Give a cop an inch of discretion, and he'll abuse a mile right into the ground.
Instead, the traffic offender said he was transported from the precinct to another holding cell in the basement of a separate courthouse. His detainment lasted hours. Confused, at one point he asked an official whether the department processes a lot of people for registration violations.
According to his account, after the official replied yes, he made a crack about "hardened criminals." The official then snapped that he wouldn't be saying that if someone he loved got hit by someone else with an expired registration.
Let's make this clear up front: There is no correlation between timeliness of vehicle registration and vehicular negligence. A driver with an expired registration is no more likely to kill than a Kennedy with four manhattans in his stomach.
But if you drive a car with a tag expired by ten days on the streets of our nation's capital, the District of Columbia police reserve the power to jail you. As the linked story shows they exercise that power, all too often, busting moms as they pick up kids from school, friendly neighborhood ice cream truck drivers, and grandfathers as they drive, with an expired registration, to place flowers on the graves of beloved grandmothers. I suppose.
Anyway, I can guess the "rational" explanation for allowing the Barney Fifes of DC to imprison citizens for something as simple as an expired license plate, and you can too: OMG 911!!!
To a bureaucrat's mind, the policy makes sense: the nation's capital is the prime target for terrorists, and when Muhammad McVeigh is found on Pennsylvania Avenue in a darkened, idling panel van, burnt out cigarettes piling on the street, we don't want the local beat cop wringing his hands over whether he has the power to act on an expired registration. Give the police the opportunity to exercise their discretion, sensibly, and it will all work out for the best.
Except it doesn't. The cops are busting widows and orphans.
Policing is hard work, and I'm not about to suggest some harebrained solution like "negative discretion", keeping cops on a tight rein but permitting them, always, to choose not to exercise their power. The people who write expired registration laws in DC and elsewhere, who have no more experience with the criminal justice system than I do (and often less), would just write new laws requiring arrest for trivial offenses, again trusting cops to exercise their discretion and do the right thing. No, the best solution is an informed citizenry, one that views the police, and their masters, with suspicion, so that they'll think twice before writing foolish laws and policies in the first place.
Have you called a cop a pig under your breath today?
(Via Radley Balko)