Bizarro World Ethics in Denver and San Francisco

Compassion and kindness don’t always lead to ethical decisions. Sometimes they cause decisions that are irresponsible, unfair, and misguided, not to mention dim-witted. An example presented itself last night, as voters overwhelmingly defeated a Denver City Council initiative that would require police to impound cars driven by unlicensed drivers. The key reason for the measure’s defeat, apparently, other than the fact that all the unlicensed drivers and their families voted against it, was widespread acceptance of the criticism that the measure would disproportionately affect illegal immigrants.

Actually, the same argument could be made about the law against driving without a license. Arresting those guilty of beating their spouses bloody will disproportionately affect men. Seems discriminatory, doesn’t it? Crimes of violence are overwhelmingly committed by those who are poor and uneducated; it is discriminatory to enforce those laws, right, Denver? Arresting drunk drivers is unduly burdensome on alcoholics and their families, too, and alcoholism is a disease. How barbaric!

The logic of Denver voters is ethically backwards, a Bizarro World version of fairness where core public interests—safety, law enforcement, citizenship— are seen as less important than  empathy for the non-citizens who break laws.

548 people died in Colorado traffic accidents in 2008. Drivers without valid licenses were involved in crashes that killed 130 of them. That’s 24 percent; not surprisingly, unlicensed drivers are also lousy drivers. They are also uninsured drivers. And they don’t worry so much about things like drinking while driving, because nobody is going to take away licenses they don’t have. Impounding the vehicles of drivers without licenses is an obvious, effective and sensible method of getting unlicensed drivers off the road, and will stop some people from dying. It is true that illegal immigrants are more likely to be on the road without licenses, because illegal immigrants can’t get licenses. That is completely their own responsibility, however. They were not forced to break the immigration laws, and nobody is making them drive illegally, either. Impounding vehicles doesn’t discriminate against illegal aliens; it discriminates against law-breakers, which is exactly what  laws are supposed to do.

Empathy and compassion are important ethical values. We should be compassionate to everyone, even criminals. Clarence Darrow, the great criminal defense lawyer, believed that being a criminal, no matter how vile, was always the result of accidents of birth and bad luck: wrong genes, wrong parents, no chance at education, wrong friends, wrong neighborhood, and a lack of good options. His perspective is worth remembering, but even Darrow didn’t argue that we should allow law-breakers to go on breaking the law. Yes: “There but for the Grace of God go I.” If I had been born poor in Mexico instead of Boston, I might be an illegal alien in Denver today. I might even have decided that I have to drive without a license, because it was the only way I could work. And if I did that, and was stopped on the road, I absolutely would deserve to have my car impounded. Whatever the solution to the illegal immigration problem is, forbidding enforcement of the laws illegal immigrants tend to break on the basis that it would pose a special hardship on them is not it. It is, instead, a prescription for anarchy, bad policy, harm to innocent citizens, and public anger.

Denver isn’t the only city getting its ethical priorities confused. Urged by its incorrigible, ethically-muddled mayor, Gavin Newsome, San Francisco police are easing up on  a policy that requires officers to impound the vehicles of drivers caught without  licenses, and based on the same logic as Denver’s compassionate voters. Taking away their cars will be really burdensome on illegal immigrants…

…who are in the state and city illegally in the first place…

…who have no right to drive or use the roads…

…but whose welfare should take precedence over the safety of legal citizens, in the Bizarro World ethical calculations of San Francisco officials and Denver voters, because punishing criminals unfairly discriminates against…criminals.
Ethics has to have a firm foundation in common sense and logic, or it becomes emotion and slogan-driven nonsense.

3 thoughts on “Bizarro World Ethics in Denver and San Francisco

  1. For me, it’s all about power. I understand that voting down the rule because it disproportionately affects law-breakers is “unethical” but voting down the rule may not be unethical if there is a more suitable reason. I would vote down the rule because it “requires” police to impound the vehicle.

    Let’s say Dad is driving down a rural road and lets his 4 year old sit on his lap and “steer” the vehicle. Unlicensed driver – impound the vehicle!

    Let’s say the 4 year old is waiting in a running car while dad runs up to the ATM and the 4 year old accidentally gets the car in gear and it hits another parked car. Unlicensed driver – impound the vehicle!

    Let’s say Dad left his wallet with license at home and made an illegal u-turn to go get it and then got pulled over. Unlicensed driver – impound the vehicle!

    I want to give authorities the discretionary tool to impound vehicles, but if a rule dictates a requirement to take certain action – I will vote down the rule almost every time.

    To be fair – I don’t know how the Denver law was written – but if it was anything like what was written in the above article – I’d vote it down too…even if someone else was trying to vote it down for unethical reasons.

  2. The problem, Tim, and this is ironic, is that the discretion is more likely to be unfairly used against Hispanics! This way, there is no bias—you drive without a license, you lose the car. It’s pretty easy to avoid the problem if you have a license: don’t drive without one. I HAVE driven without a license, and believe me, I sure wouldn’t have if there was any chance the car would be impounded. Take away the advantage of the articulate talker, the slick yuppie or the shapely flirt to get special treatment. You have a license with you, or you don;t—and if you don’t, you lose the car. If that would save even one life, it’s worth it.

  3. There’s a big difference between not having your license with you and being unlicensed. The article described impounding cars of UNLICENSED drivers. Those are people who haven’t received drivers licenses, not people who’ve forgotten or lost licenses. The latter wouldn’t have their cars impounded. More likely, the officer would verify from the scene that they ARE licensed or they’d go to court and have the charge dismissed by demonstrating that they’re licensed.

    Dad letting the four-year old drive or sit alone in the running car would more likely (appropriately) be charged with other offenses, perhaps including stupidity, reckless endangerment, and reckless driving. Less likely, driving without a license.

    So the above-mentioned forgotten-license Dad won’t lose his car.

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