Making More Criminals, By Criminalizing More Things

By Kay Whatley

You’re not a criminal? Are you sure? More and more laws are written over time, some criminalizing accidents, mistakes, and flawed decisions by Americans across the nation.  Intent doesn’t necessarily matter. While you might not feel like a criminal, or set out with bad intentions, you may find yourself accused of a crime.

I remember when motorcycle “helmet laws” were being considered in Pennsylvania. This was decades ago. There were protests. Protesters and residents voiced concerns, included their fear of starting down a slippery slope of government control.  They lost, and it became against the law to ride a motorcycle without a helmet.

Time passed, and now decades later helmets must be worn by motorcyclists, bicyclists, skaters, and others. Wearing a helmet is a good idea, and likely saves riders from injuries or death.  The problem is that the fears of government control have been realized, and the government rakes in fees from any law-breaking — whether a motorcyclist deliberately rides without a helmet, or a child takes off on their bike before the parent can get the helmet on them.  Police write tickets for riding without a helmet, and government as a whole benefits from tickets and court fees. Complain, and you might be arrested. While helmet laws were rolled back in some US states, and riders of certain ages may ride without them in those areas, the laws continue to extract fines from law-breakers in other states.

Have you ever hopped on a bike without a helmet? Or chased your kid down the street to put theirs on? Do you feel like a criminal?

Wasting of food is caused by laws on the books, sometimes in the name of food safety and sometimes to keep food prices from dropping too much. I’m not just talking about the farmers who, because of market forces or subsidy rules, must dump parts of their harvests. I’m talking about restaurants, event venues, and others who must destroy food in the name of the law. Fail to destroy it, and a farmer or food industry business might be fined thousands of dollars or forced to close.

Years ago, I organized conferences with catered meals. At the end of lunch, the conference centers would pack up leftovers — after their employees ate — and I’d take the remaining food with me. These extra meals fed homeless shelter residents, our own office workers, and my family.  And why not? The food was paid for, and had been kept at the right temperatures until packed. Then, around 2008 — give or take a couple years — the conference centers refused to pack up the extra meals.  I was told that the law had changed, and they were not allowed to let any food leave their facility. Worse, not only could I not take leftovers but their employees could not eat them either. The new government “safety rules” required all food be destroyed after lunch had been served.  What a waste!

Conference staff expressed fear for their jobs and the facility’s chances of “getting in trouble” if they let any food be taken. One venue turned its back (told us to move stealthily) for removal of boxed lunches leftover after an event; those of us carrying out our event’s extra boxes had to sneak them to our cars and felt like thieves.

Businesses end up paying fines or dumping food. Fines go into government coffers.  (Meanwhile, how many US residents are fed by food pantries?)

Have you ever worked in a restaurant and taken home food you weren’t supposed to take? Do you feel like a criminal?

Ever taken back a library book a bit later than you’d planned?  Watch out!  You can be arrested.  Being late on returning items, even when there are late-fee rules in place, can make you a law breaker.  DVD rental stores, too, though mostly defunct now, can have their patrons arrested over movies not returned. Here are a few examples of “criminals” arrested for late fees:

  • In 2016, a Johnston County, North Carolina a warrant was issued for a woman over a library late-fee of $10 after her check bounced, and she was arrested despite being a retired corrections officer — See this New York Daily News article.
  • In the summer of 2016, an Athens, Alabama public library threatened to have library patrons arrested if they did not return books. The charges could be theft, from materials “stolen” by not returning them when due. See this www.enewscourier.com article.
  • In 2016, a mother and father from Michigan had warrants issued for their arrest over a book worth a few dollars, after the library refused to accept their late fee payments, and had to pay over $200 to fees to stay out of jail. — See details in this article.
  • In 2016, a man from Concord, North Carolina, failed to return a DVD to a video store and they issued a warrant for his arrest. About a decade later, police pulled him over, discovered the old warrant, and took him into custody. His arrest is described as part of the legal process. See the WSOC-TV story.
  • In 2013, Livingston Parish, some Louisiana area residents receive as many as three letters in the mail, threatening warrants would be issued if fees — sometimes just a few dollars — weren’t immediately paid to the local library. —  See this WAFB story.
  • In 2013, a man from Texas ended up in the news worldwide after his arrest for a years-late study guide. See this Daily Telegraph from Australia.  I’d also suggest you read this related article written by a librarian which makes a few good points.
  • In 2012, an Albuquerque, New Mexico mother was arrested for something she didn’t know had been checked out in her name. See the CBS News story.
  • In 2010, a young man in Littleton, Colorado was arrested on an outstanding warrant for a DVD he didn’t return. While charges were dropped, and the local Mayor called for a stop to library-related arrests, he still has a record over a $30 DVD forgotten while moving. See this www.thedenverchannel.com story..

Even in cases where the charges were dropped, and no one was convicted of a crime, do you think that these folks felt any less like criminals for “only” being arrested and release?  They were treated like criminals, sometimes over a few dollars owed to a library/video store.

There are more examples online, but that’s enough to make my point about criminalizing mistakes. Now, while these examples are just a handful of people, isn’t one person too many? How many did not end up on the news?  How much stress was caused for families affected by arrests/warrants for minor mistakes and human error re-branded as crimes?

Librarians and some police likely think of these actions as serious, punishable crimes. Maybe you even think they are serious, especially if you like libraries. But my point is that small things that in the past may have caused a person to have a bad reputation at the library or put them in poor standing with their local video store are now treated under the law as theft. Laws and local ordnances have legally defined late-returns or lost books/DVDs as theft, and the late patrons considered thieves. Those who break these laws are punished with fines that can greatly exceed the costs of the books/DVDs they lost, and sometimes cause them a loss of freedom — whether for a few hours or longer.

Ever lost a library book or moved with a rented DVD? Are you feeling like a criminal yet?

Once a law is written down it can be used to punish. There’s no test of reason for laws, nor any place for common sense (it seems). No matter what, the local, state, or federal government may collect fines or seize funds — or lock up regular people — for what most of us would think of as an honest mistake.

So are you honest? Doesn’t mean you’re not “guilty” of crimes under laws in your area. Tread carefully.

And, take heart. Perhaps some of your “criminal activities” have passed the statue of limitations.  Maybe you won’t end up arrested, fined, or jailed.

On the other hand, law-makers are out there right now making laws against more things. You might have already done something that wasn’t criminal yesterday, but you’ll be a criminal tomorrow.

Be safe sliding down that slippery slope, America. Maybe you need a helmet!

About Kay Whatley 1808 Articles

Kay Whatley serves as Editor and Reporter with The Grey Area News. Kay is a published author with over 20 years of experience in the publishing industry. Kay Whatley is wife to Frank Whatley, founder of The Grey Area™ newspaper and The Grey Area News online news website.