Strange Law

Six recent samples of strange law:

  1. Newly released video … shows police officers … beating a University of Maryland student with nightsticks on March 3 after a basketball game. … Paperwork filed by police that contradicts what the video shows. (more)
  2. [Journalist] Michael Yon continues to question why he was arrested upon arrival at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for his refusal to answer a question about how much money he makes. (more)
  3. You are a police officer on traffic patrol and you pull over an irate driver who refuses to admit she was doing 32 mph in a 20-mph zone. She won’t sign the speeding ticket, … she is pregnant. What do you do? … Grab the keys from the ignition, tase her three times, force her out of her car, and arrest her.  In the minds of three Seattle police officers in 2004, [this] was the reasonable course of action … and last week, a federal appeals court agreed. (more)
  4. WikiLeaks has released a classified US military video depicting the indiscriminate slaying of over a dozen people in the Iraqi suburb of New Baghdad — including two Reuters news staff. … The U.S. military concluded that the actions of the soldiers were in accordance with the law of armed conflict and its own “Rules of Engagement”. (more)
  5. Something else we [soldiers in Iraq] were encouraged to do, almost with a wink and nudge, was to carry ‘drop weapons’. …  If we accidentally shot a civilian, we could just toss the weapon on the body, and make them look like an insurgent. … One time they said to fire on all taxicabs because the enemy was using them for transportation. …  After that, the town lit up, with all the units firing on cars. … Carrying a shovel, or standing on a rooftop talking on a cell phone, or being out after curfew [meant those people] were to be killed. I can’t tell you how many people died because of this. By my third tour, we were told to just shoot people, and the officers would take care of us. (more)
  6. House M.D. and Grey’s Anatomy … He watched a total of 46 episodes from the two series and tallied up bioethical and professional breaches. … Half of the time informed consent came up, the show’s doctors failed the ethics test. … Grey’s Anatomy … included 58 instances of sexual misconduct between doctors or nurses and 27 between these professionals and their patients. (more)
  7. Last year, Maryland hunters killed 100,663.  Now, the deer eat almost everything, and almost nothing eats them. … When the tall trees age and fall, there may be no next generation to shoot up in their place. …  One idea is to reintroduce the cougars and wolves that kept deer populations in check before. …  So far, government officials are leery of that approach. (more)

It would be nice to think these are rare exceptions that prove the rule, but I fear such large differences between what we say the law does, and what it actually does, are common.  It seems there are many laws we have little intention of enforcing, and others we intend to enforce even if the consequences are dire.

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  • Timothy Brownawell

    From the discussions I’ve seen, what’s in that Wikileaks video was a lot less indiscriminate than Wikileaks’ extreme editorializing presented it as.

    • burger flipper

      this is correct. the people initially fired upon did have AK’s and an RPG. However I was quite shocked to see them fire upon the van of people who came to assist

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      It looked to me like the first group carried only cameras.

      • John

        The commentary here is pretty bad, but look at the screenshots:

        http://mypetjawa.mu.nu/archives/201878.php

        Here’s good commentary but with no pictures:

        http://blog.ajmartinez.com/2010/04/05/wikileaks-collateral-murder/

      • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10546265581296919974 Rob

        >> [T]he video and accompanying audio make clear that the soldiers in the helicopter said they spotted “weapons” among those in the group — later identified by an army investigator as an AK-47 and an RPG — and that they mistook two cameras with telephoto lenses as weapons as well. <<
        Source

      • kodos96

        The RPG is debatable, but the AK’s are unmistakable.

        Doesn’t excuse shooting up the van though.

    • ad

      I think that the video mostly shows why the police generally prefer to patrol cities from cars rather than from attack helicopters.

      But you can’t always get what you want in mid-war.

      Without context, you cannot really judge anything from the video.

      On the other hand, the commentry suggests to me that WikiLeaks might want to rename itself WikiAgitProp.

  • Vladimir M.

    Robin Hanson:

    It seems there are many laws we have little intention of enforcing, and others we intend to enforce even if the consequences are dire.

    I’d think that’d be pretty obvious. For a more systematic argument along these lines about the U.S. federal law, see “You’re (Probably) a Federal Criminal” by Alex Kozinski and Misha Tseytlin:

    Unbeknowst to most people… [v]iolations [of criminal law] are so common that any attempt to go after all criminals would sweep up untold millions of people. While Americans vote for politicians who pass laws that make most people criminals, they also support harshly punishing and socially ostracizing those convicted of crimes. In sum, most people think of criminals as bad people, who deserve punishment, while not realizing that they are criminals themselves. […] Since most people have committed at least one crime carrying serious consequences, police and prosecutors choose who’ll actually suffer for their crimes. Under the best circumstances, most targets will be unlucky schmoes who happen to catch the authorities’ attention or people the prosecutors or the public think are particularly “bad.”

    You’d think that’s some crazed fringe libertarian writing, but Kozinski is the current Chief Judge of the U.S. federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. To the best of my knowledge, the article is not a satire.

  • burger flipper

    my favorite is the cop who was convinced he was short changed at Wendy’s:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VY9wbP_zZkI

  • tom

    I keep forgetting what the plural of anecdote is.

    These public safety-type issues do not fit well into the framework you’re trying out in this post and the previous one. You are saying that ‘rule bending’ is a tool of the connected and powerful against those who are not connected or powerful. That betrays your superficial interest in these topics. With no background on the ‘collateral murder’ situation, no knowledge of whether they were or were not following their rules of engagement, and no knowledge of whether the rules of engagement are generally considered too restrictive or too permissive, you still want to make this into a simple item on an abuse of authority list?

    Most ‘public-safety’ rule bending represents a very awkward accomodation between the connected and powerful who create the rules without thinking about whether they can be followed, and the less connected and powerful who have to work with those rules. Are there big problems with cops and soldiers who abuse the power they have? Absolutely. Do the remedies risk making the police and soldiers incapable of doing the jobs most of us want them to do? Absolutely. (I wonder what it would be like if we put video cameras in every professor’s classroom and office to have a record to help the school deal with the dangers of sexual harassment and hostile environments. It’s an obvious way to eliminate very real problems.)

    The struggle between rulemakers and police/soldiers isn’t new or surprising; it’s in the plot of every Dirty Harry movie and every rogue soldier or bad cop movie; it’s every argument over the exclusionary rule or Miranda. It’s every comic book that wonders who will watch the watchers. And the solutions aren’t necessarily to give police and soliders more powers than they have today.

    But your focus is misplaced. It is not true that “If you publicly oppose such rules, e.g., by proposing independent corruption police, you signal that you are not as well-connected, clever, etc., as others, and you risk retaliation from those who now benefit.” Many of the people who have proposed and enacted those rules over police departments and the military, are the powerful and clever ones, and they often have no idea what they are doing. Rule-bending is often a response by the lower-class police and soldiers to the unrealistic rules of the elite. It’s very hard to eliminate the bad rule-bending without eliminating the good.

    I just read a column today in the Washington Examiner that said even 1 bike death in a year in DC was too much. Reading it, I was thinking that an economist like you would respond “well, that depends”. You should apply the same clearheadedness here.

    All that said, in response to the 7th item on your list, I would very much like to see what would happen if they reintroduced cougars to MD/DC/NoVA.

    • Vladimir M.

      tom:

      Many of the people who have proposed and enacted those rules over police departments and the military, are the powerful and clever ones, and they often have no idea what they are doing. Rule-bending is often a response by the lower-class police and soldiers to the unrealistic rules of the elite. It’s very hard to eliminate the bad rule-bending without eliminating the good.

      This is true, but it should be noted that another important factor are the inconsistent preferences of the public opinion.

      People nowadays strongly support the general principle that everyone should be treated with the exact same procedure by the government agents, including the police, regardless of the informal norms, customs, and habits that serve as the standard for normal and decent behavior in the society otherwise. As a result, this standard is promoted by education and enforced with numerous legal and professional rules. However, in order to adhere to this standard in practice, the cops have to treat everyone the same way they treat the most suspicious and potentially dangerous men they ever encounter, since it would obviously be dangerous to adjust standards in the other direction.

      This necessarily leads to results like Robin’s example #3. Pregnant women, harmless kids, old ladies, etc. will get the same treatment as truly intimidating and threatening men if they engage in petty misbehavior in front of cops. When people hear such a story, they forget about the general principle of procedural equality and react with the natural outrage they’d feel for any man who brutalizes a pregnant woman, no matter what the pretext. Yet, they don’t realize that in order to uphold the principle of procedural equality, the cops must not make any difference at all between an irate pregnant lady and a burly goon with prison tattoos who’s acting threatening and dangerous. So the former gets the standard treatment designed for subduing the latter with minimal risk.

      I suppose (though I’m not sure) this could be framed in near/far mode terms. In the far mode, people strongly support procedural equality, but they feel outraged when some of its direct and necessary consequences are played in front of their eyes under near-mode scrutiny.

  • Nithya

    Perhaps the laws and rules that govern these situations are not so strange as the the interpretations of those laws by people without the inclination to observe them or understand their nuances. One would think that education is the link between those drafting the laws and those enforcing them but I agree that this gap is vast.

    The peculiar thing is that while there are already laws in place for punishing those who misuse their powers in applying (or perhaps under the guise of applying) such laws, public focus on such instances often seem to result in more laws rather than punishment of the crime.

  • Greg Conen

    “House M.D. and Grey’s Anatomy … He watched a total of 46 episodes from the two series and tallied up bioethical and professional breaches.”

    At least for House, isn’t the fact that the title character is an unethical jerk part of the premise?

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