Taking Stock of Reactionary Laws

This column is about “reactionary laws” – not laws that are a part of some right-wing conspiracy, but laws that are enacted as a reaction to shocking news stories. The message to those whose common response to outrageous behavior is “there should be a law” is – be careful what you wish for.

In response to reports of abusive parents who starved and locked their children in closets or intentionally inflicted cigarette burns, we now have laws protecting children. But the laws may be interpreted to remove children from their home because the parents spanked them or even yelled at them.

Because we wanted to protect children from public embarrassment, confidentiality laws were passed to prevent disclosures in children’s court cases of alleged child abuse. The result is that errors made by social workers and abuses done to children who are supposed to be given protection are seldom reported. The confidentiality laws do far more to protect the improper and negligent conduct of those paid by the government than they do to protect children.

The public reacted to stories of men severely beating women. The result is a series of laws against domestic violence.

However, current law interprets domestic violence to include such things as pushing someone away who is screaming in your face or even just holding them back. Under existing law any restraint of a person, even for their own protection, may be considered domestic violence.

Because of our concern about terrorists we have laws against terrorist threats. In actual practice, these laws are almost always applied to family and personal arguments. A person could be charged with making a terrorist threat because they shook their finger at the “victim” in a threatening manner. The “victim” could even be a former boyfriend or girlfriend who initiated the contact and argument. Bail for such crimes is typically $50,000.

In family law, a conviction on a domestic-violence charge gives legal advantage to the other party in a custody battle. The result is that many domestic violence charges are engineered.

To protect people from rapists, the public demanded laws to require dangerous sexual predators to register as sex offenders after their jail time was completed. Current laws may require one to register as a sex offender because as a college student the person mooned someone and pleaded to indecent exposure. A young man may be required to register as a sex offender because he had sex with a 17-year-old, even if the teenager initiated the sexual encounter.

Often laws are written to increase the penalties based on what conduct was used in the course of the crime. Rape with a foreign object should fall into this category. However, the way our laws are written, a foreign object includes a person’s fingers.

We want to protect our hospitals from terrorist assaults, so there is a law that provides a mandatory five years in prison for having an explosive devise near a hospital. The explosive device could be a large firecracker locked in your trunk, which was left over from a New Year’s celebration.

To get families off of welfare we demand laws to compel parents to pay court-ordered support. Now failure to pay support may automatically result in loss of a person’s driver’s license. Loss of a driver’s license often leads to loss of employment and inability to collect back support. But the law is the law.

We don’t want suspected dangerous criminal roaming the streets. We demand high amounts of bail so the accused will have a difficult time getting released from jail before a trial. In practice, this often means the prosecutor and the court will offer to allow someone out of jail only if they plead guilty or no contest to a charge. If they don’t there will be no release without bail and the person will have to stay in jail until after the trial.

People who were arrested, kept in jail pending a trial and released only after the jury finds them not guilty are not entitled to compensation for their time in jail.

Attorneys are often compelled to have their clients enter a plea even when they believe in their innocence. Our U.S. Constitution prohibits unreasonable bail. Isn’t any bail unreasonable if the prosecutor and the court would release the accused based on a plea bargain?

Next time you find yourself reacting to a crime, catastrophe or other horror story, think twice before you conclude, “there ought to be a law.”