Friday, February 29, 2008

Freedom and our Constitution

I have been engaged in a very comprehensive class on our constitution for the past three weeks. It has been very enlightening. Two days a week for two and a half hours each class, we study the origins and meaning of our nation's constitution. I count myself as one of those who knew quite a bit about this document before taking the class but I've really learned a lot. I am also much more attuned to vacuous and inaccurate statements about our nation's origins and form of government from elected officials, judges and politicians. For instance, how often do you hear completely ignorant statements alleging that the US is a Democracy or that the Supreme Court determines the "law of the land"? I used to hear them all the time and not flinch. Now, it's like a punch in the gut!

I recommend everyone spend a day at their local court, watching the proceedings. Watch as your fellow citizens are brought forward and dealt justice by the criminal justice system. See the attention to the rights of the accused, while the system grinds them under its wheels. It is a sad state of affairs, indeed! Think about phrases such as "innocent until proven guilty", "effective counsel" and "a jury of your peers", while watching the spectacle. This exercise should be mandatory for all voters. You might learn some respect for the poor and the cheaply judged in our society.

I had occasion to be in Lapeer's district court the other day and watched the proceedings with a fresh view towards constitutional rights, especially those of the accused, and what I heard and saw was frightening, indeed. Now, I don't mean to say that we don't have crime problems in this country or even in my county of Michigan but the troubles we do have are far less serious endangerments to the public than some of our solutions.

The judge was ruling on the sentence for a young man's second offense drunk driving conviction. The attorney had mentioned that, though it was the judge's routine to give jail time to second offenders, he hoped an exception could be made in the present case. The judge responded by saying that in over twenty-five years he had always given jail time for second offenses. He wanted this known because if the defendant left the court upset at getting jail time, and spoke with others, he would find that there have been no others in his court in similar conditions that haven't also received jail time. He was consistent.

Now, in essence, what the judge was saying is that he doesn't rule on such issues on the basis of the case's individual merits, but rather based upon a preconceived standard that is immutable. If this is the case, why do we need a judge at all. Use a computer database. Plug in the case details and out comes the reliable, consistent sentence. And this man is proud of this policy! His statement reminds of the policy of "zero tolerance", which I equate to "no brainer". Zero tolerance means that in every case, the same result should accrue, regardless of the individual aspects of some potentially very complex cases. Think about this for a second. That judge is saying that over the course of twenty-five years, never has an individual case come before him that did not deserve the sentence of jail time. Not once!

Take also into account the fact that in today's society, for good or ill, a person can be convicted of drunk driving based upon having an alcohol content in their system equivalent to having consumed three beers in an hour. Those are normal, American light lagers, by the way. Now, that might not faze you, but maybe this will. If a person is convicted of two drunk driving offenses-even if they both are reduced to "first offense, impaired driving"-the next time they are charged with any alcohol-related offense, it will be a felony! Even if fifty years have passed between the second offense and the third! No mercy and no tolerance!

Add to these alcohol-related offenses, the new issue of marijuana-related driving offenses and you have a potentially serious new criminal-producing system in Michigan. The new law prescribes "Impaired Driving" and "Driving Under the Influence" charges for people who are pulled over and found to have any level of THC in their system. Of course, the problem with this law is the issue that THC, the intoxicating ingredient in marijuana, can remain in ones system for as long as a month after using marijuana. This means that one may be completely NOT under the influence of the drug, and still test positive for it. The courts will hold you accountable for this violation under the law. If an over-exuberant police force, seriously aggressive towards the local youth population, wants to ruin a young man's life, this law makes it pretty easy to do so, doesn't it? It might be pretty easy to determine the types of kids that are driving around your town, who are more likely than not, marijuana-users. Pull them over and arrest them for suspicion of DUI. Take them down for a blood test and, voila, another dangerous doper off the streets! Never mind the fact that marijuana-influenced drivers are not exactly a public menace these days. Never mind the fact that these kids may not even be under the influence of the drug at the time they are tested. We are talking "ZERO TOLERANCE" laws, here folks.

Later in the day, while I observed the court proceedings, I heard the same judge address a young woman who was there on a hearing for her violation of probation. She had been tested by the probation department upon her arrival at the courthouse that morning and had been found to have alcohol in her system from the night before. This was, apparently her sixth such PV. The judge asked her if she had been drinking the night before with her boyfriend. She said that she had. He asked if they lived together and she answered that they did. He asked if her boyfriend was also in his court for an alcohol-related offense and again, she answered, "Yes". The judge commented that they were perhaps not good for each other and pondered, aloud, whether he should issue a court order that they be separated. Now, if that's not nanny-state behavior, I don't know what is!

This judge was willing to tell this young woman who she could live with! Because they drank alcohol together! Alcohol is still legal in this country, isn't it? Even in Lapeer County? Does it worry you that a judge thinks it is not only his right to tell a person whether they can drink in their own home (a legal act for all adults) but also with whom they can live? Is that freedom?

You don't need to be a constitutional scholar to know that is wrong...

Sunday, February 17, 2008


I was reading an issue of Popular Science, the other day and it included an article about a daring caver and exploration specialist, named Bill Stone. He has a company named Stone Aerospace and has been something of an anachronism for years: that rare combination of reckless egomaniac and prophetic seer that produces men and women who actually change "the world as we know it". I could write all day about the fellow but a simple talk he gave recently says a lot more about him than my words could convey. What I am more interested in is the future of this type of thinking and the benefits of going much more boldly, where man has never gone before, than our current government-dominated thinking allows.

You'll see from Bill's company website that he has put his money where his mouth is, so to speak. You'll also see that he has experienced some success, which in turn, garnered him OPM (other people's money), an essential element for anyone's vision. He has even convinced NASA of spending some government money to fund a few of his more adventurous projects. He is convinced, however, that it is private entrepreneurship which holds the most hope for extraterrestrial exploration. While NASA is stuck on slow, stodgily safe and incrementally planned missions, funded by the government, Stone and his counterparts (like Bert Rutan and Richard Branson) see the necessity to take bold chances to get where we need to be in time for the successes to fuel further explorations. And, yes, it is just as likely that failures will further the process as successes. Bold action is required, though and that is most assuredly not NASA's M.O.

Here's to adventuresome explorers who blaze the trails that produce a future that will ensure, not only the continued flourishing of human endeavors but our very survival!