A Cop Responds
A police officer responds to Eric Peters on the arbitrariness of traffic law enforcement.
The following letter was received in response to my recent article about the arbitrariness of speed limits (The Speed Limit Cargo Cult; see here). The author is a deputy sheriff, currently active. He disagrees with the article and wrote the following detailed “reasons why.” He asked that I print his comments in their entirety, which I am happy to do. He also asked for my responses to the questions he asks, and I will honor that request as well. I encourage readers to respond to my comments as well as the deputy’s.
I am a deputy with the Sheriff’s Office in a midwestern state and occasionally read your articles. I recently read your article that argued that speed limits are not necessary.
I consider myself a libertarian, but not an anarchist. Traffic enforcement has been one of my duties for 14 years and I am more enthusiastic about it than most cops. I believe most cops do not like to write tickets, and although I don’t like writing tickets either, I believe it is necessary. I believe that in the absence of traffic laws, some people would drive very dangerously, not realizing the consequences of their actions until after they were involved in an accident. Just as with criminal law, there are unscrupulous people that would take advantage of a WROL scenario – think Katrina.
My reply: First a clarification. I did not argue that speed limits are unnecessary; I argued that enforcement of typically arbitrary speed limits absent some other objective factor indicative of dangerous driving (such as loss of control, striking another vehicle, etc.) is unjust. Merely driving faster than a number posted on a sign is no more necessarily dangerous than not coming to a complete stop at a stop sign when it is clear there is no oncoming traffic and thus it’s safe (though illegal) to proceed. What I object to is totemic worship of statutes as opposed to dealing with people who’ve actually caused harm.
More broadly, generalizations cannot justify committing aggression against individuals. If I wrote that it’s acceptable to treat all blacks as presumptively criminal because a large number (percentage relative to population as well as in real terms) are criminals, you’d (hopefully) see this as unjust. The same applies to “speeding” – which is by no means the same thing as “driving dangerously.” As I wrote in the article, inattentive/unskilled drivers operating at or below the posted limit may be far more likely to lose control of their vehicle or strike another vehicle (or pedestrian) than the “speeding” but alert and skilled driver. Punishing the latter simply because he “broke the law” strikes me as unfair on its face. Certainly at odds with the Libertarian position that in order for there to be a crime (properly speaking, in terms of right vs. wrong) there must be a victim. A real person actually harmed. No victim – no crime.
Restraint – and punishment – based on hypotheticals (i.e., “someone” might) is dangerous because it is in principle unlimited. There is almost no human action which is free from risk, which could conceivably result in harm for any of a variety reasons (and not necessarily due to any willful negligence or recklessness). We now have a society much like the former East Germany or the old Soviet Union, in which people are stopped and searched at random and without any individualized probable cause. In which little children and the elderly are subjected to invasive violations of their most intimate areas by costumed strangers. And why? Because “someone” might be a “terrorist.” The same principle at work.
I have come to believe that traffic enforcement is necessary and by my estimate, approximately 1 in 10 drivers don’t deserve to be on the road. As a libertarian and a believer in smaller, less-intrusive government, I have been searching for the argument why I should not enforce traffic laws, so I read your most recent article with interest. I am still not convinced.
My reply: I understand that you believe it is necessary; that does not mean it is necessary. Libertarians do not believe in committing aggression against peaceful people who’ve caused no harm to anyone. Yet that is what you’re doing when you enforce a law because “it’s the law” – and not because the action at issue has caused a tangible harm to any person. Who, for instance, have I harmed by ignoring a “no right on red” law – assuming I make my turn with due caution, having slowed/stopped and ascertained no cross-traffic was present? No one. And yet, this is not a viable legal defense. If I am ticketed, the judge will state: The law is the law.
“Speeding” – as such – is nothing more than exceeding an arbitrary velocity decreed to be the legal maximum. Most posted limits do not represent the maximum safe speed on that road for all drivers under all conditions. In fact, the posted limit is usually well below the average flow of traffic – in technical terms, below the 85th percentile speed, which is supposed to be the basis for establishing speed limits but which is rarely adhered to. If it were adhered to, most highway speed limits (where the limit is currently 70 and most traffic is operating at least that fast) would be 80-85.
I’m sure you speed routinely, as virtually everyone does. Like Prohibition, we all know it’s a con. Many cops will openly admit this. They know they are being made to collect taxes via tickets. It’s degrading to them – and it’s unjust to us.
I noted that many of the comments posted to your article had people that said they did not want motorists speeding in residential areas where kids might be playing. I agree with this argument as well. I give more latitude on highways, as much as 15-20 mph above the limit depending on the area. Be warned that most cops will write tickets at 10mph above the speed limit, regardless of the area.
My reply: Two things here. First, the assumption that posting limits will deter the willfully reckless – which is akin to arguing that laws prohibiting civilian ownership of firearms deters crime. There are laws on the books prohibiting all sorts of things, yet these offenses continue to be committed.
Second, the assumption that there is a “right” speed – and it must be obeyed, period.
If 25 is “safe” does it not follow that 15 would be even “safer”? And can it be objectively proved that either speed is necessarily unsafe for everyone?
And if not, how can you justify punishment?
Driver A (not the greatest wheelman, with poor vision and reflexes) might be a real hazard at 15. Driver B (excellent reflexes, well-trained, alert) might be in more control of his vehicle – more able to avoid the proverbial kid running into the road – at 35 MPH than Driver A at 15 MPH. Why must Driver B be punished because Driver A (as a “type”) might be unable to handle his car safely at a given speed? As I asked in my article, why must there be a one-size-fits-all standard when we could instead hold individual people accountable for what they do – and not treat them as if they’d done what others have done (or “might”) do?
Again, we get to this business of punishing people for running afoul of decrees – not because they’ve actually harmed anyone. The former principle results inevitably in a police state; the latter in a free, tolerant society that only holds people accountable when they’ve harmed someone else (or their property). Which society would you rather live in?
Finally, you’ve admitted to anointing yourself arbiter of “appropriate” speed. Not enforcing “the law” – but being “the law” yourself. According to what you feel is right. You feel that, in some cases, 15-20 over is ok. What if I feel differently? Which of us is right? Of course, you can enforce your feelings at gunpoint. I cannot (and would not).
I mean no offense, but what gives you the right to be The Decider? The fact that you admit to not always enforcing the speed limit is pretty compelling proof that you know at least sometimes, “the law” is BS.
I also believe that the attentive driver will be able to avoid “speed traps” by continuously scanning the road and sides of the road for potential dangers/problems. When I see a driver that is speeding, but they also immediately see me and slow down before I can clock their speed, I don’t worry about stopping them because I know if they are paying enough attention to see me, they will also see the child that runs in front of their car chasing a ball.
My reply: This is neither here nor there as regards the rightness of “speed traps.” You are saying, basically, that your subjective judgment (and “the law”) is what justifies stopping a motorist at gunpoint and hitting them with a financial penalty. I don’t see the logic of this – assuming the Libertarian premise of not committing an act of aggression against a person who has done no harm to anyone. The “child running in front of their car” is a hypothetical designed to evoke an emotional, not rational response. What if there is no child? What if the child runs out in front of the driver doing the speed limit (who assumes this is the “safe” speed and so isn’t paying as much attention to his driving as perhaps he should have?) and hits the child regardless?
I also give more latitude to driving enthusiasts, such as yourself, who are driving well-maintained vehicles and are aware of the environment they drive in. I am glad that you pay close attention to your driving but I can assure you that a significant number of motorists do not. These are the motorists that need to be told exactly how fast they can drive, etc. I’ve had motorists pass me in no-passing zones, over the speed limit, while I am in a marked patrol unit. Yes, there really are people that stupid!
My reply: But “the law” does not recognize such distinctions, even if you personally do. And what tends to encourage better driving? Expecting drivers to drive responsibly – and holding them accountable when they, as individuals, do not (as evidenced by having caused harm)… or laws that presume incompetence (even when there is no evidence to support such a contention in the case of specific individuals; i.e., they merely violated “the law”) and thus tend to dumb down the driving population? I am all for getting the bad drivers out of circulation (people who are incapable of controlling their vehicle at any speed) but this is not to be accomplished by punishing the good drivers whose driving cannot be faulted (except that they may be “speeding” or violated some other arbitrary law).
For the record, I subscribe to almost all libertarian views. I believe in the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I don’t believe in no-knock, swat team raids on residences, drug laws, etc. I don’t ask to search people’s cars unless I think they have been involved in a crime. I don’t ask people their business, such as where they are going, unless I am trying to determine if they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. I believe I am a public servant and I have to answer to the public. I can assure you that I receive numerous requests for speed enforcement in neighborhoods where people live. Nobody wants cars driving fast where they live. I know I don’t want an out-of-control car driving through my living room either.
My reply: Do you refuse to man random “safety” checkpoints? Have you ever participated in enforcement actions against any non-violent “drug” user? Do you insist that people “buckle up” for “safety”? Please be honest. My object is not to insult you. It is to get you to confront the reality that a great deal of the work you do is anathema to the Bill of Rights, let alone Libertarian notions of self-ownership and non-aggression. I don’t doubt that you receive numerous requests for speed enforcement. Those requests do not mean it is right to enforce. Just as the fact that some people think it’s ok to cage people for consuming various arbitrarily illegal “drugs” and actively support caging them doesn’t make it right to cage them.
You posit the “out of control car” straw man argument. It is of a piece with cries over “dangerous guns.” That is, because it is possible a few reckless/criminals will behave recklessly/criminally, no one (except, of course, those employed by the government) can be trusted to not behave recklessly/criminally. If you think about this some, hopefully you’ll come to see it’s as silly as it is unfair.
I have also read some of your articles in which you bash law enforcement officers. Most people that I work with in law enforcement are good people. Unfortunately, most of the good officers I work with don’t put a lot of thought into what they do. If a law is on the books, they enforce it without regard to our Constitution or Bill of Rights. I admit there are also bad officers that like to dominate the public. These are the sociopaths that enjoy making other people miserable. Believe me it is no fun working for them when they become supervisors either! They comprise about 10 percent of law enforcement and they make a bad name for the rest of us.
My reply: See my points earlier about the increasing frequency of grotesque abuse of power by police; no worse than that. Because it’s not “abuse of power.” The government has conferred legal authority upon cops to abuse people – and many cops are doing just that. I deal with this subject at greater length here – and hope you’ll take a few moment to look it over.
Mr. Peters, I would be thrilled if you would print my email response in its entirety along with your response. I’m particularly interested in your response to my comparison of anarchy on the public road to without-rule-of-law situations in which criminals take advantage of the weak when law enforcement is not around.
Bear in mind, in re your last point, that the courts have openly stated that police have no specific obligation to protect any individual citizen. They are to enforce the law. That is their job. You may have heard the saying, “When seconds count, a cop is just minutes away.” The fact is most of us, if ever confronted by a violent thug, will be on our own – with cops showing up afterward to do the paperwork and perhaps pursue the suspect.
Final thought: I personally support peace keeping; i.e., holding accountable those who commit acts of aggression against others. I do not support anything that entails committing acts of aggression against peaceful people who’ve not committed any act of aggression to warrant defensive violence.
Hence, I am opposed to most of what goes under the name of “law enforcement” in America these days. We no longer live in a free country.
And that is a tragedy.
Now, let the comments flow!
Throw it in the Woods?