When did America cease to be the model of justice to the world and a paradigm for institutionalized corruption? Dale Sinner discusses the state of the US legal system and what seems to be a continuing trend towards something quite different than what the Founding Fathers would have intended.
Tiny Tyrants - A Small Town Symbol of an Out-Of-Control Legal System
I doubt that Judge Larry Moriarty of Willis, Texas would have ever thought he'd become an international symbol of American corruption. But I think he has.
Not a symbol of the kind of corruption decried by pundits, pastors and priests across the US - thievery, violence or sexual immorality, and such.
No, Judge Moriarty sets an example of simple, petty injustice.
This tyrannical small town judge was more concerned with blindly serving the letter of the law, and sending a "strong message," than looking right in front of his eyes.
Here's what happened.
High school honor student Diane Tran missed some classes.
When her parents divorced and moved away, they left her trying to support a baby sister living with relatives, and an older brother attending Texas A&M University.
This 17-year-old suddenly got adulthood thrust on her hard. And she responded in a way that would shock most Americans. She became an adult.
She took on adult job responsibilities while trying to keep up with school.
Ms. Tran works two jobs - full time at a dry cleaners, and weekends at a wedding venue. That made keeping up with school difficult.
A friend said she often stays up till 7 a.m., trying to finish homework she can't do during the day, as she struggles with all her responsibilities. She tries, but falls asleep in classes, and sometimes can't get up in time for them.
She missed enough classes to get a summons to appear in court.
Texas law states that if a student is absent from school without parental consent for any part of the school day for three days in a four-week period, or for ten or more days in a six-month period, the student or his or her parents are subject to prosecution and referral to a juvenile court.
When she missed enough classes to get summoned to court a second time, the judge put Ms. Tran in jail then and there.
Incredibly, Judge Moriarty even made light of jailing the girl, and admitted he just wanted to make an example of her:
"... If you let one of 'em run loose, what are ya gonna do with the rest of 'em? Let them go too? A little stay in the jail for one night is not a death sentence."
A judge with so cavalier a view of a jail doesn't belong on the bench, if you ask me.
Increasing Legal Abuse
Americans aren't naïve about the law. We know that it can be perverted to serve a host of various and sundry causes other than justice.
I have an old 45-rpm record from the mid-60s titled "Freeway Flyer," a song about a hot-rodding highway patrolman. The chorus goes, "Freeway flyer, gotta get his quota today."
Even as kids we knew money ("revenue enhancement") was often the driver behind traffic tickets. That's why my friends and I got such a kick out of the song. It described what we knew was true: police fill ticket quotas.
Woodie Guthrie's classic 1930s tune Pretty Boy Floyd has lines that go:
Yes, as through this world I've wandered
I've seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.
So it's not as if we didn't know legal abuses occur, and that they can even happen with depressing regularity.
We just didn't think there'd be a time when legal abuse would seem like a regular part of everyday life.
I don't trust where American law is heading, and Ms. Tran's story just fuels my distrust.
That pathetic Texas judge seems an apt symbol of America's legal system - a system better geared to
- setting examples to instill fear or unquestioning compliance,
- enhancing legal or political careers,
- justifying pork-laden government budgets,
- confiscating personal property than to serving justice.
Late last year, a Minnesota man was arrested on his way to work, held without bond, and jailed for failing to properly put up decorative stucco and rock siding on his house.
After two days in jail, a judge agreed that the man should be released - but only if he agreed to electronic home monitoring, impromptu drug testing, and random early morning phone checks.
What kind of country threatens people with jail for not making a nice enough exterior wall on their house? The same kind that takes a man's cash because he has some, I suppose.
Last week I mentioned the incredible case of John Reby, a man who lost $22,000 to Tennessee authorities, because a police profile said "normal" people don't carry that much cash. Reby committed no crime, but was stopped for speeding, and that was enough for police to simply take his money.
Reby was a victim of policing for profit, also known as civil asset forfeiture. I'd call it legal stealing. George Will discussed it in a recent Washington Post column titled "When The Looter Is The Government."
Civil Asset Forfeiture, a.k.a., Policing for Profit
Civil asset forfeiture is a legal concept that seems more appropriate to a nightmare dictatorship like North Korea, than to a nation that prides itself on its system of justice.
It is a legal proceeding where "the property is said to have acted wrongly," according to Mr. Will.
Property owners need not have committed any crime. But they still lose their money, property and assets, which government takes based on the suspicion or extent to which the victim's property "facilitated" crime.
A family in Tewksbury, MA risks losing its family business - a motel - to out-of-control government, because some guests used drugs and got arrested over the past 20 years. If the government "wins" its case, the booty will be split 20/80 between the federal government and the local police department.
One Texas car dealer has been fighting for 9 months to get back a 2004 Chevrolet Silverado. The customer to whom he had sold the truck hadn't finished making payments for it before he got busted for drinking and driving, and police confiscated the truck.
Too Many Laws, Too Many Prisoners
The Economist (UK) reports in an article titled "Too Many Laws, Too Many Prisoners" that the US legal system suffers from three huge flaws:
- It puts people in jail for too long.
- It criminalizes things that need not be criminalized.
- It's unpredictable because of vaguely written laws.
I can't help but wonder if there's more to it than that.
Private prisons get federal tax subsidies. The more people locked up, the better the bottom line for the prison corporation and its investors.
Prison labor provides cost competitive alternatives for budget-strapped government institutions - like the military -- and for businesses that prefer not to offshore.
Asset forfeiture provides new revenue sources for cash-strapped local, state and federal police, strong inducements to steal from the weak.
The more corrupt the republic, the more numerous the laws.
~ Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome
The United States is the greatest law factory the world has ever known.
~ Charles Evans Hughes
Corn can't expect justice from a court composed of chickens.
~ African Proverb
Even the most ardent, flag-waving patriots break out in furious sweats, and start shouting "that's what I'm talking about," when confronted with cases that demonstrate everyday miscarriages of justice in America.
But too often, their arguments degenerate into tit-for-tat exercises in partisan blame.
What they fail to see is a bipartisan system that sold them out to the highest bidder 30 years ago.
Incarceration for Profit
That's why the US - with five percent of the world's population - holds 25 percent of the world's inmates. Locking people up means jobs. The government pays to lock people up. Inmates don't collectively bargain. They'll make military hardware or stereo headphones or what-have-you for real cheap.
Imprisoning people has become one of America's few high growth businesses, according to author Vicky Pelaez.
Jailing Americans for an ever-growing, never-ending list of "crimes" captures prison profits.
To do that, you need a legal system that can provide the goods - in this case, one that can provide almost any legal pretext for confiscating cash, taking homes, or even jailing a teenaged girl, who, despite trying her best, couldn't live up to the letter of the law in a nation whose judges think nothing of jailing children for profit.
So perhaps it's no surprise that Judge Moriarty fined young Ms. Tran and jailed her without a second thought.
Since being released from jail, Ms. Tran's story has attracted attention from all over the US, and even from soldiers stationed in Afghanistan.
Way to go, judge.
Maybe Ms. Tran has learned a valuable lesson from her incarceration. Maybe she's learned that, as an American, she is less a free citizen than a subject - a subject of tiny town tyrants, like Judge Moriarty, who can imprison her at whim.
Or maybe she's learned a larger lesson - that she's a subject of an imperial government that can render the rights she just learned in civics class that she had, null and void.
I wonder if Ms. Tran now wishes she could live in a free country.
I wonder if many Americans know they don't.
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Dale Gordon Sinner is a teacher and writer living in Chiba Prefecture, Japan.