Wednesday, July 01, 2009
Good Intentions, Bad Outcomes
As longtime readers know, I deliberately try to keep my personal life off of here. I'm making an exception for right now because the matter at hand isn't simply an issue of interesting anecdotes, but instead is the springboard for a much broader issue I'd like to address. Or, in other words, what my family went through the past five months was a laborious, protracted nightmare that did not draw to a close until two days ago. I was advised not to write about anything about it or to mention it in any public forum until matters had been firmly settled once and for all. Thankfully, a emotionally taxing ordeal is over forever and I am thankful that I no longer need to worry about the outcome.
The issue in question is a fairly straightforward one. It is not only straightforward but it is agonizingly commonplace. In short, for several months my youngest sister was in a relationship with an abusive boyfriend. The last six months they were together, his drinking increased, his verbally abusive behavior towards her grew in frequency, and he began to border on threats of physical violence towards her. All of this came to a tipping point one evening, when, after having endured a particularly awful round of yelled threats and menacing violations of personal space, my sister became fearful enough for her physical safety that she hit him. It was a clear matter of simple self-defense. Yet, when the police arrived a few moment later and noticed that he had a black eye and chipped tooth while she herself had no visible marks, my sister was summarily arrested for Domestic Violence. She spent twelve lovely hours in a jail, the minimum amount of time one must spend according to the provisions of that flawed piece of legislation, and then was informed she'd be obligated to go through preliminary hearings and a trial before a judge.
The deepest irony among many in this situation was that the law under which she was charged had originally been designed to protect battered spouses/common-law-wives/girlfriends against abusive men. In this circumstance, the exceptionally strict parameters of the statute and the rigid way it was required to be enforced left the officer called to the scene no choice but to arrest her and charge her with a crime. So let me state this very firmly. I don't doubt the motives of those who pushed for this law. Neither do I doubt the sincerity and nobility of their intentions, but what was enacted into law was overkill. Who bears the blame in drafting the bill is not nearly as important to me as to the fact that no one bothered to take into account its potential drawbacks.
As for the resolution of the matter, after the family and my parents had expended much time, money, and energy into the matter, the charge was rightly thrown out of court by the judge. Yet again I saw how slowly the hands of justice work and how utterly flawed our court system can be. Had it not been for the skillful work of my sister's attorney, the District Attorney might have forced a jury trial. The plaintiff never showed up in court, at which point the pending charge or charges are supposed to be dismissed automatically. However, the D.A. made a motion to try to bring the arresting officer to the courtroom in place of the defendant, a maneuver technically against the rules, but thankfully the officer was unwilling to do so. After being informed of this, the judge summarily dismissed the case. I'm not sure how the arresting officer could have been of any help to the prosecution anyway, since he wasn't an eyewitness to what happened.
The details are important in that they underscore a real world example of how bad laws affect real people. The larger point I wish to make is that the times in which we live clamor for reform. Indeed, I and many of you have urged for significant change in every imaginable area. This is well and good. However, the lesson I have pulled from this circumstance is that we ought to make sure that the laws and statutes that are crafted and then get signed into law do not create new, unforeseen problems in spite of the best of intentions. Sometimes this is unavoidable due to changing circumstances and changing times, but sometimes sloppy logic and knee-jerk overcompensation is highly avoidable if the wording of the bill itself, well prior to being enacted, is sufficiently parsed and checked for both clarity and scope. In our desire to want a resolute fix for a larger societal ill, may we be cautious to not overplay our hand. If we do so, it does no one any good in the end.