Out of the Way, Peasants
by Steven Greenhut
Readers have been shocked to learn that California has about 1 million citizens who are literally above the law. Members of this group, as a Register front-page article April 6 detailed, can drive their cars as fast as they choose. They can drink a six-pack of beer at a bar and then get behind the wheel and weave their way home. They can zoom in and out of traffic, run traffic lights, roll through stop signs and ignore school crossing zones. They can ride on toll roads for free, park in illegal spots and drive on High Occupancy Vehicle lanes even if they have no passengers in the car with them. Chances are they will never have to pay a fine or get a traffic citation.
They are a special class of people, basically exempt from the laws the rest of us must follow. This isn’t a small number, either. Drivers of one of every 22 California cars and light trucks on the road have this special immunity, which should cause our government leaders and law enforcement authorities – always eager to protect us from any perceived problem – to demand a fix to this real public safety threat. Think about what this means: a million drivers who can endanger our lives with near impunity. I can hear it now: “There ought to be a law!”
But instead of pushing for a fix, most legislators are trying to expand the program so that even more people can have the special “we’re above the law” license plates. What gives? The answer is sickeningly obvious. The Special People are those who work for law enforcement or other government agencies or are their family members.
Now you get it. Government officials are zealous about dealing with problems caused by average citizens, but they are far less interested in dealing with the excesses of fellow members of the privileged, government elite. There are rules for “us” and rules for “them” – us being the subjects and them being the rulers. Feel free to pound the table in anger now!
How did we get to this sorry place?
In 1978, the state started a program to protect the confidentiality of peace officers so members of the public couldn’t find their addresses on Department of Motor Vehicle databases. Over the years, the program has been expanded from one set of government workers to another. It now applies to corrections employees, social workers, nonsworn personnel who work in juvenile halls, parole officers, parking enforcement employees and on and on. Even county supervisors, city attorneys and city council members can be exempt from the state’s traffic laws.
Even after the Register article exposed this outrageous situation, an Assembly committee voted to expand this special privilege to firefighters, animal control officers and veterinarians. Assemblyman Mike Duvall, R-Yorba Linda, explained his vote to the Register in this way: “I don’t want to say no to the firefighters and veterinarians that are doing these things that need to be protected.” That attitude explains why our society is moving in this direction. No one – not even a self-proclaimed believer in limited government – will stand up to groups of workers who have become as demanding, self-righteous and arrogant as those found in the French bureaucracy.
Americans used to be better schooled in the views of our nation’s founders, who believed that government should be strictly limited and highly accountable. The Constitution, after all, is designed to protect the People from their rulers. These days, and especially after 9/11, Americans have become compliant and dangerously obedient to the authorities. Hence, they keep getting rolled. You know something’s amiss when museum security guards, court workers, DMV employees and retired parking officers are part of the special-license caste.
The special-plate program works this way: The addresses are kept secret, so toll-road operators and parking enforcement cannot easily track down violators. The Transportation Corridor Agencies, which runs the toll roads, does not legally have access to the confidential addresses. The Orange County Transportation Authority has to go through additional hoops to get the addresses and admittedly doesn’t pursue toll violations too zealously.
In one instance reported by the Register, one couple had racked up almost $35,000 in penalties from OCTA for driving on toll roads without paying. Regarding moving violations, when police see these special plates they either don’t pull the drivers over or they don’t ticket them if they do. The cops call this “professional courtesy.” Officers know that those with the special plates are “their own,” and officers are quite open about refusing to ticket other members of the Brotherhood. They scratch each other’s back. “It’s a courtesy, law enforcement to law enforcement,” Sgt. Tom Lee of the San Francisco Police Department, told the Register. “We let it go.”
Well, such “courtesies” are functions of police states, not free societies. In a free society, the government serves the people. No one is supposed to be above the law, not even animal control officers and their spouses. Assemblyman Todd Spitzer, R-Orange, calls the situation immoral, unfair and unethical. He has proposed legislation that would limit the practice. Spitzer deserves kudos for this effort, but I wouldn’t expect the legislation to go far given the deference afforded public-sector union members and law enforcement in the state Capitol.
The whole thing is a scam. This confidentiality of plates is defended on grounds of safety – even though there’s no example of anyone’s safety having been jeopardized and even though so many of the workers who receive the protections are not in even remotely dangerous professions. Plus, the original rationale for the protection has evaporated. As the Register noted, “updated laws have made all DMV information confidential to the public.”
Pound that table again!
Wouldn’t it be nice if the government, for once, put the public’s safety above the concerns of its own workers and its own bureaucratic prerogatives? These days, the focus always seems to be on the safety of the government workers (FYI, no government job is in the top 10 list of most-dangerous occupations), even though the government’s entire raison d’être (hey, French is appropriate, given the subject matter) is to protect us. Public-choice theory is correct – government workers function mainly to promote their own self-interest, and not to promote what some naïvely believe to be the public good.
Sadly, as the government expands, America is becoming a society where the public “servants” are now the masters. Government workers earn higher salaries than their cohorts in the private sector and far higher benefits – with a massive public unfunded liability (debt) as a result. The taxpayer eventually will be forced to clean up the fiscal mess. These same government employees have special protections from accountability. There’s the Peace Officers’ Bill of Rights, civil service protections and government unions, the last of which instill fear and trepidation into the hearts of politicians.
And now we learn that members of this coddled and powerful group (and their family members) don’t even need to follow the basic traffic laws that apply to the rest of us. If you’re not angry, then you must be a member of the special caste.
April 22, 2008
Copyright © 2008 Orange County Register
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