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The US Supreme Court was right about the seat belt arrest

By Terry Dunford
web posted May 21, 2001

Quite a bit of press and punditry was given to the April 24th US Supreme Court 5-4 ruling that, in essence, found no constitutional fault with a policeman arresting, handcuffing, and jailing a woman for failing to buckle up her two small children as she drove (slowly by all accounts) through her neighborhood.

Liberals and conservatives alike were angry at the US Supreme Court, particularly at the conservatives justices, for what they see a further eroding of Fourth Amendment rights. But If we don't like what happened to that Texas Mom (and who could?), let's not blame the Supreme Court; let's blame ourselves, for we are the ones who insist that legislators should enact laws "for our own good."

The lesson to be learned in this case is not that the Supreme Court has failed to protect us from unreasonable policemen; the lesson is to remind us that law is in conflict with liberty, that law authorizes government to control us ("for your own good," of course). And if that's what we choose, that's what we get. And we have been getting quite a lot of it lately, laws and regulations for our own good.

Contrast these two kinds of laws, (1) laws that promise punishment if we do bad things (such as stealing) and (2) laws that coerce us to do good things (like wearing seat belts). With the first type, we say, in effect, if you cross this line you will be punished for doing something we all agree is bad. Such laws are society's declaration of right and wrong. These laws cannot prevent people from doing bad things, but violating them will result in consequences for evildoers.

But the second kind of laws, the for-you-own-good laws, are enacted precisely to prevent people from doing harmful things. They are in essence coercive rather than retributive. Seat belt laws were designed to prevent harm. We didn't think anyone would possibly get arrested for gosh sakes. Since the law is so beneficial who would possibly not comply?

No one disputes that you would be foolish if you failed to strap in your children and yourself before hurling down the highway. What is in dispute is whether we should grant to the state the power to arrest us if we choose to be foolish.

We are a society that is becoming less confident in our retributive laws ( look how people are getting squeamish over the death penalty) and more insistent on coercive laws. Rather than punish the one employer who exercises prejudice, we impose affirmative action for all employers. Rather than punish the one who misuses a firearm we wish to impede all from owning a gun. "If we can prevent even one death," begins the now familiar argument to justify laws that demand virtue or regulate risky behavior. Claiming that this new law or that new regulation is necessary "to save lives" justifies onerous laws and regulations that impose costly environmental practices on factories and refineries while driving up the price of American goods. Car owners must submit to emissions tests. Children can't ride bikes without wearing helmets. (But of course if we were sincerely interested in saving lives we could all drive only 5 miles an hour and banish swimming pools.)

Laws seemingly so beneficial only increase the power of the state, and the policeman, who as an instrument of the law, does only doing what we citizens ask him to do. The shooting death of a man fleeing police in Cincinnati, an event that sparked riots, was sought for among other minor infractions, repeated citations for not wearing a seat belt. We insist on empowering the police and then vilify them when they do our bidding.

Terry Dunford writes infrequently on art, literature, and politics. He can be reached at terrydunford@juno.com. This is his first contribution to Enter Stage Right.

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