The Law: Not a Matter of Right, Wrong

Police Confiscating a Car

A typical scene resulting from New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's policy of confiscating the cars of those arrested on charges of driving drunk,.
A typical scene resulting from New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's policy of confiscating the cars of those arrested on charges of driving drunk,.

Putting a john Under Arrest

A john is arrested in a South Salt Lake Police Department prostitution sting on State Street.
A john is arrested in a South Salt Lake Police Department prostitution sting on State Street. | Source

New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's new policy of "drive drunk, lose your car" is making the New York Civil Liberties Union downright woozy.

Giuliani's policy, the subject of a legal challenge by the CLU, is only another example of something that's become far more common in the United States than we might have hoped: Taking the easy way out!

In Norwalk (Connecticut) and throughout the state, we've done virtually the same thing. State Rep. Alex Knopp, D-Norwalk, championed legislation that enables police to confiscate the automobiles of johns accused of soliciting prostitutes.

And for years now federal and state governments have been confiscating cars, homes and other assets of people charged with drug dealing -- all this with court approval.

Legal only by default

Insofar as these egregious practices have not been judged to be unconstitutional by the courts, they are legal. The problem is they shouldn't be! Although it does so rarely, the Supreme Court can change its collective mind. I hope and trust that, eventually, it will do so.

There's no doubt that Giuliani and Knopp and other supporters of these laws are trying to do what's right about these nagging and, often, serious problems.

No one endorses drunken driving, and few approve of lowlifes roaming city streets in search of prostitutes. But shooting an ant with an elephant gun is rarely good policy.

It is shortsighted and never wise to ignore or, worse, trample over anyone's rights even when we're convinced it's the better of two evils. Rights are always difficult to come by, but easy to lose. Once lost, a right, or privilege, is unlikely to be recovered.

Justice Can't Be Guaranteed

Those two issues illustrate my belief that many people are confused about the distinction between law and justice. While presidents, governors, mayors and legislators all surely hope that laws they support and help enact make justice easier to achieve, the reality is that achieving it is rarely that easy. Passing laws, alone, cannot guarantee justice.

That's why our country's founders added the Bill of Rights to our Constitution.

When we think we've come up with an easy solution to a complex problem -- like drunken driving or prostitution -- we'd be wise to take a close look at all of its implications before setting them in stone.

Red Flags Raised

Almost daily as I read newspaper stories, or see television reports, relating to criminal or legislative proceedings, I see lots of reports that raise red flags to me. Here's just three:

  • When judges use "discretion" to pressure defendants to do something other than a specific sentence (,i.e., anything from carrying a sign that says, "I'm a bad driver" to trading jail time for castration in rape cases.) This is a potentially good idea gone awry!
  • When offenders are forced to pay the cost of investigations into their indiscretions (Newt Gingrich comes to mind.) This is a bad idea!
  • When legal activities are turned into government fundraisers (,i.e., cities or companies are forced to pay "punitive" fines that go well beyond what's reasonable.) That's legal extortion!

Of course we're always required to do what's legal, but shouldn't we also do what's right?

I wrote this column as a "My View" for The Hour newspaper of Norwalk, Conn., on April 24, 1999. I now write my views on a wide variety of topics on HubPages. To view my HubPages Profile Click Here

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Comments 16 comments

Chef Jeff profile image

Chef Jeff 8 years ago from Universe, Milky Way, Outer Arm, Sol, Earth, Western Hemisphere, North America, Illinois, Chicago.

Excellent hub, William - As I have often said justice and law may be two very different things. Once it was legal to own another human being in bonds of slavery or inderntured servitude, but now it is not legal. Was it ever just? In my opinion, no, it never was just no matter what the laws might have allowed.

You bring up some excellent points here, most of which have quietly gone over our heads over the years. It never ceases to amaze me how much we Americans thump our chests and scream about our freedom and it's being eroded right under our noses.

Liberties are born in chaos and revolution, but die in silence. (Chef Jeff)

This is the way the world ends - not with a bang but a whimper. (T.S. Eliot)


Bob 8 years ago

Bill... Driving a vehicle is not a right, it's a priverlige that can be revoked. If the ACLU is against this policy , you know it's got to be a GREAT POLICY.


William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y. Author

Justice and law are often two different things, Chef Jeff. No doubt about that. I very much appreciate your insightful comments. Thanks.


William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y. Author

The ACLU, as usual, is on the right side of this issue, Bob. They're are trying to defend us against the power of a government gone awry. While driving is a "privilege," my position here does not address the issue of driving a vehicle, rather, my objection is to government going "one step beyond" by confiscating property on the flimsy excuse that it's being used in the commission of a crime. Under that philosophy, I know a lot of large corporations that should be confiscated (after their CEOs are imprisoned.)


compu-smart profile image

compu-smart 8 years ago from London UK

I quite like the idea of losing your car for DWI! I would guarantee, that this will bring the dwi stats down!!

If the law was much harder when i was younger and the possible consequences would have been more than just a slap , i would have been a much more well behaved individual!


Chef Jeff profile image

Chef Jeff 8 years ago from Universe, Milky Way, Outer Arm, Sol, Earth, Western Hemisphere, North America, Illinois, Chicago.

compu-smart, while I understand the rage against drunk drivers, I believe it is a slippery slope argument that if the government is allowed to confiscate your car for a DWI, then they will try to get the laws changed to allow confiscate other property for reasons that seem "good" to us.

Allowing any government agency to confiscate property and then resell it smacks of taxation by another name, and it still smells the same.  Believe me, once the government finds a way to generate income, it become extremely difficult to take that power away. 

After all, why was income tax first proposed?  As an emergency measure, and only on those who could most afford it.  Now look at the quagmire system the IRS has brought about.

As my doctor used to warn me, "Be wary of the cure for many times it is much more painful than the symptoms".


William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y. Author

Capital punishment would work, too, compu-smart! The problem is that the punishment should fit the crime. It's another of example of government officials "taking the easy way out" rather than taking sensible, measured action that will help solve the problem on a long term basis. I also know that they've confiscated cars from youngsters who were using their fathers' cars, therefore punishing the father, not the son. Most violators think they'll never get caught, and therefore the threat of taking their cars is not very effective. Police love to have fancy, expensive cars confiscated because they eventually get to use them.


compu-smart profile image

compu-smart 8 years ago from London UK

What you say is true, chef jeff and William, but my point was only that, for me and others, confiscating cars is something that would have worked.


ColdWarBaby 8 years ago

This is the trend that has continued and grown into the police state we now occupy. Government increasingly exists not to serve the people, which is the reason for its creation in the first place, but to punish to the maximum any who do not comply and, not infrequently, those who do.

Bob, driving a vehicle with an internal combustion engine is a privilege that should no longer be granted to ANYONE.

Good Hub.


William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y. Author

I haven't entirely given up hope yet, ColdWarBaby, that the trend can be reversed. If not, we're all in very big trouble. Maybe, just maybe, the November elections will be a turning point.


talented_ink profile image

talented_ink 8 years ago from USA

I find this hub to be interesting because I can agree that the government should not be an omnipotent and omnipresent force, but just how much slack does the average degenerate or lawbreaker deserve? I'm a fan of change, but most importantly, I'm a fan of reform. The "drive drunk, lose your car" policy is meant to make people think twice about driving drunk to avoid the penalty of losing their car. The problem with this is the same problem with capital punishment. The offender either feels that they won't get caught and/or they don't care about the consequences that they'll face. In the case of the drunken driver, there may be many cases that can be resolved with AA and other counseling, but there will also be those who will have their car taken and simply use someone else's car to continue their reckless joyriding. These are the people that I often wonder what we can do about. Good hub!


ColdWarBaby 8 years ago

People are molded as much by their environment as by their genetic coding. As long as we allow ourselves and our children, especially our children, to be constantly inundated by ever more pervasive and subliminal “advertising” we will produce ever more individuals who will be criminalized for trying to attain the image they have been sold. Many are convinced by commercial advertising that the only way they can gain worth as a human being is through the acquisition of things which will provide them with an identity. If they are not able to obtain these things legally, for whatever reason, they will resort to other means. The stress of attempting to reach the unrealistic goals set by the images of TV personalities and the advertising they endorse will drive many young people to drugs and other forms of escapism.


William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y. Author

Thank you, talented_ink for your thoughtful comment. I believe it is critically important that laws be fair to all citizens, and be relative to the crime committed. For instance, the use of car has nothing to do with the crime of soliciting a prostitute. Under the "lose your car" theory you could confiscate a suspect's bank account or stock holdings just as well (and, remember, this is merely a "suspect." Capital punishment is abominable law for many reasons, but there's no question that it is in no way a deterrent to others -- in fact, just the opposite is true. Violence begets violence. The sensible punishment for any crime, after conviction at a fair trial, is a set prison sentence commensurable with the crime -- nothing more, nothing less. If we, as a civilization, looked more closely at this issue, we just might be able to come up with a better, more sensible solution.


William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y. Author

You've touched directly on the problem, ColdWarBaby, and the solution. People of every class, race, religion, economic status, gender, physical condition, age, sexual orientation, birthplace or place of residence -- in short all people -- must be treated fairly and equally under the law. Our society has a long way to go in granting every citizen proper respect.


Eiddwen profile image

Eiddwen 5 years ago from Wales

A great hub and thanks for sharing.

Take care and have a great day.

Eiddwen.


William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 5 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y. Author

Thank you, Eiddwen. Best regards.

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