Defining “Abuse of Power.”

I think Brett’s recent post brings up an interesting issue of what “abuse of power” by police means.

Abuse of power could mean that in the context of what an officer is legally allowed to do, he overstepped those legal boundaries.

On the other hand, abuse of power could mean that regardless of legality, an officer used his power to do something violative, cruel, violent, or otherwise ethically wrong to an individual.

Many people’s comments seemed to indicate that Brett’s experience was not an appropriate one for demonstrating police abuse because the officer refrained from pursuing all the enforcement methods he was legally permitted to use (e.g. towing). If you take the first meaning of “abuse of power,” you may be right. In Brett’s case, the officer legally could have done far worse things, but chose not to.

On the other hand, it is always important to discuss whether an act is ethical or justified outside the context of law. As we have discussed before, people can legally be arrested for doing absolutely nothing.  People can be thrown in the loony bin for doing nothing besides annoying police officers. Adam Mueller was thrown in jail for allegedly violating parking regulations. Police were within their legal authority to do all of these things, yet these actions are clearly abusive of rights and liberties.

To my knowledge, Copblock has never purported to be a vehicle dedicated to upholding the law.  I cannot speak for everyone else, but when I speak of “accountability,” I mean moral accountability. I don’t mean that I feel great about cops ticketing, arresting, beating or killing an innocent human being as long as they had the legal right to do so. I don’t mean that all ills of law enforcement are considered cured if we can get every police officer to follow the law.

Although I do think it fortunate the officer Brett encountered chose not to exercise all the methods of enforcement the law allows him to use, I do not think he ethically had a right to exercise all those methods to begin with. People are forced to pay for and use particular roads because the government has given them no choice.  Then, they send out their foot soldiers to ticket, fine and extort you whenever you use these coerced services under the pretext that they are guarding the safety of society.  Ultimately, committing an act that merely has the possibility of harming someone is not a legitimate crime. Under this theory, skydiving, driving, construction work, or using a knife to do anything should all be criminal acts.

Thus, the officer’s attempt to fine, ticket or otherwise punish him was not justified, even though it was legal, and was arguably the lesser of legal punishments he was allowed to force upon Brett. As with almost all fines and tickets involving offenses with no victims, Brett’s ticket was a government act of extortion.  One commenter indicated that this officer was “kind” to Brett for not towing his car. Extortion is not kind. We are not grateful if the local gang member decides not to steal our television and exercises the greatest, “kindest” restraint in only taking $100 from our wallet. Neither should we be grateful or keep silent when the local officer declines to be particularly abusive, but is merely slightly abusive.

Georgia Sand

Georgia (George) Sand is an attorney located in sunny California. She enjoys beer, jogging, the beach, music, and chatting with her cats in her spare time.