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Civics Lessons

by Tim O'Brien
February 16, 2001

A group of Allen Park high schoolers got a wonderful, real-world lesson in how government works when they went on a field trip to a recent meeting of our city council.

As luck would have it, there happened to be an item on the agenda that was of particular interest to these young citizens.

In response to complaints by a retiree about the volume at which certain motorists played their radios while passing his home, a new ordinance was being proposed that would empower the police to issue traffic citations in such circumstances.

Rather than investing in the equipment and training necessary to employ a decibel meter to scientifically measure the magnitude of the offense, the standard to be imposed was whether the officer could hear the radio from 50 feet during daylight hours or 15 feet at night.

Needless to say, the teenagers immediately perceived that they were the obvious target of this proposal.

Knowing that this class of potential victims could use a bit of adult support, I took up their cause during the citizen comment time.

I began by observing that traffic court is widely perceived to be more a supplementary source of income to local government than a forum for unbiased resolution of legal disputes. This is especially the case for defendants under the age of twenty.

Then there was the arbitrary and utterly subjective nature of the proposed standard. Who could say what a particular officer can or cannot hear from some particular distance on some particular occasion? Much less disprove it (since the burden of proof in traffic court is as a practical matter on the defendant, legal pretensions notwithstanding).

Finally, this was clearly an attack not on noise pollution generally but on the customs of young people particularly. Did the police intend to ticket large semi-trucks that routinely shake our windows and rattle our walls as they go rumbling by? Or the trains that roar through the city, their whistles heard from distances measured not in feet but in miles? Or the jetliners that pass overhead whenever conditions put us under flight patterns into and out of Metro Airport?

The measure was tabled and referred to a committee for further study. The students applauded.

But that wasn't the lesson.

The lesson came a half hour later when a question arose among council members as to whether they had violated a provision of our new city charter for not yet having appointed a board of ethics within one year of adoption as required.

Our city attorney opined that the clock started ticking on the time limit not from the date of the election at which the charter was adopted (Nov. 2, 1999), but rather from the date on which it was officially recorded and certified by the Secretary of State's office in Lansing. No one could say exactly when that was.

In any case, counsel advised, the ordinance establishing the new committee was quite complex, running to nearly a dozen pages, and he would have no qualms about arguing in court -- if it came to that -- that the council was "making a diligent effort to comply."

Everyone in the room but me accepted the logic of these arguments without question or hesitation.

I couldn't help but wonder how these same defenses would be received if proffered by teenage musical motorists: "I wasn't sure exactly what time the sun set, your Honor. Or whether the standard for radio volume was 15 feet or 50 feet. And anyway, my new Pioneer sound system is very complicated and I was searching for the volume control at the time -- making a diligent effort to comply."

Do you think the judge would be dazzled by the penetrating legal argumentation of this future Clarence Darrow?

The important lesson these students needed to take from their experience watching government in action was this: Officials will hold you to standards of behavior that they it would never even cross their minds to apply to themselves.

Somehow, I doubt that their government teacher made this real world observation.

And there's an interesting postscript to this little tale. It now turns out that the one-year time limit for setting up Allen Park's new board of ethics is nowhere near expired. It seems the new charter was never received in Lansing.

Our local officials were a bit chagrined, but explained that to save money they always sent such documents via first-class mail, rather certified or registered mail, and the filing must have gone astray in transit.

Now here's a way out of traffic ticket difficulties that doesn't even require a court appearance: "I sent in that ticket, your Honor. It must have got lost in the mail."

Tim O'Brien is the Executive Director of the Libertarian Party of Michigan.

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