crashes," wrote Mulvaney, adding that "When the study was released, the institute told The Associated Press the findings 'don’t match what we already know about the risk of phoning and texting while driving.'”

Though the finding is sidestepped in the story as a one-off, I think the result makes perfect sense. Most texting drivers are younger, and young people already are at greatest risk to cause traffic accidents. They're already distracted and if this wasn't distracting them, they'd find something else; there are plenty of distractions out there to be had, after all. Meanwhile, cars are getting safer, hospitals save more lives than ever and the median age in America is rising. In other words, criminal laws have very little to do with the actual reasons traffic deaths are declining, certainly not to such an extent that they deserve such narrow, singular fetishizing as supposedly the only way government influences behavior, particularly at the level of very personal tasks like preventing "distraction."

My own views, then, lie much closer to those expressed by the lone critic of the bill (besides Perry's veto statement) quoted in the story, "Rep Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, [who] said he voted against the bill because the state already has laws against distracted driving and reckless driving, but a broad prohibition on using cellphones gives police a reason to violate the Fourth Amendment, which forbids unreasonable search and seizure." Bingo! There's that other purpose of government Mr. Teater couldn't locate.

In closing, Mulvaney contacted Grits a couple of days ago to go on the record for this story, but since she didn't quote any of what I sent her, I'll republish it here to close out this entry:
We already have laws governing similar behavior and it's not needed. There are laws against reckless driving already, so on its face it's redundant if the behavior is in any way endangering others.

OTOH, if I read a text at a stoplight I don't think it harms anyone. It's already an area where civil litigation metes out liability quite successfully and criminal law has little to add. Plus studies show similar laws passed in other states simply don't reduce traffic deaths, see here.

Finally, banning everything that could distract people is just not practical or reasonable, and even if the bill became law, the state can't enforce it. Lots of things can distract you when you drive, from roadside advertising to disciplining a kid in the back seat, adjusting the radio, eating, fiddling with GPS, putting on makeup, you name it ... all the stuff people do in their cars. You can't ban it all.

All this bill has going for it is tearful anecdotes and handwringing - the policy arguments all run against it.
See related Grits posts:


Anonymous said...

Ragland is never on the side of personal liberty and always has the whiff of "social justice" in his writing. Plus he's a bore.

Phelps said...

The Wichita Falls Times Record News editorial board chimed in that it was worth passing the law just "in the hopes of saving even one person."

I'm always curious as to whether or not anyone ever considers the lives that are lost passing these laws. How many people would die as a result of the increased police contact? Police are trained that traffic stops are one of their most dangerous contacts.

How many times would an officer stop someone for this, mistake the person trying to hide the phone (to avoid the ticket) for a furtive gesture, and end up killing an unarmed person? And it's not improbable, given that 25% of the people killed by police are unarmed.

Really, there is no evidence that this will save any net lives. It's like airport security -- there haven't been any more hijackings, but there have been many more deaths because of people discouraged by the hassle of security taking the much more dangerous option of driving.

Anonymous said...

Andy Warhol was mistaken. We may not all be famous for 15 minutes in the future, but if things don't change, we will ALL likely have a criminal conviction of some sort!

Pamela J. Lakatos said...

Wonderfully put. I too, initially felt ire when I heard he had vetoed this. After reading his statements and thinking about it I found I agreed with the veto.

Thank you for your thoughtful insight.

Hook Em Horns said...

10:34, Texas criminal law is WHY I now have a 800 number!

Don said...

Good posts and good comments. I agree with Scott and the rest of the comments. Perry was bound by the law of averages to get something right sooner or later. It was this and I congratulate him on the logic in his veto statement.

Anonymous said...

Next session shall we kill failure to belt as a primary offense, or shall we strike it all together?
And what harm is done if Bubba's having a beer while I drive us down the road?

Phelps said...

Next session shall we kill failure to belt as a primary offense, or shall we strike it all together?
And what harm is done if Bubba's having a beer while I drive us down the road?

Well, since I think that stupid comments aren't good for society, let's criminalize that.

I would say that we could criminalize all bad decisions, but that would mean jailing our entire political structure.

Kevin Stouwie said...

This post is excellent! I'm a big fan of this blog. The author is absolutely correct where he points out that we seem to have a habit of making more and more things illegal without regard for the consequences of criminalizing more and more activities.

rodsmith said...

hey grits! i tried to email you this article. but not sure it went though. sorry to hijack the thread! but it's another case of perry FINALLY doing the right thing!

Texan wrongly imprisoned for 18 years to get $1.4M

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - A man imprisoned in Texas for nearly two decades for slayings he did not commit will be paid $1.4 million compensation.

The Houston Chronicle reports that Gov. Rick Perry has signed a bill authorizing payments to Anthony Graves of $80,000 for each of the 18 years he spent in prison.

In 2006, a federal appeals court overturned Graves' conviction in the 1992 killing of a grandmother and five children and ordered a new trial. He was later declared innocent.

Perry signed the bill Friday. The governor has said the years that the now-45-year-old spent in prison represent "a great miscarriage of justice."

An internal Internal Revenue Service memo indicates that compensation for exonerated former prisoners is not subject to federal income taxes. Texas does not have a state income tax.
2011-06-22 14:41:13 GMT

john said...

You cannot regulate morality---what's right. You cannot regulate convenience and expedience (without threats of force, with at least high profile follow-through).
If you could, everyone in power would be in jail. And they're NEVER going to let that happen.
The ideal of law is not to save one person from their rights; the ideal is let some crooks go free, IF IT WILL SAVE ONE INNOCENT FROM JAIL/PUNISHMENT. But it's much more expedient to profit from fines, fees, court fees----and pass on plenty work to your junior union buddies.
We The People end up threatened and forced, synonymous with We The Powerless.

jimbino said...

Someone needs to introduce a bill prohibiting the gummint from promulgating lies regarding the risks of DWI or DWTexting.

Ad nauseam we are subjected to reports of "alcohol-related" accidents or deaths on the road. This is a slap in the face of reason and science, since an "alcohol-related" incident is nothing more than one in which one of he participants, not necessarily the driver responsible, has had a drink or more.

This is nonsense. Nothing but a trial or serious scientific study could determine which accidents were caused by DWI. "Caused" is the operative word. "Alcohol-related" has nothing to do with anything!

It will be hard to rationalize our criminal justice system as long as the gummint continues to promulgate pure lies.

London Hotels said...

I unquestionably understand what you have said. In fact, I browsed throughout your other articles and I think that you’re certainly right. Congrats with this site.

Dan Baker-Jones said...

I agree with you that Gov. Perry was right in vetoing this bill, and that we've gone overboard in criminalizing common activity (usually because a small, but vocal, group of people haven't learned how to grieve properly and instead insist on governmental "prevention") but I also agree with Ragland's base argument: Perry's reason for the veto clearly runs counter, inter alia, to his support of the bill in the previous session (now law) that requires everyone in a vehicle, including adults in the back seat, to wear a seatbelt and makes this a primary offense.

Anonymous said...

I have mixed feelings about the issue. If you want to see how really dangerous texting while driving can be, try driving in traffic and text a few friends yourself. It's almost impossible to keep your eyes on the road while doing it. I've done it a few times and realized that it is dangerous to do. I'm 43 with years of driving experience. I just hate to imagine young drivers texting on a regluar basis. Like I said, to understand how dangerous it is try to text someone back and forth for about 10 minutes while you are driving in traffic. It might change your mind as to if a law should be passed banning it.