Monthly Archives: August 2007

Evil Lawmaking: License Suspension

Continuing my series of articles on bad, sloppy, or downright evil lawmaking, I’d like to talk a little bit about how much states love to suspend or revoke people’s driver’s licenses.

A suspended license is a branch of a problem I mentioned earlier: Free Punishment. A suspended license is just a database entry and a form letter. It probably costs the state less than a buck, but causes a lot of misery to the person who suddenly can’t drive.

(It may even be a profitable punishment: Around here, after the period of suspension expires, there’s a $70 fee to have your license restored, plus a $5 fee to get a new copy of your license.)

In some cases, of course, suspending a license makes a lot of sense. Here in Illinois, they will take your license for reckless driving that kills or injures someone, driving drunk or refusing a breath test, drag racing, eluding police, or being involved in a lot of accidents or getting a lot of tickets for moving violations. We can argue over the details, but in general it makes good sense to take the license of someone who demonstrates they cannot handle the responsibility of driving.

Your license can also be suspended or revoked if you lied to get the license, if you haven’t paid for your license, of if they issued you a license in error when you weren’t really qualified. Again, these reasons all make sense.

In some cases, however, it’s clear that the suspensions are little more than legislative theater to get tough on something. For example, they can take someones license for “violating the Cannabis Control Act, the Illinois Controlled Substances Act, the Methamphetamine Control and Community Protection Act, or the Use of Intoxicating Compounds Act while that individual was in actual physical control of a motor vehicle.”

It doesn’t stop there: They can take a license if someone “Has been convicted of the following offenses that were committed while the person was operating or in actual physical control, as a driver, of a motor vehicle: criminal sexual assault, predatory criminal sexual assault of a child, aggravated criminal sexual assault, criminal sexual abuse, aggravated criminal sexual abuse, juvenile pimping, soliciting for a juvenile prostitute and the manufacture, sale or delivery of controlled substances or instruments used for illegal drug use or abuse in which case the driver’s driving privileges shall be suspended for one year[.]”

In other words, if you have a valid license which you obtained legitimately, and you haven’t done anything that shows your driving endangers other people, they can still take it from you. None of the crimes in the last two paragraphs involves the use of a vehicle as an element of the crime, yet you can still lose your license just because you happen to commit the crime while driving a car.

I’m not saying that people who commit those crimes shouldn’t be punished, but suspending their license has no connection to the crime and makes no sense.

I suppose supporters might argue that if someone uses a car as a place to molest a child, it’s a good idea to make sure they don’t have that opportunity again. Sure, that makes plenty of sense, but the state should do that by putting child molesters in jail. I mean, what kind of half-assed stunt is it to take away a child molester’s driver’s license?

Anyway, you can also lose your license if you have a gun in your car. Or if you vandalize someone else’s vehicle. Or if you use a vehicle to deliver alcohol to a minor.

If you don’t have your car tested for emissions when you’re supposed to, the license of everyone listed on the registration will be suspended. Isn’t that going to make it kind of hard to bring the car in for a test?

If I’m reading this stuff right, they will also take your license if you operate a garage or a parking lot and you discover an unclaimed vehicle but don’t report it to the police in a timely manner.

Note: I’ve probably got at least half of this wrong. I found all these rules by poking around in the Illinois Compiled Statutes. It’s a big mess. Not only do the traffic laws specify license suspensions, but the laws for the Illinois Secretary of State’s Office (which handles driver licensing) have a whole different set of reasons for suspension. I’m sure I found it confusing because I’m not a lawyer, but I’m told that even traffic lawyers and Secretary of State employees have trouble figuring out what it all means.

Jury Duty: The Prosecutor Speaks

A few months ago, I posted a followup to my Jury Duty series in which I expressed my curiosity about whatever happened to the defendant, whom I called “Jose.” I had been unable to find out what sentence he received.

Well, one of the prosecutors (I think the one I referred to as the “blonde prosecutrix”) just stumbled across that entry:

Imagine my surprise to see a Jury that I prosecuted detailed on a blog I randomly found during a Google search. The Defendant […]–never returned for sentencing and currently has an outstanding warrant for his arrest. The Judge that told you he was looking at Probation for the Aggravated Battery has since this trial revoked each and every person’s bond once convicted because [Jose] blew it for everyone else.

I had just recently discovered that myself.

In the same earlier post, I had mentioned that some of the jurors thought Jose’s needlessly elaborate testimony was a setup for a civil suit. I doubted this because the stakes seemed so small. After all, Jose’s only injury was only a bloody nose.

I hadn’t really thought it through. There’s more to such a suit than just an injury:

You touched on a possible civil suit from the Defense team after this trial–that was very astute. The Defense usually chooses a Jury trial on a case they believe they can win to test their witnesses for a civil jury trial if the defendant is acquitted. They can sue the Town where the officer is employed for false arrest and Civil Rights violations. Usually a town settles because it is cheaper than litigating the case. The defense team you saw pursues these case frequently.

(Note: I have edited the prosecutor’s comments slightly to remove the use of the defendant’s real name.)

in Legal

Towards a More Transparent Government

This sounds like a good idea to me:

Oath of Presidential Transparency For Open, Transparent, and Accountable Government

I, __________________________, candidate for President of the United States, pledge to the American Public that, if elected President of the United States, my administration will be fully and robustly committed to open, transparent, and accountable government principles.

Effective management, accountability, transparency, and disclosure of taxpayer expended resources by federal agencies are of the utmost importance to maintain the trust of the American people. The paramount goal is effective and efficient delivery of critical government programs to the American people. Results-oriented management of federal agencies and taxpayer resources must be aggressively pursued and must provide maximum value for the public good.

Within 30 days of accession to the Presidency, I will execute an Executive Order ensuring timely implementation of, and administrative commitment to, the letter and spirit of the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency (FFAT) Act of 2006 (PL# 109-282, 120 Stat. 1186).

The FFAT is supposed to establish a free searchable website that lists every person or organization that receives federal funds, so we’ll all know where the money’s going.

Signed, so far, by Senator Barack Obama (who was instrumental in passing the FFAT), Rep. Ron Paul (the most libertarian candidate), and Sen. Sam Brownback.

Have You Been Trying to Reach Me?

I upgraded to Microsoft Outlook 2003 a few weeks ago, and I just sort of assumed that if anything went wrong there’d be error messages or something.

It turns out that Outlook and the Windypundit mail server aren’t talking to each other. I didn’t notice because I have about half a dozen email accounts coming into Outlook and all the others seem to be working.

I finally realized that people were sending me things I wasn’t getting, and I realized what had happened. I checked the server and it has about 600 messages (most of them trying to sell me replica watches or making libelous innuendos about my genitals).

I’m trying to fix it now…

Who Should See Breathalyzer Source Code?

DUI lawyer Lawrence Taylor has been writing for a while about the resistance by breathalyzer manufacturers to various legal attempts by defense lawyers to get a peek at the source code for software that controls the machines. As a civil libertarian and software developer, I have mixed feelings about this.

I can certainly understand why the defense would want to know more about the software that is saying their client is guilty. On the other hand, I also understand why the company doesn’t want to give up the source code. It’s valuable stuff.

Lawrence Taylor has been fighting some of the crazier aspects of our DUI laws for years, but I think he hits far off the mark in some of his commentary on this issue:

I’ve also written ad nauseum about the myriad problems that render these machines inaccurate and unreliable. Among other things, for example, their operation and computation of blood alcohol levels is controlled by an old Z-80 microprocessor — an historical antique that used to drive the original Pong computer game.

The implication here, that the old processor makes the breathalyzer unreliable, is just plain wrong. There could be a lot of things wrong with the breathalyzer equipment, but that’s almost certainly not one of them.

The Zilog Z80 is a well-understood processor with a 30-year operational history. It has been used in hundreds or thousands of embedded applications, from hard drive controllers to financial point-of-sale devices to electronic musical instruments. All its bugs, quirks, and glitches have already been discovered. I’ll bet it’s been 20 years since anyone found out anything new about it.

When it comes to microprocessor designs, old means reliable. Old processors like the Z80 are the mainstay of critical systems. Their reliability has been proven by years of use in the real world. Processors of similar vintage are used to control medical instruments and spacecraft, including the Space Shuttle.

(I looked for examples of Z80 processors in life-critical applications, but haven’t found any. They’ve been used in outer space, but I didn’t find any examples where human life depended on it.)

Commenting on a manufacturer’s refusal to divulge the source code that runs their breathalyzer, Taylor says:

Kind of makes you wonder what the manufacturer is trying to hide, doesn’t it? Maybe the secret software code for computing blood alcohol levels isn’t all that it’s claimed to be?

Or maybe they’ve spent a few million dollars developing the source code and they regard don’t want to give it all away to settle a legal matter they’re not a party to.

Consider another scenario: Suppose there was a criminal case that relied on a digital photo that had been enhanced in Photoshop to reveal someone’s face. If the accuracy of the enhancement became an issue, should a judge really be able to order Adobe to give him hundreds millions of dollars worth of source code so the defense could examine it?

On the other hand, a company that makes breathalyzers seems much more involved in the resulting DUI case than Adobe is in my hypothetical example, so maybe they shouldn’t have the same protection I think Adobe deserves. I’m just not sure how to draw a principled distinction.

(Hat tip: Mike at Crime & Federalism.)

in Legal

Evil Lawmaking: Piling On

I remember back when I was a kid and I did something wrong, sometimes my parents would handle it separately, and I’d get yelled at or punished by both of them for the same misdeed. It seemed so unfair.

Lawmakers do much the same thing. Only instead of doing it at the same time, they do it one after another. Not a year goes by that my state legislators don’t bump up the penalties on a few crimes. Then when someone commits one of these crimes where the legislature has been piling on like this, they get hit with years of invented penalties all at once.

As with all the items so far in my Evil Lawmaking series, I’m not complaining about what’s been made a crime (although in some cases I have objections), rather I’m complaining about how the laws are written.

To my mind, the questionable nature of these piled-on statutes is self-evident: After decades of lawmaking, is it really possible that legislators are continuing to discover never-before-seen gaps in the criminal code? Or is it just that lawmakers are putting on a show, legislative theater if you will, to try to convince their constituents that chaos would reign without them?

in Legal