The Speed Camara Conundrum

Speed cameras are once again in the news as State Senator Jim Brochin wants to curtail their use in inactive construction zones, probably after having read a story in the Baltimore Sun that credited 8,800 tickets to the cameras over a six-week period on three stretches of highway marked as work zones.

As a driver who often struggles to stay within the posted limits, I have no love for devices that promise to surreptitiously expose and punish my bad driving habits. However, as someone who believes in the principle of a society based on the rule of law, I have a difficult time defending my right to evade detection.

Yes, I realize that they’re probably just cash cows for local governments, disguised as traffic safety devices, but if they’re generating a lot of money, that means that there are a lot of scofflaws out there, myself included. If I accept the argument that the ability to evade the law is not a right, if I accept the premise that law enforcement agencies have a responsibility to enforce the law, then I must also find my distaste for the cameras problematic, especially in light of the 12mph “grace zone” granted by the devices.

At the end of the day, to argue against speed cameras is to argue for speeding. Speeding causes accidents by reducing the amount of time a driver has to react to changing situations; speeding makes accidents worse by increasing the velocity of the collision. Therefore, it would be lunacy to be consciously supportive of a behavior that can only be viewed as potentially destructive.

There are positive aspects to speed cameras as well. Speed cameras allow police officers to be somewhere else, doing something more important that hiding in the bushes alongside a highway. It would also stand to reason that they’re also probably conditioning drivers to obey the posted speed limits.

Some call the cameras an unreasonable invasion of privacy, but I don’t buy that. If I’m operating as a government-licensed driver, in my government-licensed vehicle on a government-maintained road, where can be my expectation of privacy? Did I not surrender that when I agreed to be subject to government oversight in exchange for the privilege to operate a motor vehicle publicly?

And what about police cameras aimed at street corners where drug-trafficking is known to exist? If those are a good idea, why not speed cameras?

Conservatives contend that the devices are just a sneaky way for tax-and-spend liberals to take and spend more of our money. Perhaps, but bear in mind that those contributing their money have at their disposal an easy way to opt-out: stop speeding.

Does all this logic make me feel better about speed cameras? No. Do I now welcome a proliferation of cameras everywhere, as a low-cost, convenient way to promote law abidance? Unequivocally not. Am I left feeling more comfortable with an increasingly intrusive government? Quite the contrary.

What I’m left with is that uneasy “Big Brother Is Watching You” feeling, but without any way to protest rationally. I know there’s something in all this that’s not right, but I don’t know what.

And it’s that intellectual impotence that bothers me the most.

The Jury System Should Be Discarded

The right to a trial by a jury of one’s peers has been a foundational right in Western legal tradition for many centuries, and is present both in English Common Law and the United States Constitution. Americans are raised to believe in the iconic (and stereotypical) image of twelve ordinary, reasonably intelligent citizens taking their duty seriously and returning a fair and impartial verdict. We persist in the delusion that twelve individuals of no particular training or experience will interpret and apply the law better than an individual who has spent his life being educated and trained to do just that. This is, I suppose, a byproduct of our narcissistic belief in the “wisdom of the common man.”

12 Angry Men - The 1957 classic that helped create the fantasy jury stereotype.

The reality is that what we end up with, more often than not, are twelve people selected not on the basis of their qualification to stand in judgement of a particular case, but precisely for their lack of qualification and knowledge about the central issues of the case at hand. For example, as potential jurors are being screened by the attorneys, if a citizen admits to being an expert in case-law regarding the key elements of the trial, he or she will be quickly dismissed. On the other hand, should a potential juror admit to being so indifferent to legal issues as to be unaware of even the illegality of the charges against the defendant, this person is considered an excellent candidate for the jury. The more serious the case, the more vigorous will be the search for the perfect juror.

Who is the perfect juror? Lawyers search for jurors who are so dimly aware of, and participate so infrequently in, their society that they have never come into contact with anything that might have provided them with information that they might use to form an intelligent and informed decision. This is because the attorneys want the jurors to only be conscious of information provided to them in court. A perfect juror, in their eyes, is a blank slate who can be effectively swayed by the words of lawyers. It makes no difference that adults who are “blank slates” are in this condition for a reason. So, by the process of negative selection, we arrive at a jury that is populated with individuals who are the least likely to employ complicated, nuanced reasoning when presented with evidence in court.

Having a jury of simple folk may have been workable in an age where the Cotton Gin represented the height of ingenuity, but is simply inadequate in modern times. Much of the physical evidence that jurors are expected to interpret today is highly technical, and many of the terms that will eventually decide guilt or innocence have definitions with multiple layers that require a depth of understanding to apply in real life. If the jury, during deliberations, recognizes this dilemma and asks for clarification or explanation of terms, they are usually told that this assistance would be inappropriate. This leaves them to grope about for a verdict with the same utter ignorance with which they first came to the courtroom. Confused jurors tend to ignore evidence, which favors the defendant (i.e., the O.J. Simpson jury).

The Simpson Jury (sketch by Bill Robles) - The forgettable 1995 reality show that demonstrated one of the major failings of the modern jury system.

Sometimes, jurors attempt to overcome their ignorance by educating themselves on the issues, but even this genuine search for truth is not allowed. In an article in the Baltimore Sun, this new concern about jurors using the internet to gain access to information not presented during the trial is examined. Judges, lawyers and legal experts wring their hands over cases of jurors doing “research” on the case as they attempt to reach a fair verdict. Remember, the perfect juror is clueless and remains completely dependent on their case’s lawyers for information. Curiosity, even in a quest for justice, is not permitted.

Another problem presented by the existence of advanced technology is what legal experts call “The CSI Effect.” This refers to the often unattainable expectations that many jurors have about the quality and breadth of forensic evidence in criminal cases. Many times, these “blank slates” sole knowledge of the judicial system comes from watching television programs where every crime leaves plenty of damning physical evidence, evidence that is scientifically conclusive, indisputable and easily understood by laymen. When prosecutors fail to present evidence that meets these unrealistic expectations, jurors assume that their case is weak and acquit the defendant.

Television and the media in general are responsible for another problem with juries: the celebrity juror syndrome. In high-profile trials, jurors may be oblivious to practical information that they could use to render an intelligent verdict, but they are very aware of the presence of cameras and reporters. Realizing that their willingness to participate in the media frenzy could give them their “fifteen minutes” of fame,  some jurors might begin to weigh the relative value of a particular outcome to their quest for celebrity.

Up to this point, I have been addressing criminal cases only, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention civil juries. We have all read about outrageous monetary penalties levied by juries as the result of lawsuits, and perhaps wondered how such a figure might have been arrived at. This exposes another failure of the jury system: human emotion. In our stereotypical jury, emotion plays no role whatsoever in the verdict; only the evidence and the law are considered. In the real world, when witnesses are hurting, and when testimony is riveting and heartbreaking, juries respond favorably. Once you’ve seen the tears and heard the story, it becomes comparatively easy to punish the cold, impersonal corporation by giving away their money. It also makes you feel good, sort of like Robin Hood. Who wouldn’t want to be Robin Hood?

Having weighed the evidence myself, I am prepared to overturn the dysfunctional jury system and relegate it to the annals of history. I realize, though, that to do this, laws, and sometimes constitutions, would have to be rewritten. Since legislatures are dominated by elected lawyers and lobbyist lawyers, I’m also smart enough to realize that it will never happen. So it goes.

D.C. Sniper John Allen Muhammad is Dead, and I Don’t Feel Any Better

Last night, the state of Virginia executed convicted D.C. sniper John Allen Muhammad. Many commentators had said (as they always do), that this final act was really about “closure” for the victims’ families, and yet, none of those family members admitted to feelings of closure last night, and a few denied it outright. I suspect that the only true instance of closure last night belonged to Muhammed. Yes, I know that he deserved it, but it still made me feel uneasy, and more than a little bit conflicted.

Don’t think that I’m just someone who can’t stomach the death penalty (there are plenty of crimes I think are quite suited for it, especially where children are involved).  I believe that the reason I, like many Americans, feel sympathy for the condemned killers at the time of their execution is more logical. When the crimes are committed, and fresh in our memories, we surge with horror and outrage. We imagine what the last moments of the victims must have been like, and try to empathize with their families. At that moment, our sense of justice cries out for retribution against the perpetrator.

However, the wheels of due process grind very slowly. Gradually, over time, our outrage fades, new crimes replace the old, and we forget the faces of the innocent. At the time of trial, our attention may be regained briefly, but only with a fleeting, passing glance – certainly not with the same intensity as it had been at the time of the crimes. By the time the killer is sentenced to die, our emotional state is approaching something more akin to ambivalence than righteous fury. The process has begun.

The process of emotional dissociation accelerates throughout the ensuing years, as appeals are filed, motions are lost and requests for new trials are denied. Time passes. As the final appeal winds its way toward the Supreme Court, and the date of execution draws closer, the media once again becomes conscious of the story, but the perspective has changed. At this point the stories do not revolve around the horrific nature of the crimes, or the suffering of the victims and their families, but on the condemned’s struggle to survive.

In the final weeks leading up to the execution, we are peppered with professions of innocence, lawyer’s statements that detail the several and serious errors from the original trial and the testimony of credible-sounding people who claim that the convicted person could not possibly have done the thing of which he is accused. We listen, we read, and slowly, imperceptibly, we find our imaginations caught up in the plight of a killer to live just one more month, one more week, one more day.

During the final few days, we become increasingly uncomfortable as it becomes apparent that the condemned is, in fact, doomed to die. We might wonder how one faces the idea that no matter what he does, his life will suddenly end in a now easily quantifiable number of hours. Does he try to stay awake, squeezing out every conscious hour of life that he can? Does he stare at the clock, watching his life inexorably drain away? So much is made of the last meal; how can a man that will be killed in a few hours enjoy anything, much less food? Who could have an appetite at a time like that?

And then, the day arrives. We are busy living lives that have a tomorrow. Still, at moments throughout the day, we may see a clock and quickly do the math: Three hours until he dies. Again we wonder: what is he doing? What is he thinking? Is he keeping his composure? More to the point, could I keep my composure?

The hours pass and we are made aware of a man’s sudden death by a scrolling text at the bottom of a television screen. We consider this for a moment and then return to more immediate concerns, such as whether Daniel will finally get voted off of The Biggest Loser. For us, life goes on, albeit a little more gingerly than before, for a few days anyway, until this death too passes from our conscious memory.

Clearly, it is the buffer of many years’ time that allows our sympathies to be transferred from the victim to the killer. Not that long ago, justice was swift, catching up the convicted while the blood lust of the people was still fully aroused. When the condemned met his fate, there was a sense that balance had been restored; few tears were shed for a person who had done such terrible things, things that had not yet passed from common recall. A primal need for revenge had been satisfied.

I do not long for a return to the days when crime, conviction and consummation all took place within a period of weeks. Justice cannot be accomplished where doubt remains, and my unease is hardly worth mentioning when compared with the need to be absolutely certain of the guilt of the criminal and the guarantee of due process.

I do, however, find myself wondering: Is this what justice is supposed to feel like?

Honestly? I hope not.

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