Sunday, January 29, 2012

Nothing To Hide

"People who are abiding by the law should have no problems with this," said [Fort Lauderdale Police Department Detective Travis] Mandell. "People may feel that their privacy is being infringed on, but when you think about it, every day you walk down the street you are being watched by 20 to 30 cameras from private businesses and homes."
Police roll out video surveillance truck called The Peacemaker
This is a common refrain, designed to put people at ease with more and more police surveillance. And, to be sure, the police are simply doing the job we ask of them. When we say "catch everyone who does something scary and lock them up, and we'll pillory you when you can't," it's to be expected that the police, like anyone else, are going to look for a way to carry out that mandate.

There are a couple problems that I have with this. The first is that I don't trust someone who's a complete stranger any more than I would under any other circumstance, simply because they're wearing a badge. A badge is a symbol - not a mind-control device the keeps people from doing bad things or misusing information that they become privy to. The simple fact that someone is wearing one doesn't make them any more trustworthy than they were an hour before then.

The second is this: What's the definition of "abiding by the law?" Are you sure?

Sec. 16-97. - Misprision.

It shall be unlawful for any person to commit misprision. A person commits misprision when, having knowledge of the commission of a crime or offense in this city, fails to report it to the police department.

Okay, so let's assume they're not going to get you on that one. And you're pretty much covered all around, because you've memorized the entire municipal code of the city of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and know everything you can and cannot do. Good for you! That mean's you're aware of this:

Sec. 16-1. - State offenses and county ordinances adopted.

(a) State felony. It shall be unlawful for any person to commit, within the corporate limits of the city, any act which is or shall be recognized by the laws of the state as a capital felony, felony of the first degree, felony of the second degree, or felony of the third degree.

(b)  State misdemeanor. It shall be unlawful for any person to commit, within the corporate limits of the city, any act which is or shall be recognized by the laws of the state as a misdemeanor.
So... are you up on the Florida Statutes? Because if you aren't, are you positive that you're abiding by the law?

Of course, it's unlikely that the FLPD will find (or even look for) a way to use their camera trucks to find some poor sod who witnessed or learned about a state-level crime and then didn't report it. And that's not really my point. Actually, despite the exercise that we just went through, my point isn't even that the pool of law abiding citizens is likely smaller than you might think that it is.

Instead, the point is that "People who are abiding by the law," is more or less meaningless as a legal term in this context. Rather it's a public-relations term, that can be roughly translated as "people who trust the police and don't do anything that calls police attention to them."

Which brings us back to the "20 to 30 cameras from private businesses and homes." These can be problematic in their own right, but they, generally speaking, aren't being manned by people who have the power to detain you for simply being weird. (Or, to quote the municipal code, loitering in a place "at a time or in a manner not usual for law-abiding individuals." How's that for descretionary?) The police can, and to a certain degree are expected to, detain you for simply not bahaving the same as everyone else. And let's not forget the more serious laws that you may have unknowingly broken. (And remember, ignorance of the law is no excuse - in fact, there are some cases where being intentionally deceived by another isn't an excuse either.)

The answer to this isn't to expect the police to dial it back a notch. It's for us to start going through and culling out laws. As near as I can tell, I don't live in a jurisdiction with a misprision ordinance, so I'm not breaking that particular law. But then again, I'm not completely conversant in the legal structures of King County or the State of Washington, so maybe if they looked, they'd have me on something else. (By the way, some of you Occupy types may want to watch out.) When our laws are too long and complicated for you to actually be able to know which ones you've followed and which ones you've blown off in the past six hours or so, people start to become twitchy about the whole "people who are abiding by the law," thing, because they start to understand that they don't actually fit into that category. Even if they don't understand exactly why until a police officer shows up at their door with a photograph.

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