In Finland, speeding is always expensive, no matter how much you”re worth. Wealthy Internet entrepreneur Jaakko Rytsola knows when Finnish cops pulled him over for going 43 mph in a 25 mph zone late last year, he got nailed with a $71,428 ticket.
The Finns use two factors to assess penalties for traffic violations the severity of the offense and the size of the offender”s income. The more you make the more you pay.
No doubt such an egalitarian approach to law enforcement will come as a surprise to many Americans but should it really? Even my esteemed capitalist colleagues at The Michigan Review would probably agree that getting a speeding ticket should not be anything like picking up a mocha at Starbucks. Societies fine people for breaking the law to discourage everyone rich and poor alike from breaking it, not to sell the privilege of violating the law to those who can afford it.
There are striking similarities between the medieval Catholic Church and the modern American legal system. As everyone knows, wealthy aristocrats used to be able to annul their sins by purchasing “indulgences” from the Church. Today, if Bill Gates gets pulled over for speeding on his way to work, the state might fine him $85. If the same thing happens to the custodian who vacuums Gates” office at night, he”ll also be paying $85 for his transgression. The difference, of course, is that in the former case that $85 is (probably not even) pocket change whereas in the latter case, his kids might spend the rest of the week eating ramen noodles for dinner.
When the state fines every lawbreaker a fixed rate for the same crime, it is, in effect, selling the ability to commit that crime for the price of the fine breaking the law becomes commodified. Want a pack of cigarettes? Hand the vendor $3.95. Want to go 15 over? Hand the state $85. What”s the relevant difference?
The way the cost of speeding tickets is calculated underscores a more fundamental problem with criminal “justice” in the United States. This situation has probably been articulated best by comedian Chris Rock, who has, as of yet, been the only person to say anything remotely insightful about the O.J. Simpson murder case: “If O.J. drove a bus, he wouldn”t even be “O.J.” He”d be “Orenthal the bus driving murderer!””
Any honest person must admit that regardless of whether he is actually guilty or not the only reason O.J. is free today is because he had the financial resources to hire some of the nation”s most successful lawyers. If O.J. drove a bus, he would not be playing golf in Florida he”d be waiting for the state of California to kill him with a potassium chloride injection.
While hiring Johnnie Cochran doesn”t always necessarily constitute a “get out of jail free” card, it is certainly the case that having a top-notch lawyer is going to have a significant impact on one”s chance of getting convicted. And even if one does get convicted, a well rested and well paid lawyer is far more likely to effectively argue for a more lenient sentence than an overworked and underpaid public defender.
Anyone skeptical of this claim ought to ask himself or herself: “If I was facing a criminal charge, would I be just as comfortable being represented by a public defender as I would if Alan Dershowitz was representing me?” Of course not it would be counter-intuitive to suppose otherwise. The reason people hire private attorneys in criminal cases in the first place is because they think that doing so will improve their chances of getting the best possible outcome.
Admitting this puts the proponent of the status quo in an impossible position since there cannot possibly be “equal justice for all” if spending a lot of money on a renowned attorney is usually going to increase one”s chance of acquittal or leniency in sentencing.
So if we are going to regard a crime as it ought to be regarded not as a product sold to the wealthy for the price of an across-the-board fine or a good lawyer, but as a practice everyone ought to have an equal incentive not to do, then the American justice system has to undergo radical reforms. Not only do fines need to be determined by the size of the offender”s income, but even the lowliest drug offender needs to have equal access to the same lawyers O.J. does.
Justice cannot be blind unless the United States abolishes a system that lets the wealthy purchase the ability to break the law.
Nick Woomer”s column runs every other Tuesday. Give him feedback at www.michigandaily.com/forum or via e-mail at email@example.com.