December 5, 2014

STEPHEN L. CARTER: Law Puts Us All in Same Danger as Eric Garner.

On the opening day of law school, I always counsel my first-year students never to support a law they are not willing to kill to enforce. Usually they greet this advice with something between skepticism and puzzlement, until I remind them that the police go armed to enforce the will of the state, and if you resist, they might kill you.

I wish this caution were only theoretical. It isn’t. Whatever your view on the refusal of a New York City grand jury to indict the police officer whose chokehold apparently led to the death of Eric Garner, it’s useful to remember the crime that Garner is alleged to have committed: He was selling individual cigarettes, or loosies, in violation of New York law.

The obvious racial dynamics of the case — the police officer, Daniel Pantaleo, is white; Garner was black — have sparked understandable outrage. But, at least among libertarians, so has the law that was being enforced. Wrote Nick Gillespie in the Daily Beast, “Clearly something has gone horribly wrong when a man lies dead after being confronted for selling cigarettes to willing buyers.” Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, appearing on MSNBC, also blamed the statute: “Some politician put a tax of $5.85 on a pack of cigarettes, so they’ve driven cigarettes underground by making them so expensive.”

The problem is actually broader. It’s not just cigarette tax laws that can lead to the death of those the police seek to arrest. It’s every law. Libertarians argue that we have far too many laws, and the Garner case offers evidence that they’re right. I often tell my students that there will never be a perfect technology of law enforcement, and therefore it is unavoidable that there will be situations where police err on the side of too much violence rather than too little. Better training won’t lead to perfection. But fewer laws would mean fewer opportunities for official violence to get out of hand.

Yes, but fewer laws also offer politicians fewer opportunities for graft.

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