Do We Really Want Perfect Law Enforcement?
posted by Daniel Solove
I just wrote a post about the possibility of cell phones being used to nab speeders. This raises a larger question regarding law enforcement. If we employ new technologies of surveillance to achieve a more efficient enforcement of various laws, the most obvious concern that comes to mind is the threat posed to privacy. There’s also another problem worth thinking about – Is it desirable to have very efficient enforcement of certain laws?
Of course, we’d want as perfect enforcement as we could get when it came to crimes such as murder and kidnapping. But what about speeding?
Consider what happened in 2000, when the Hawaii transportation department began using cameras mounted on vans to catch speeders. Tickets were issued for all drivers exceeding the speed limit by six miles per hour. The program resulted in an enormous public outcry. As one journalist observed, “it became possibly the most hated public policy initiative in Hawaii history, almost uniformly disliked, even by those who thought it actually worked.” Mike Leidemann, Few Saying Aloha to Van Cams Fondly, Honolulu Advisor, Apr. 14, 2002. Some drivers referred to the vans as “talivans” and radio stations broadcast their location.
In 2002, the program was cancelled. Where the cameras were used, traffic accidents and fatalities were down significantly. [In a recent post, however, I discuss a study of DC traffic cameras that reveals the opposite conclusion – that traffic cameras had no effects on accident or fatality rates.]
So why was there such a public outcry against the program?
My hypothesis is that the outrage stemmed from the impersonality of the system as well as its profound efficiency. The system was exercised to enforce rules that many people frequently violated. The automated and perfected enforcement of the law, even a law generally viewed as justified and important, was experienced as overly oppressive. People were too tightly controlled, which created a sense of excessive state paternalism that led to rebellion and resentment.
I believe that people have ambivalent views toward many laws, such as speeding laws. They generally support the laws, but they often violate them. For example, would society really want perfect enforcement of the drug laws? Imagine if everybody who did drugs at one point in their lives were caught. This could nab quite a lot of people, including many corporate CEOs, politicians, and probably every celebrity.
What about perfect enforcement of underage drinking laws? Probably the majority of the population has at one time during their childhood engaged in underage drinking. And quite a lot of adults have furnished alcohol to a minor at one point in time.
So perhaps we don’t want to enforce these laws perfectly. Yet, doesn’t imperfect enforcement unfairly penalize the unlucky few who get caught? Indeed, prior drug use can disqualify people for certain jobs, such as the FBI (which is considering rethinking some of its policies). Underage drinking violations can appear on a person’s record. Should these stains on people’s records be put there haphazardly? After all, if many people are guilty of these things, why should only the unlucky few who get caught be punished?
The same goes for speeding. If many people speed but only a fraction are caught, shouldn’t we desire better enforcement of the law rather than arbitrarily penalizing the unlucky few who get caught?
Also, more automated and efficient law enforcement might eliminate prejudice and bias. This could cut down on the over-enforcement of traffic laws against minorities, such as the phenomenon dubbed “driving while black.”
I haven’t worked out the answers just yet, but I find the issue quite intriguing.