Sunday, August 1, 2010

What's Wrong with This Picture?

This apparently is how Maryland thinks its police should act:

Here's what happened to this motorcyclist according to a posting on a blog by Carlos Miller entitled "Photography is Not a Crime":
After spending 26 hours in the Baltimore County Jail, Anthony Graber still doesn’t understand what he did wrong.

Sure, the 24-year-old man admits to speeding on his motorcycle, but does that merit having a plainclothes cop pull a gun on him?

Does that merit six state troopers raiding his parents’ home and seizing four computers at the crack of dawn?

Does that merit getting charged with a felony and threatened with five years in prison?
I find several things wrong about this incident:

First, having somebody get out of an unmarked car with a drawn gun screams "drug gang wants to kill me by mistake!" and my initial reaction is to run for my life. But apparently in Maryland, the law obliges you to stop and let any turkey waving a gun shouting "state police!" approach you while you get to wonder if these are your last moments of life.

Second, while I can understand using an unmarked car to surveil roads for speeders, I don't get having "officers" who are not in uniform jumping out and threatening citizens. That is just too scary because how can you tell an "officer" from a thug who is about to rob, rape, or kill you?

Third, since when does a traffic violation merit pulling a gun on a driver? (I could accept this if the driver has gone on a rampage causing damage by using his vehicle to destroy stuff, but I have a hard time picturing guy on a motorcycle with a camera mounted on his helmet as a maniac trashing cars, mailboxes, etc. as he rides along the road.)

Fourth, I find it to be an outrageous misuse of the law to claim that taking a picture of a cop trying to arrest you as a "violation of state wiretap law". You might as well tell me that a panhandling law covers spousal abuse or that a law on littering justifies charging a business with tax evasion. My only reaction is "huh?"

Fifth, fundamental justice means the punishment must fit the crime. Spending 26 hours in jail for taking a picture on a public street is extreme. Raiding your house and seizing your computers is extreme. Threatening you with 5 years in jail is extreme. Unless the police decide to treat everybody with this same level of "justice", this is unacceptable. So... you've had fair warning if you are a vacationer with a camera, if you are in the US expect jail time and your possessions being seized by the state!

Here's the ACLU's fact sheet on this case. It includes this statement:
This prosecution by the Maryland State Police and Harford County State’s Attorney is profoundly dangerous, and seems meant to intimidate people from making a record of what public officials do. It is antithetical to a democracy for the government to tell its citizens that they do not have the right to record what government officials say or do or how they behave.
Go read the details of the problems that Carlos Miller of Photography is Not a Crime web site has had with the police.

I've noticed that since 9/11 border guards and police in the US have become much more aggressive in their "handling" of the public. This is crazy. These are public servants. The US is not a police state. These guys need to stay within the bounds of common sense and carry out their job with the concept of "innocent until proven guilty" and that they are not bullies with a free hand, but public servants helping to make the streets safe. I've decided to stop visiting the US until the police & border guards return to their behaviour prior to 9/11. That may mean I never go to the US again. So be it. That is sad, but I don't like being bullied by thugs in uniform. The US has some wonderful people and a lot of very nice places to visit. But there is a trade-off to be made and I opt for staying away until things return to "normal".

Update 2010sep28: As usually happens in these cases where cops go beserk, the result is the court throws out the charges. See this Baltimore Sun report:
In a decision that could make it easier for citizens to record police officers in Maryland, a Harford County judge ruled Monday that state police and prosecutors were wrong to arrest and charge a man for taping his own traffic stop and posting it on the Internet.

Circuit Court Judge Emory A. Plitt Jr.'s ruling helps clarify the state's wire tap law and makes it clear that police officers enjoy little expectation of privacy as they perform their duties.

"Those of us who are public officials and are entrusted with the power of the state are ultimately accountable to the public," Plitt wrote. "When we exercise that power in a public forum, we should not expect our activity to be shielded from public scrutiny."

But the problem with this kind of "justice" is that the wrong has been done and isn't "undone" just because a judge says "oops!". The poor victim is out this time, his being mishandled by the cops, and the expense of hiring lawyers to try to defend oneself. The "system" can win by just wearing you down. It doesn't have to win court cases. They can simply keep bringing trumped up charges and harrass you into impotence.


thomas said...

I know that conservatives don't have a problem with individual rights being violated, but I don't understand that position. We take away individual rights and give more freedom to corporations.. incredible. So, the only alternative to policing the police is to let citizens carry guns, and then, anarchy will rule. I don't like cops taking away our freedoms, but I really don't like the idea of everyone taking matters into their own hands, either. Things could get real ugly..

RYviewpoint said...

Thomas: The word "conservative" is too broad. I have no real problem with traditional conservatives, they usually respect the law and simply want a stable society. The problem I have is with radical "conservatives" who say they are conservative but don't behave that way, e.g. Bush who ran up a huge deficit and trampled on traditional freedoms why claiming to fight two wars "for our freedom". Amongst the latter are those who are bought-and-paid-for "conservatives" who are simply the mouthpiece of the the ultra-rich. They talk "tax cuts" as a cure-all and really don't care if they drive the wider society into a ditch.

The problem with cops is one of training and expectation. Nobody wants to get rid of them. They are essential for public order. But they need to remember that they are working for the public. They need to be taught proper police procedure and be given the tools that will let them feel good about themselves. A better quality of police needs to be hired and that may mean a bigger salary, but you usually get what you pay for. Scrimping on the police budget means you get a lot of thugs and bullies instead of professionals.

Actually, I'm quite positive about the future. The idea of a public police force is only 160 years old and dates back to the UK's Robert Peel (that's why they are called "bobbies"!) The quality of policing has improved tremendously in 160 years and will continue to do so. Sure there will be minor setbacks during times when government goes bad because people get talked into idiotic ideas like "government is not the solution, government is the problem". You can trace the modern failures of government to ideologues like Ronald Reagan.

You can also trace the Great Recession to Reagan because he also sold the idea of "deregulate, deregulate, deregulate" which meant that "financial engineers" on Wall Street could come up with the idea of derivatives (which destablizes finance) and securitized mortgages (which meant investors could be sold tranches of pooled mortgages that could be rated AAA because it was so hard to model the real risk of these complex financial "inventions").