Editorial: Not Playing by the Rules, Not Making Sense

David Borden, Executive Director, 7/14/06

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David Borden
Call me old fashioned, but I like it when rule-makers play by the rules. I like it when the law corresponds to reality, both in wording and interpretation. I like it when laws make sense.

I don't like it when legislators thumb their noses at their constitutions to enact laws they know don't pass muster. Unpopular Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski's marijuana re-criminalization bill, partially struck down by a Superior Court judge this week based on the state Supreme Court's standing word, is a good example. The bill signed by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to change California's initiative-enshrined treatment-not-jail law in ways that contradict the voters' choice is another.

As worrisome as methamphetamine recipes floating around the Internet may be for some, the bill signed by Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm aiming at those almost certainly flouts the First Amendment. Are they going to sue publishers of online, academic chemistry texts that happen to include information on this legally-prescribable schedule II substance?

I don't like "legal fictions" -- definitions in the law that have to then be dealt with as if they were real when in fact they're not. The much criticized asset forfeiture laws, in many of which a mere object is the entity that gets accused of the crime (allowing the government to take property from innocent owners) rely on that fiction for their justification. Another such fiction is laws in 21 states, including another from Michigan, that categorically equate certain drug activity with child abuse -- whether a child was actually abused or not.

It's important to remember that child abuse laws are already on the books -- if a child is getting abused, some form of intervention by the law to address the situation is appropriate. But if a parent, for example, takes some methamphetamine while at home in order to stay up late to meet a critical work deadline, but without acting aggressively or neglecting the family's needs, how is that child abuse? Many people take meth or similar drugs on prescription from their doctors for very similar purposes. Doing so without a prescription is illegal, and can certainly be disconcerting. Some meth users do become unstable or violent. But are the two situations really so very different -- inherently, by definition -- for the latter to qualify as child abuse, even if no actual abusive acts ever take place?

Even when meth is being manufactured, it's fictional to equate it with abuse categorically, the legitimate dangers of meth manufacturing notwithstanding. If chemicals are being handled in a way that subjects children to harm qualifying as abuse, and if it's done intentionally or with clear, willful recklessness, then it doesn't matter whether it's meth or another drug or the stuff in those bottles underneath your kitchen sink, it's still abuse (or perhaps endangerment). But the fact that it's a drug being manufactured is purely incidental.

It's not legal hair-splitting to say that, because applying the label of "child abuse" creates an appearance that the accused is a monster who probably belongs in jail and almost certainly shouldn't be entrusted with children. But that may not at all be the case; the user may be a responsible user who takes perfectly good care of the kids. The user may be addicted and need help, but never raise a hand against a son or daughter or place them in danger. Even the dealer or manufacturer may only be trying to get by in difficult economic circumstances -- the illegal activity may be what one is doing in order to provide better for the children. That's a sad circumstance, but it's a circumstance faced by many. Disconcerting, yes, but child abuse?

The most offensive thing about the California development is that it was a coalition of law enforcement groups and drug court judges who pressed for the bill. They don't like the restrictions Prop 36 put on them. But so what? They have the right to field their own counter-initiative (with private money, of course), if they think they could win it. They lost pretty badly the first time. But the voters spoke, and the state constitution says that counts.

I don't think our law enforcers -- judges, of all people -- should disrespect the constitutions whose tenets are intended to stand over and bind them. Though they claim to hold law in reverence, in this they have trampled it. Call me old fashioned, but I don't think that's good for our country.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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