Thursday, June 17, 2010

Don't Touch That Child

Depending on how you go about it, it could be illegal for a stranger to attempt to help a lost child in Orange County, Florida. A fourteen year old was arrested for false imprisonment and the sheriff's office is pressing charges after the teen attempted to help a three year old girl find her mother in a store. There's been enough outrage over the actions of the sheriff's department in this case (although there does also seem to be a current of "what if" that supporters of the police are falling back on), so I'll let you go read about it yourself, if you're so inclined.

For my part, I'm going to take a little time to examine the implications of the way laws are written and applied.

The department defends its actions, saying the boy technically did commit the crime because he did not ask the mother’s permission to take the girl out of the store in search of the mother.
Let's parse that for a moment. According to the Orange County Sheriff's department, it's illegal to take a lost child to look for a parent unless a parent gives permission to do so. Thus, the legal thing to do when confronted with a lost child to leave, as anything that could construed as being in custody of the child could result in being charged. One of the few things I remember from my college criminal justice classes is that false imprisonment and kidnapping laws are very broad. So the question becomes: Is this really what we want? I understand the idea that extremism in the defense of children is not enough. But all it takes is a few high-profiles cases like this to create an environment where Good Samaritans decide that it's not worth the risk to intervene. My point isn't to create an apocalyptic straw man. It's unlikely that we're going to end up in some dystopian society where children are regularly injured or killed for lack of help because we've basically criminalized interactions with strangers. And even if we did, there are always going to be people who decline to ignore a child that might be in distress, despite the knowledge that they may be leaving themselves open to arrest and prosecution.

But when we create a legal regime in which laws are broad enough that it's possible to find a criminal action (regardless of intent) in anything that might be a little bit frightening, we, as Ben Rosenfeld put in in the San Fransisco Chronicle, "gradually exchange a rights-based system, in which governmental power is limited by law, for a paternalistic one, in which we may all be arrested for one thing or another, but authorities forebear from doing so, or intruding in our lives, until they subjectively brand us 'bad guys.'" The Orange County Sheriff's department apparently moved, in this case, to brand a fourteen year old as a "bad guy," as a way of saving face, deciding "he was in custody of the child and had no authority to be so," in the words of their spokesman. That applies to a lot of people, at one time or another.

Part of the reason why laws tend to be come so fine-grained that a minor failure of specificity suddenly blossoms into a major loophole is that power coupled with discretion is a recipe for not just corruption, but sheer, unadulterated inanity as well, aided and abetted by our collective unwillingness to take action on the part of the unsympathetic, unprivileged or simply unfamiliar until something utter ridiculous thrusts the situation into our faces, and then we-over react. We thus end up with a hodgepodge of laws, some remarkably broad, others maddeningly narrow, and no good way to navigate them well.

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