Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Bad laws cause crime

Jerry Stratton, July 18, 2007

Over at Real Life Comics, cartoonist Greg Dean vents his frustration at having a car thief ignored by the police. Greg’s car has obvious fingerprints from the thief, and the thief stole a homing device among over a thousand dollars worth of camera equipment.

The police are ignoring it. The person he talked to at the city attorney’s office even told him that when her entire car was stolen, the police didn’t have the time to do more than take a report. Unless the car was used in a crime, they don’t have the time to track it down… well, used in some other crime.

Immediately after the break-in, Dean ranted against the thief:

Dear Mr. Criminal Person who decided to steal everything of value out of our car this evening: Thank you. I for one appreciate your reminder that mankind, at its core, is NOT fundamentally good natured.… I do have a few bits of bad news for you, though… you managed to leave your greasy fingerprints ALL over my recently-cleaned window… many of them are very clear, too. Also, keep in mind that now that that FasTrak tag you boosted has been reported as stolen, it's going to flag you if you decide to use it.

Ten hours later, he ranted against the criminal justice system instead:

I was never really hopeful that anything would be done… but good lord. I can file a police report all day long, but that contains no EVIDENCE of anything. No, the evidence is still sitting on the window of my car, taunting me. However, according to the crime scene investigation unit I was told to call, the District Attourney won’t even PROCESS fingerprints unless the car was stolen, and then used in a DIFFERENT crime. I know this because the poor lady who WORKED THERE had her car stolen, and when it was found, she was told there was nothing they could do, even though there's evidence all over the car.

FasTrak was similarly helpful. They have a system DESIGNED to flag the license plate of a car that uses a tag reported as stolen… but will they use it to help the police catch the criminal? Of course not. There’s the possibility I could persuade the police department to require them to surrender that information, but honestly, the level of apathy I’m dealing with it maddening.

Why do we bother having laws? Why is it illegal to steal something from someone else, when apparently even leaving a large amount of evidence will let you walk away untouched?

I had a similar experience several years ago. My cell phone and credit cards were stolen. Cell phones are uniquely identifiable; the credit cards were used at places with security cameras trained on the point of purchase. But this was not an important enough crime to train scarce police resources on.

The justice system has more useful crimes to track down than stolen credit cards, cell phones, and cameras, crimes that are more lucrative, such as traffic violations, and crimes that are more politically useful, such as prohibition violations. (Which, with civil forfeiture, can be pretty lucrative as well.) The two of those combined represent a massive number of crimes that leech police effectiveness by the sheer number of otherwise law-abiding people who break them.

I’ve written earlier about how prohibition directly causes crime and violence. We don’t, for example, know that Greg’s car thief was looking for money to pay for artificially-expensive heroin, but on average it’s not a bad guess. Prohibition causes heroin to be preferred over opium, and it causes that heroin to be much more expensive than it otherwise would have been.

However, making things that almost everyone does, such as driving with the flow of traffic, into crimes has two more insidious effects on crime. It spreads law enforcement resources too thin, and it creates an adversarial relationship between police and non-police.

The State of California needs to take in at least 2.2 million dollars each year from traffic violations to make its budget. God only knows how much cities and counties bring in. You would think that after paying that much, speeders would stop speeding. But they know that the system is designed so that the odds are in their favor.

How many people do you know who stick to the speed limit because they’re worried about getting caught? Most continue to speed even after having been caught! They know that they’re not not likely to get caught again, and the immediate benefit (not getting rammed by the car behind them…) outweighs the chance of being singled out for speeding.

Thieves know the odds, too. And that increases crime. The criminal in both our cases obviously had no fear of getting caught.

Further, when everyone is a law-breaker there’s an adversarial relationship between the police and everyone. The person you’re talking to when you report a crime is looking for a reason not to talk to you further. They know you break the law, too. They know that they have “more important” work to do. They don’t have the time to deal with you.

It’s the same as dealing with a dysfunctional IT department or a poor custom service rep. They put road blocks in your way while pretending to commiserate with you, such as telling stories about how much worse it could be or that they don’t even think it was against the law. Just as I was about to publish this article, I read a story by Amber Taylor of a friend turned aside in DC for reporting an attempted home break-in. (Hat tip to the Volokh Conspiracy.)

If we ended prohibition, and stopped creating crimes that we need people to break in order to meet our budgets, there would be fewer other crimes as well, and more resources to investigate the fewer crimes that do occur.

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