Opinion » Ted Rall


Why should anyone respect our laws?


NEW YORK--"I'd like to see [Mexican president] Vicente Fox tell his people to respect the law and come here legally," says a founder of the Minuteman border vigilante group. Like many sound bytes, it sounds reasonable unless you think about it.

And yet, as an American citizen, born to this land just a few miles from Bunker Hill and raised in our great suburban heartland of the Midwest, I cannot shy away from the obvious question: Why should anyone, American or Mexican or even Lithuanian, respect our idiotic laws?

Our legal system has become so unworkable, inconsistent and obsessed with persecuting those deemed guilty of trivial infractions while letting real criminals go free, that it defies logic and common sense. Case in point: revenue-enhancement speed traps have gotten so out of control that there's a Web site devoted to them. The police chief of Eolia, Missouri--one of the many notorious listings at speedtrap.org--denies that his $67.50 fines for driving 1 mph over the posted limit is excessive. "Safety--it's a big thing with me," says Jerry Sutton. "I would hate to see one child or pedestrian get hurt in any way."

The Blessed Children of Rural Missouri appear to be in good hands. Due east from Eolia is the 55 mph-to-35 mph mass ticketing hell of Curryville, where cash raised from traffic violations accounted for over half the town budget in 2004. "Traffic used to be heavy on weekends," a convenience store owner told the Associated Press, "but now drivers bypass the town."

Like most Americans, I could write a book about cops gone wild. A car tailed me for miles down a dark country road at three in the morning on Long Island. Fearing a "Silkwood" scenario, I tried to shake him by speeding up. Flashers came on; it was a police officer out to spook people into speeding. Then there was the Nevada state trooper who wrote me up for doing 100 in a 70 mph zone. I was going 80. I was so angry about the $400 fine that I flew back to central Nevada to contest the ticket. (I won.) My favorite was the Manhattan traffic cop who stood in the middle of the right lane on Madison Avenue and motioned me to turn right. You guessed it: He wrote me a ticket for making an illegal right-hand turn.

If I become president, my second act will be to issue national standards for parking laws and signs. (The first will be to nationalize the oil companies.) If a sign next to a parking meter says "1-Hour Parking," its meaning should be obvious--but currently it isn't. In New York, it indicates that you have to keep refilling the meter every hour. In Washington, however, you have to move after an hour no matter how many quarters you have. Brookline, Massachusetts, has plenty of free parking spots on the street overnight, but don't be tempted to use one--tiny signs at entry points to this Boston suburb are the only warning that street parking is permitted only diurnally.

Motorists aren't the only victims of capricious law enforcement. Until recently, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission dispatched its agents to randomly test people for public drunkenness in, of all places, bars. TABC agents enforcing "Operation Last Call" arrested 1,740 people they judged to be "drunk to the point they are stumbling, clumsy or slurring words" because they might have tried to drive home drunk. Corporate CEOs are looting their companies' pension plans, plunging millions of elderly Americans into impoverished retirement. The government does nothing. Actual drunk drivers maim and kill pedestrians, bicyclists and other motorists and drive away from the courthouse, their licenses unrevoked. Our politicians listen to our phone calls, authorize torture and lie to con us into war. No one holds them accountable. Kato off your neighbor's wi-fi, however, and you're in big trouble. (I define the verb "to kato," named after O.J. Simpson's famous roommate Kato Kaelin, as meaning "to take advantage of, particularly in a lackadaisical style that evokes slackerdom.")

In January, David M. Kauchak, 32, was sitting in his parked car using a laptop computer. A Winnebago County, Illinois, police officer arrested Kauchak for "piggybacking" off someone's unsecured wireless connection to access the Internet. "We just want to get the word out that it is a crime," Assistant State's Attorney Tom Wartowski told the Rockford Register-Star. "We are prosecuting it, and people need to take precautions." Computer users everywhere rest easier with the knowledge that the nefarious Kauchak has been apprehended, fined $250 and sentenced to a year's court supervision for his misdeed.

It's one thing to request, as have the Minuteman project and our Republican Congress, that the millions of Mexicans who cross our southern border each year learn to speak English. Demanding that they respect our ridiculous laws, enforced by insipid enforcement agents of greedy municipalities, is asking too much.