Friday, December 11, 2009

"By and Large", You are Guilty

Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos has announced that her office will no longer file state jail felony charges against anyone caught with trace amounts of illegal drugs. Gary Blankinship, president of the Houston Police Officers' Union criticized the plan:
It ties the hands of the officers who are making crack pipe cases against burglars and thieves. A crack pipe is not used for anything but smoking crack by a crack head. Crack heads, by and large, are also thieves and burglars. They're out there committing crimes.
Mr. Blankenship implies that police officers can't make a case against burglars and thieves, but instead must rely on other offenses to get a conviction. And this raises a more important point.

Since, "by and large", crack heads also commit other crimes, Blankenship concludes that anyone caught with a crack pipe is guilty of other crimes. Possession of a crack pipe, he implies, is evidence of those crimes.

It doesn't take a doctorate in logic to identify the logical fallacy in this argument. What is true "by and large" of a particular group is not necessarily true of each member of that group. For example, while it is true that blacks are more likely to develop sickle cell anemia than other races, it is not true that every black will develop the disease.

Blankenship is proposing a very lazy--and non-rational--approach to law enforcement. He "knows" that anyone caught with a crack pipe is guilty of other crimes. And how does he prove it? He can't, and so he must rely on applying a generalization to each individual. He can't prove that a particular individual committed a burglary, and so he must bust them for some other "crime". (I'm not going to bother addressing the fact that smoking crack should not be a crime--that particular action does not violate anyone's rights.)

It may be true that 99.9% of crack heads commit burglaries (I don't know that this is actually true), but that tells us nothing about a particular individual's guilt. And the purpose of the criminal justice system is to determine guilt based on the facts of the case, not broad generalizations. If general truths about a group are sufficient to charge a particular individual with some crime, we are all in grave danger. Any of us could be hauled off to jail, not because of anything we actually did, but because we happen to belong to some group.

Such an approach allows the arbitrary to become the basis for criminal charges. No evidence is necessary to charge an individual with some offense.

After making her announcement, Lykos met with police officials and decided to study the issue for six months. According to the Chronicle, the police department issued a statement:
Addicts may become so addicted to the drug that they engage in thefts, burglaries, prostitution, and other crimes in an effort to support their habit. By arresting a suspect for a small amount of crack cocaine, HPD may be preventing that suspect from committing a burglary later, for example. [emphasis added]
The same could be said for arresting anyone for anything--if someone is in jail it is very unlikely that he will be committing a burglary later. According to this line of thinking, it is proper to arrest someone to prevent him from later committing a crime. The mere fact that an individual is capable of criminal activity is sufficient cause to throw him in jail.

The purpose of the police force is to protect our rights from those who initiate force against others. This requires a commitment to the actual facts, a devotion to reason, and objectivity. It cannot be based on conjecture, wild assertions, or generalizations. To do otherwise is to subject the citizenry to the whims of those charged with protecting us.

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