The Hidden Pitfalls of Police Video

[W]itnesses may be less willing to talk with police officers if they knew the video and audio from the officer’s body camera would be public record.

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Indiana makes most government records available to the public for the asking. The law is formally known as the Access to Public Records Act (APRA). Its more famous federal cousin is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  Most public records are, of course, mind-numbingly dull. Using public access laws can lead to strange results. For example, consider Mental Floss’s collection of ridiculous documents obtained through public records requests, which includes an FBI Twitter slang dictionary. I can only imagine how that impacted tweets in the bureau.

@SpecialAgentJones OMG your proposal for this task force had me totes ROTFLOL. #GManProblems.

I’m kidding. This can’t be an actual tweet. It uses the word “your” correctly.

Still, we’ve come to accept that the costs of APRA and FOIA are outweighed by the benefits of public accountability. So whenever someone wants to tinker with public access laws, it’s in our nature to fear that government accountability may suffer.  In that context, some proposed changes to APRA this session in the General Assembly have caused a stir.

Here are the basics of the law as it stands today:

General Rule: Government records are public.

Exception: Agencies have some discretion to decide whether to release certain kinds of records. For example, I.C. 5-14-3-4(b) says that public agencies have the discretion to withhold “investigatory records of law enforcement.”

The law being the law, there are many other exceptions, of course. And even a couple exceptions to this exception–but you get the idea. An agency does not have to disclose an otherwise-public record if it is an “investigatory record.” Although policies can vary, this discretion typically means that videos that are part of an investigation might not be released to the public, or the press, while the investigation is ongoing.

There are good reasons for this. Many videos may show crime victims, who may not want the public attention that comes with a video. Also, witnesses may be less willing to talk with police officers if they knew the video and audio from the officer’s body camera would be public record.

Enter House Bill 1019, which would change the law in a few important ways.  First, it creates a new category of document called a “law enforcement recording,” which includes audio and video from body cameras and dashboard cameras.  Next, it creates a special standard for obtaining this video. This is where it gets a little more complicated. The person in the video can make a request and is entitled to see the video, with his attorney, at least twice, but is not allowed to copy it.  Anyone else who wants to see it must file a petition with the court and prove that (1) releasing the video is in the public interest, (2) no one will be harmed, and (3) there will be no “prejudicial effect” on any existing civil or criminal cases.

House Bill 1019 is now the subject scathing editorials in the Indianapolis Star and other papers, which can be a bit misleading.  With titles like “Police camera footage should remain public,” the editorials might lead the casual reader to presume that such videos are completely available to the public under the current law, which isn’t the case. Yes, HB 1019 would alter the way one requests a law enforcement recording, but even under current law, an agency has the discretion not to make such a record available if it’s an investigatory record.

To be sure, not every law enforcement recording will be an investigative record. If a police cruiser captures several hours of a 4th of July parade where no crimes are alleged to have occurred, that video is likely not an investigatory record and would fall under the general rule allowing public access. But let’s face it, if a video is so uneventful that it’s not part of an investigatory record, no news agency is going to be interested in seeing it.

That’s not to say that HB 1019 doesn’t have some problems:

  1. Identification of requesting party. I’ve seen many police videos. Although the quality has improved greatly in the past decade, it’s not always easy to tell who is in a video. The bill creates a scenario where somebody—probably a Sheriff’s Office or Police Department employee—will have to decide whether the person making the request for a video is the person in the video. In many cases, this will be undisputed, but, as the saying goes, “Hard cases make bad law.”
  1. Cost of compliance. The costs of compliance for both law enforcement and those making requests could be significant. These include the cost of supervising someone who has a right to watch a police video because she is in it, and making sure she doesn’t use her smartphone to make a copy; the cost of redacting material that should not be revealed; the costs of making (or opposing) a written petition to a court and meeting nebulous legal standards like “public benefit.”

In an effort to restore additional accountability, some have suggested expanding the permissible requestors of videos to include journalists. This creates a new problem: putting counties, cities, and towns in the position of determining who is—and who is not—a journalist. Do bloggers count or must a brick-and-mortar television studio or printing press be required? The First Amendment does not elevate the free speech rights of journalists above the rights of citizens, and Indiana’s public access laws should not either.

HB 1019 is currently scheduled to be considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee on February 24, 2016.

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UPDATE: 2/24/2016 – The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the amendment today which would switch the burden of proof to the public agency to withhold the video in any petition to obtain a Law Enforcement Video.

With Great Powerball Comes Great Responsibility

[T]he damage done by earning less interest in a savings account is minuscule compared to lottery spending and the financial risk for families that have no savings.

The Powerball is a multi-state lottery based in Florida, which I’m told is still a thing. Florida, that is. I knew Powerball was a still thing because I own several media devices which regularly dump media all over me. This week, the Powerball prize was large enough that if there had been a single winner, that winner could’ve become Batman.

Lotteries tout the contributions they make to citizens through expenditures on road construction, road signs, orange road signs, orange blinking road signs, and really big orange road signs with blinking text that drivers can read as they are driving, with helpful themes like “Don’t text and drive.” Sometimes, these signs are hacked by obnoxious teens to say obnoxious teen things like “Han Solo dies.”

In 1964, the first modern U.S. State-run lottery began in New Hampshire. Today 44 States and D.C. have lotteries, and the first multi-State lottery began in 1985. Since then we’ve learned a couple of honest-to-goodness facts about lotteries. First, poor people buy lottery tickets as a much larger percentage of their income than the middle-class. Second, lotteries really hate competition. (And not just State lotteries. Nevada’s gambling industry has successfully prevented a State-run lottery there.)

It’s easy to categorize the poor as being victimized by State-run lotteries. After all, the poor can least afford to lose discretionary income, right? But before you lament a low-income earner falling into mathematical quicksand as a result of ignorance or government predatory schemes (or both), consider the possibility that the poor are rational actors in playing the lottery. The argument goes something like this: a low-income person with a big mountain of debt who plays and loses the lottery still has a big mountain of debt. This same person who doesn’t play the lottery at all still has a big mountain of debt.  A chance of winning, however small, is the only chance of climbing atop the debt mountain. Depending on factors such as income and interest rates, this may be completely accurate. That’s not to say most poor aren’t objectively (financially) worse off for playing the lottery—they are. But lotteries would be broke if we were all objective. Humans, not calculators, buy lottery tickets.

Yep, they’re goats. In trees.

Americans also have a bad habit of not saving money. Sure, in a world where you can buy a 2016 Goats in Trees Calendar, who wants to save money?  I get it. Still, most of us know we should save more, but our national vices—including the lottery—seem to be an obstacle.

Some countries have harnessed the public’s desire to play a lottery to combat poor savings habits. The result is a Prize-Linked Savings (PLS) account. The concept is pretty simple. Suppose a regular savings account pays 3%. A PLS account pays less than 3%, maybe even nothing. But in exchange for foregoing all or part of the interest, the account owner is automatically entered into a lottery. PLS accounts have grown in popularity in the last 10 years.

Some critics of PLS accounts suggest that the cut in the interest rate hurts the poor. Would the poor be better off earning interest? Sure. Objectively.  But considering low-income household finances, the damage done by earning less interest in a savings account is minuscule compared to lottery spending and the financial risk for families that have no savings. Governments should not open candy stores and then feign shock when diabetics walk in the front doors, ignoring the “eat responsibly” signs.  Offering sugar free options might be a better response.

The PLS idea has caught on in such exotic, far off locations as Sri Lanka, Japan, and Michigan. How much does it help people save? The research of Peter Tufano, Dean at Oxford’s business school, noted that 56% of the participants in Michigan’s “Save to Win” PLS program were first-time savers.  At present, 12 states, including Indiana, do allow PLS accounts, but more states should. Even if it means fewer traffic signs.

Should States Stop Playing the Marriage License Game?

An Alabama bill proposes a solution to the debate over the definition of marriage that, while not unique, is at least new to modern audiences: get government out of the way. The bill would end the practice of issuing marriage licenses. Instead of government telling you that you may marry, you would tell the government that you have married.

Some will argue that this bill is simply a response to the Supreme Court’s recent gay marriage ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges. They’re not wrong. It’s hard to think that this bill would even exist without the Obergefell case bringing matters to a head. But so what? Legislatures routinely change laws in response to court decisions. Even if some supporting it are motivated by no more than the bitter taste of sour grapes, that’s hardly an argument that the proposal lacks merit.

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What should–and shouldn’t–the state do for the people? (Asheville, NC)

Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history at Evergreen State College has pointed out that marriage without the blessing/permission of government is not a new idea. Not until the 16th Century in Europe did the state take an active role in permitting marriages. Prior to that time the vow–not the law–created marriage. Even marriages that the church considered illicit (an exchange of vows outside the church) were still deemed marriages.  Coontz also notes that American colonies generally required only that marriages be registered. Until the mid-1800’s American States would still allow mere cohabitation as proof of marriage. Indiana continued to recognize common law marriages well into the 1950s.

People willing to leave public comments on the interwebs tend to say not-so-nice things about others as a rule, and opinion about the Alabama proposal was no different. “Stupid,” “1950s social values” and the inevitable comparison to separate drinking fountains dominated a recent comment section of a local news article. One commenter even said that the bill was an attempt to “dehumanize us.”  I assume this meant dehumanize gays, not dehumanize internet comments, which I don’t believe is even possible.

Is it really so surprising that proposed legislation would follow in the wake of such a landmark SCOTUS decision? Courts are not supposed to be active institutions, but reactive ones. Is judicial activism now so commonplace, and legislative complacency so rampant, that when a legislature—the entity actually elected to make changes to the law—engages in activism of its own the populace must cry foul?

*** On a side note, “Judicial activism” as an insult is quickly approaching Red Scare status. At some point after 1990, calling someone a socialist in polite society meant that reasonable people should question the accuser, not the accused. But at least that name-calling could be criticized as one-sided, since a socialist represented a particular political viewpoint, and so his attackers had an opposing view. “Judicial activism” is politically neutral activity in theory (if not in practice), and can apply equally to the substitution of any judicial view for the will of the legislature. But no matter. Like many perfectly accurate phrases before it, it’s sure to be deemed an antiquated, unfashionable dog whistle signaling some evil and unspoken larger meaning–though deciphering the meaning always seems to need a Rosetta Stone of political correctness. Its detractors will be sure to replace it with a slur far a more gentile, if less lucid. I, for one, will lament its complete unavailability at some point in the near future. So long, “Judicial activism,” we hardly knew ye.***

So who are the winners and losers if States start getting out of the marriage business entirely?

For some conservatives, a more passive role for the state may prevent them from choosing between violating their consciences and keeping government jobs. (Though if former IRS chief Lois Learner’s actions are any indication, righties aren’t much welcome as civil servants anyway).  For some liberals, the proposal would give them the freedom they seek, and then some. Not only would any two people be allowed to marry, it would be nearly impossible for the state to regulate how the marriage contract is entered into or who solemnizes it. And despite what an hour of MSNBC or FOX News would suggest, I suspect most gay couples aren’t really interested in using their wedding ceremony as political theater—knowing in their sunset years they will fondly think back on the day they tied the knot, expressed their commitment, and made that redneck probate clerk the subject of some serious HuffPo clickbait. No, for most people, it doesn’t work like that. Non-deranged folks want to marry surrounded by people happy for them, not someone resentful because the bronze bust representing the enduring legacy of Justice Kennedy needed polishing. (Just kidding! There’s no bust. It’s a life-sized Ronaldo-esque statue and on the first Monday each October, it is appeased with sacrifices of clerks from middling law schools.) It’s not sacrilege or lunacy for honest people on all sides to seriously consider removing the appendix of licensing marriages from the corpus of government. What does anyone have to lose?

The casual observer might assume that the Supreme Court’s decision ended the issue, and any further legislation is unhealthy because it keeps us fighting. The Obergefell decision does seem, on its face, to require states provide marriage licenses. However, the Court did not seem to contemplate a State not giving marriage licenses to anybody, but the Due Process implications of providing licenses to some citizens and not others.

Besides, the issue wasn’t even over when it was over. Despite the canard that plural marriages (polygamy) had no logical correlation to the gay marriage issue, such a debate is coming. Chief Justice Roberts anticipated as much in his dissent:

It is striking how much of the majority’s reasoning would apply with equal force to the claim of a fundamental right to plural marriage. If “[t]here is dignity in the bond between two men or two women who seek to marry and in their autonomy to make such profound choices,” . . .  why would there be any less dignity in the bond between three people who, in exercising their autonomy, seek to make the profound choice to marry?

In fact, the other shoe has already dropped. Less than a month after Obergefell, a Montana man, Nathan Collier, already voiced his intent to sue if he is denied a marriage license to marry a second wife, a contest he considers his own fight for “marriage equality.” More plural marriage proponents are sure to follow. USA Today recently cited a 2012 survey of 4,000 polyamorous individuals, and 66% reported being open to plural marriage. In the not-too-distant future, a trial judge with a polygamous marriage license application in one hand and Obergefell in the other may have only two choices: invalidate the state’s unconstitutional exclusion of plural marriage folks from marriage licensing requirements, or become . . . a judicial activist. (McCarthyism!)

But there are factions on both sides of the issue that won’t tolerate States bowing out of the marriage license game. Some gay marriage advocates won’t like this at all because it’s not freedom that they’re after. It’s state-sanctioned acceptance. To them, it’s not enough that their relationships merely be allowed. They must be approved. Like the bratty teenager who refuses to simply raid the liquor cabinet the weekend her parents are away, her self-worth demands she badger them with sophomoric rationalizations about why no sane society would restrict a sixteen year-old from downing Mad Dog 20/20 while Mom enjoys her after-dinner sherry.  Dad eventually gives in, though more from battle fatigue than persuasion. Her victory parade is complete when she boasts to her friends that she convinced her parents to finally see the righteousness of her cause.

Likewise, some gay marriage opponents will also oppose the new proposal. They remain committed to believing that official legal rejection of gay marriage is the only acceptable answer, however diminishing its chances. If the state licensing requirement disappears entirely, the clock will have run out on their cause, and the scoreboard’s tally is not in their favor.

For these loudest voices in the echo chamber, social reformation must trump personal freedom, for social reform cannot be a private affair. For them, the Alabama bill must be opposed. Angered at the prospect of winning without continuing the fight, (or losing without a rematch) their identity depends on dragging their opponent back onto the field for humiliation. No, this proposal just won’t do. The contest for marriage equality cannot be won by forfeit.

Finally, to libertarians, this may be a panacea. Imagine what society could do if government could just get out of the business of moralizing and back to legalizing weed. Wait–on second thought, forget libertarians. Maybe we should let the adults continue the conversation.

To Tailgate or Legislate? That is the Question.

Rep. Dave Ober of Albion, Indiana, has proposed language be added to a motor vehicle bill at the General Assembly this week that would clarify the responsibility of drivers not to lollygag in the passing lane. Including police authority to ticket a slow driver. That’s a ticket for not letting someone pass you fast enough. Pardon me while I assume the get-off-my-lawn cranky old guy stance.

When I learned the rules of the road, a slow poke in the passing lane was irritating, but not so problematic that police action was necessary. Slow-laners suffered from a lack of social awareness, a form of bad manners. Like cousin Billy with his elbows on the table, these folks needed education in the customs of polite society. Pulling up behind a Sunday Driver so that you occupied most of his rear-view mirror politely signaled the desire to pass. This reminded him–kindly, but firmly–that the passing lane has a purpose.  In rare circumstances where we needed a more noticeable signal, a quick flash of the headlights would catch his eye and bring the point home.

Alas, gentle social rules of the road seem to be giving way to the long arm of the law. It’s a measure of how much abrasiveness society tolerates that we eschew subtle Emily Post-style methods of communication with fellow drivers in favor of Tony Stewart bluntness. Instead of whispering suggested behavior, we scream for it. Instead of leading with the carrot, we raise the stick of punishment.

Ticketing our way to an open road?
Ticketing our way to an open road?

While police officers certainly must pursue both dangerous (speeding) and criminal (drunk driving) activity, behavior that is merely impolite should stay outside the scope of an officer’s duties. The use of police to get slow-movers out of the passing lane certainly risks overburdening police with trivial matters. One lawmaker supporting the amendment admitted that it was a “pet peeve” to be behind slow drivers in the passing lane, which is a pretty low standard for lawmaking.

Ticketing slow passing lane drivers would subvert cooperation in favor or rule-enforcement. There is a reason you’ve never seen a zebra-clad referee on the fairway of the 18th hole. That’s not to say golf has no rules. But golf rules are meant to be self-enforced. And like the passing lane slowpoke, a golf cheat is either an ignorant doofus, a cad, or a bit of both. Either way, dealing with him is everybody’s job, and outsourcing it would change the nature of golf. Likewise, Ober’s amendment would change the nature of road rules, at least at the margins, pushing more undesirable behavior from irksome to illegal, thereby leaving us with less to do corporately, socially.

It used to be considered a sign of patience–even inner strength–to tolerate boorish, impolite behavior. Not “tolerate” in the modern sense. Modern toleration is unfettered celebration, the way one must tolerate being handed a revolting craft beer because he’s too chicken to say out loud that pumpkin, cinnamon, and nutmeg just don’t make good dance partners inside a beer. Rather, tolerate in the sense that being able to endure the ill-treatment of others without ruin (to us) or retaliation (to them) makes us better people. What grandad called “building character.” But building character is hard and takes time. Think of the time I could save if only cops could fix all my pet peeves:

Somebody in the slow lane is in my way. It’s the skinny pedal on the right, Einstein!

That moron is writing a check for groceries and digging around for coupons. They are just groceries, lady!

This idiot in front of me is actually reading the McDonald’s menu–it’s the same at every McDonald’s, buddy, stop wasting my time!

Driving has become an inherently social activity. We spend more time interacting with each other as fellow drivers than we do as fellow neighbors, shoppers, sports fans, or church-goers. Even though it’s not deep interaction, it is frequent. Several times each day, we trust our safety to others, communicating through turn signals, head nods, speed variations, and hand gestures–some more expressive than others. We acknowledge both approval and disapproval in the way others drive, and those expressions are not invalid simply because they are not enshrined into law. The law is not the sole method by which society approves or disapproves of behavior, and there’s an argument to be made that it is not the most effective method, either. Each time we add to the law’s burden by banning behavior which is merely rude or inconsiderate, it’s a sign (and perhaps a reason) that we have given up influencing better behavior ourselves.

 

The Not-So-Grand Inquisitor: Equal Justice and Police Interrogations in Indiana

Much of what passes for interesting reading for lawyers is just mind-numbingly tedious procedural minutia to everyone else. But the recent Bond v. State decision from the Indiana Supreme Court actually poses some questions that non-lawyers might find interesting, too.  At issue is how far police can go when using deceptive methods to obtain a confession from a suspect. The case has ignited much discussion in legal circles about criminal justice, police investigatory techniques, and race.

Suppose the police suspect Bert and Ernie of robbing a liquor store and shooting a clerk in the process, and the detectives arrest them both and put them in separate holding areas. They question Bert, and then Ernie. Then they return to Bert and tell him that Ernie has already confessed and if Bert would only fess up too, the prosecutor would be more likely to recommend a lenient sentence to the judge.

Of course, anyone who has seen Law & Order (or has an extremely cynical take on Sesame Street) knows that Ernie has not confessed. The police are lying to Bert. And there are endless variations on this lie. The police could claim to have Bert’s fingerprints.  Or that the liquor store clerk identified his photo from his hospital bed. Or that a surveillance video from the pawn shop across the street clearly identifies Bert and Ernie leaving the liquor store’s parking lot. The U.S. Supreme Court held long ago that the police may use deceptive methods when interrogating witnesses. Frazier v. Cupp, 394 U.S. 731 (1969).

ImageBut are there limits on deceptive police techniques? Sure. Imagine that the officer questioning Bert tells him that someone in the next room has Big Bird strapped to a car battery and standing in a bucket of water, and that the only choices that Bert has now are, “original, extra crispy, or confession.” So Bert signs the confession. Isn’t this just another deception used to trick him into confessing? No. In this case, Bert’s confession is coerced. Bert isn’t tricked into confessing, he’s forced into confessing. Big difference.  A permissible deception can’t trick an innocent person into confessing–at least in theory.  If Bert and Ernie are innocent, then the police assertion that Ernie “has already confessed” will only be met with bewilderment by Bert. However, threats to the life of Big Bird would cause even an innocent Bert to confess.

As long as Bert’s confession is not coerced or forced, then Bert’s motivation for making the confession can legally be based on a false premise, even a false premise the police create.

So how was Bond v. State noteworthy? In the Bond case, the detective told Bond that he would not receive a fair trial from people in Schererville and Crown Point because he is black.

While both the trial court and the Court of Appeals found the officer’s behavior deplorable, neither could say that it was illegal.  Since it was not illegal, the confession was admissible as evidence against Bond. However, the Indiana Supreme Court is more suited to make law than lower courts, and to consider the broader policy implications of rules of court procedure. In this case, the Court found that the technique of suggesting that Bond could not receive a fair trail because of his race was fundamentally different than a deception about the evidence against him. “[I]n this case Bond was intentionally deceived as to the fairness of the criminal justice system itself because of the color of his skin,” the Court noted.  It also said:

Regardless of the evidence held against him or the circumstances of the alleged crime, [Bond] was left with the unequivocal impression that because he was African American he would spend the rest of his life in jail. Unless he confessed. And in unfortunate days gone by, this might have been the case. But no one wants to go back to such a time or place in the courtroom, and so we will not allow even the perception of such inequality to enter the interrogation room.

Courts are normally utilitarian in their use of words, which seldom affords them the opportunity to be truly artful within a court opinion, but the Bond case was different than most. It provided an historic platform to look back at the progress of equal access to justice, and speak for–and to–the ages.  The Court continued:

As Dr. King did, we likewise “refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Acceptance Speech at Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony (December 10, 1964). We simply cannot and will not risk this going further, and therefore draw a firm line today.

Thus . . . this deception by the detective tips the scale to involuntariness. We cannot tacitly countenance the erosion of everything so many have worked so hard to achieve in the realm of racial equality in the justice system—and continue to work to achieve—by disapproving of the statement but finding Bond’s confession nevertheless admissible.

As a practical matter, Bond’s confession is now inadmissible.  If Bond did commit a crime, the State will have to find other evidence if it wants to convict him.

A recent entry in the Indiana Law Blog described the feedback from the legal community surrounding this case.  One comment identified what it considered the “elephant in the room” of the Court’s opinion: was the representation the detective made true? What if Bond really can’t get a fair trial from a jury drawn from Schererville and Crown Point? This is not to single out any one community. Indiana’s racial history certainly has its jagged edges, and many of us have anecdotal evidence of racism, often associated–correctly or not–with entire communities. The point to ponder is whether such a technique is really a police deception at all if it’s true.

Another commenting attorney made the point that he has advised African-American clients that certain communities would be more likely to convict based on race, and that those clients have accepted plea agreements more readily as a result. So, the argument goes, how can it be unacceptable for a police detective to advise a criminal defendant of something that his own lawyer might say?  And is the lawyer to be reprimanded for his actions, or commended for frank and wise counsel to his clients?

In some respects, racial equality in the justice system is a victim of its own success. When racism was more widely accepted, objective evidence that a community would spawn racist juries would have been easier to come by. Today, racism is so widely condemned that it’s simply not possible to prove that a given community will always–or event predominantly–produce racially biased juries. So all we will ever have is anecdotal evidence, the “I knew a guy who . . .” stuff that legends are made of.

My support of the Bond decision does not require quantifying racially biased juries. If an African-American would confess, or accept a plea agreement more quickly, for fear that a jury would be racially motivated to convict him, then we need not prove actual racial bias in the justice system because the specter of racial bias has already caused harm.  Like a self-fulfilling prophesy, the fear of biased juries causes certain defendants to exercise less than the full panoply of rights given them by law, which is a harm all its own. The fear of biased results begets biased results. For a police officer–the embodiment of state power–to invoke that fear is inconsistent with the promise of equal justice under law.

If you’d like to sit in on more of this debate, the Supreme Court’s oral arguments are available online.

Ind. Legislative Action Not Involving the You-Know-What Amendment

Vapor doesn’t have the lung cancer-causing impact of cigarettes because–wait for it–they aren’t cigarettes.

Just in case you were wondering, there are a few things going on in the Indiana General Assembly that have nothing to do with HJR 3, the Resolution formerly known as HJR 6.  Here, in no particular order, are some goings on under the dome.

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Bill: HB 1141
Boring Name: Methamphetamine Lab Disclosures in Property Sales House List.
Fun Name: Meth House. (♪It’s a meth . . . house. It’s mighty-mighty. Just letting it all hang out.♪)

Summary: If any house is used for meth-manufacturing purposes, it would go on a list maintained by the state police. It comes off the list 90 days after it is declared clean. The law also requires homeowners to disclose if a property has been used to manufacture meth.

What’s good: Presumably nobody wants to buy a house that has undiscovered anhydrous ammonia in the spare bedroom closet just waiting for a chance freeze your appendages off.

What’s not-so-good: It seems duplicative or unnecessary.  The State already licenses home inspectors.  Couldn’t consumers start to demand that a meth-house check be part of an adequate home inspection?  Couldn’t banks that finance home purchases demand that title searches–which already search for judgments in various databases–also inquire with law enforcement about any manufacturing history?  Of course.  If the market already demands something, and there are no legal prohibitions to providing it, the market tends to get what it wants.  This well-intentioned bill will create another special inspector. And in a housing market that needs to decrease transaction costs, this will have the opposite effect–making it more difficult to buy and sell houses, particularly in rural and poor urban neighborhoods.  Even property with zero contamination will not be sold until someone has paid the costs of an inspection.

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StatehouseBill: HB 1174
Boring Name: Taxation of Electronic Cigarettes
Fun Name: If it Quacks Like a Duck, Tax it Like a Duck.

Summary: Vapor-producing machines, commonly called “electronic cigarettes” would be taxed just like cigarettes.

What’s good: This is the closest Indiana has come since it’s controversial state-wide smoking ban to showing respect for smokers, of sorts, in that it promises to tax them at the same level once they become former smokers. Ah, parity.

What’s not-so-good: Whatever one’s reaction to the word “tax,” taxing goods to raise revenue is at least logical. Taxing behavior to offset the state’s costs of cleaning up after that behavior is also logical.  This tax is neither. About 2.5 million people in the entire country use e-cigarettes, and even assuming Indiana’s trends are equal to the entire country, that’s just over 50,000 people in Indiana using vapor machines. So a few bucks a month from a population roughly the size of Elkhart Indiana is hardly a budget-saving measure. Nor can the state be jumping in to protect consumers from health dangers of water vapor, unless dumber-than-dirt teens are putting their faces over boiling pans of water hoping to “ride the vape” high. On second thought, give it time.  That’ll probably happen.

Instead, this measure seems designed to keep the perceived competitor (e-cigs) from having a significant cost advantage over conventional cigarettes because its customers would otherwise not have to pay taxes.  Vapor pens are what economists call “substitute goods” which are a natural part of how markets respond to innovation. Vapor doesn’t have the lung cancer-causing impact of cigarettes because–wait for it–they aren’t cigarettes. They don’t contain tobacco. Come on, why should a little thing like not actually being cigarettes stop them from being taxed like cigarettes?  Right. That’s a bit like taxing bicycles like cars just because someone might choose to ride a bike to work instead of driving.  Nevermind that bicycles don’t cause potholes, and don’t pollute.  They commit a greater sin.  They compete.

On July 1, 2012, when Indiana relegated smoking to private homes, clubs, outdoors (sometimes) and at least 8 feet from every door in the state, we were told that public health was paramount.  Apparently, that concern does not extend to the state’s tax policy, as taxing vapor machines will create a completely artificial disincentive to those trying to kick the habit. Dear Hoosier Health Crusaders: You’ll have to speak louder. I can’t hear you over these these crickets.

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Bill: HB 1351
Boring Name: Welfare matters; drug testing.
Fun Name: Keep a stash, get no cash.

Summary: Some TANF recipients would be required to undergo drug testing.  Those who fail the tests could risk losing benefits if they refuse to seek treatment for addictions.  Those supporting the law believe it will weed out (pun intended) drug users from the deserving welfare recipients.  Opponents claim that the costs will exceed the savings achieved.

What’s good: Someone is still willing to put it in writing that using drugs is bad.  And paying people to use drugs is idiocy.

What’s not-so good: While I’m not sure the “this experiment has failed in other states” criticism takes the deterrent effect into account, it is not hard to imagine that the costs of drug testing would exceed the benefits that can be measured.  Instead of creating a new program, we should find a way to use metrics already known and inexpensively gathered, like drug convictions, serving as a basis to limit or monitor benefits.

UPDATE:  As if reading my mind, I noticed today that the bill has been amended to include only those with drug convictions within the prior 10 years.  Probably to lower costs.

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Bill: SB 101
Boring Name: Agriculture Operations and Criminal Trespass
Fun Name: Ag Gag

Summary: Undercover videotaping of farm activities would be a crime.  Recent changes limit the crime to situations in which a trespasser causes property damage.

What’s good: Protection of private property, though last year’s version had more teeth.

What’s not-so-good: The limitation of the crime to incidents that have caused property damage seems to effectively gut this bill.  It’s already a crime to cause property damage.  And it’s already a crime to trespass.  Surely creating a new category of crime by doing them both at the same time is a not a net benefit.

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Bill: HB 1143
Boring Name: Environmental Rules and Standards
Fun Name: The IDEM Leash

Summary: Prohibits the Indiana Department of Environmental Management from adopting any rule or standard that is more stringent what its federal equivalent.

What’s good: Consistency.  While Indiana can’t prevent the feds from doing anything, it can give businesses and individuals some predictability in knowing that IDEM’s rules won’t be more restrictive than their federal counterparts.

What’s not-so-good: If this becomes law, expect significant litigation.  Interest groups will parse the shades of meaning in the ample volumes of federal environmental regulation to fight over what is or is not more restrictive than the fed’s version.

There’s No Justice Like Show Justice

The First Amendment isn’t what it used to be.  It used to be an integral part of the Bill of Rights.  It’s more of a slogan now.  Its common meaning, once vigorous, has been slaughtered on the altar of intellectual complacency and insipid self-gratification.  Its invocation today is more banal than brave; more ordinary than audacious.

One recent illustration of this is the opposition to Indiana’s Senate Bill 373. The bill would make it illegal for someone to take video or images of an agricultural operation without the consent of the owner. The bill would not apply to law enforcement officers.  Since the Fourth Amendment requires a warrant, the net effect of the bill is to say that only police officers (presumably for good cause shown) can enter into private agricultural property and take pictures without the permission of the owner.

By the reaction of some, including Matthew Tully of the Indy Star, you would think SB 373 protected Abu Ghraib-style secret prison abuse of animals.  Tully recently lamented the bill, arguing that it creates a society where “bad actors know they’ll be able to get away with more,” and “face less chance of public embarrassment and ridicule[.]” Of course, those playing by the rules will also face less chance of unwarranted public embarrassment and ridicule, and that’s the point the bill’s detractors are missing.  But like the proverbial hammer-wielding carpenter for whom everything begins to look like a nail, Tully suggests that the weapons of free speech – “embarrassment and ridicule” – are the most effective tools society has to combat wrongdoing.

You Tube justice pretends to be a crusader of the First Amendment, but has no patience with the Constitution as a whole.
You Tube justice pretends to be a crusader of the First Amendment, but has no patience with the Constitution.

In reality, law enforcement is both more effective and better-equipped to address most criminal behavior, including animal cruelty.  Aside from some specific exceptions, law enforcement officers must seek a warrant before entering onto private property.  This requires probable cause, shown to a judge. Only then can the alleged wrongdoer be charged with a crime, and only if guilt is proven beyond a reasonable doubt will punishment be tolerated.  These steps are rooted in protections as integral to the Constitution as the vaunted First Amendment.

But for the Über Free Speech crowd, that path is too slow and ineffective.  After all, they say, what if the system protects its own and the wrongdoer escapes the justice of the First Amendment posse?  Ask Richard Jewel, George Zimmerman, or the Duke lacrosse team about the “justice” of embarrassment and ridicule in lieu of thorough criminal investigations.

Tully even acknowledges that the bill creates an exception for those who turn the video over to law enforcement within 48 hours.  But that’s still not good enough: “So, what, we’re going to hope that the sheriff in Farmtown, Indiana, suddenly joins PETA?” he asks.  With all due respect, this question betrays the heart of the bill’s opposition.  Not only is Tully impatient with Constitutional protections that happen to reside outside of the First Amendment, he doesn’t trust elected officials in “Farmtown” to uphold their oaths of office.  (I’ve never been to Farmtown, but I’m guessing it lies somewhere outside of the commute between Carmel and downtown Indianapolis.)  A single prosecution for animal cruelty, while effective, is not sensational. It’s not You Tube-worthy.  Which means it’s dull news and not an effective fund raiser for PETA.

By the way, would Tully’s boss object to a broadcasted hidden video of the goings-on of the editorial boardroom of the Indianapolis Star?  Of course he would. Hidden video is only a noble cause when it finds wrongdoing.  All of the hidden video that is taken and unused–or worse, falls in the hands of competitors–doesn’t catch bad behavior at all. It erodes private property rights.