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What The Hell Do They Want?

A former client of mine contacted me a while back asking for help with a situation that makes my blood boil. He’s a smart guy and a good person, but his life has been a constant struggle, a fight to escape a hard life of poverty and mental illness. He never got any of the luck breaks most of us have had at some point or another. For a while, it seemed like he was on the right track, though.

Sadly, he found himself in trouble again. That was when he called. I could’ve been disappointed, but I mostly just felt awful for him. I wanted to give him a hug and go back in time to make everything right, but that’s never going to happen. You can’t undo some things.

He is alleged to have wrecked his car driving after drinking. After the accident, he sat in the car barely awake and tried to call 911 before passing out. Someone came upon the scene, but that person just stole his phone and the money out of his wallet. Quite the good Samaritan, huh? Whoever it was didn’t call an ambulance or attempt to help in any way whatsoever. When help finally did arrive, they took my former client to the hospital. Medical treatment facilities would serve as his home for months. He was in a coma for some time.

When he woke up, he learned he could not walk. He was told he would never walk again, in fact. He will live the rest of his life in pain too. A caregiver will push him around in a wheelchair until the day he dies. He will cope with a morning regimen of seventeen medications that do little other than make his remaining time on earth just tolerable enough to exist. Little did he know then that things could actually get worse.

When he finally returned home to start his new life, he received a summons for a DUI case. It was ten months after he lost his mobility as well as his phone and the cash in his wallet. It was only days after he got home.

In law school, they taught us about theories of punishment. Retribution (they deserve it), utility (someone will be better off for it), and restitution (let’s make things right for the victim) are the focus of whole courses. They almost make it seem as if prosecutors think about that sort of thing. Based solely on law school, you might even think that prosecutors are something other than automatons playing choose-your-own-punishment with someone else life because their politician bosses and the state’s politician legislators are all either too stupid or too busy pandering to a scared public to do anything other than mindlessly try to stick as many unlucky people in cages as possible while micromanaging or fining the lucky ones.

Which of those supposedly worthy goals of punishment is achieved with a DUI conviction for a man that will never drive or even walk and can never again drink because he’ll die if he does? What else does he deserve? What lesson will a conviction teach him that he hasn’t already learned? What’s he going to take away from a MADD victim impact panel that he hasn’t already experienced first hand? Who will benefit from him being convicted? Who can he possibly hurt now? Who other than him needs to be made whole?

Fine him and he’ll just be donating his disability money to another part of the same government that pays for everything he needs in the first place. It’s not like he has a job anymore. It’s not like he’s going to go shopping and blow his money on frivolities. He gets enough to exist because he can’t earn it on his own now, and if he has to pay more, the government will have to give him more. The court would be ordering a fine the government that runs it will have to pay. Put him on probation and he’ll spend the government’s money being driven to and from the office of someone who can’t do a damn thing for him or anyone else on his behalf. Put him in jail and he’ll suffer at the government’s expense.

The law prohibits drunk driving, and the law provides for punishment. I get that. Sometimes, the law is ridiculous, though. Sometimes, the law as applied would serve absolutely no purpose. That’s the way it is for my former client.

Shouldn’t there at least be some point to it? What do they want from him? If the point of the law is cruelty, then it’s succeeded. If the point is anything else, then it’s failed. Miserably.

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4 Responses to "What The Hell Do They Want?"

  1. Matt
    I very much get your meaning and agree with you. There is something of prosecutorial ‘piling on’ this hapless guy. However, as I recall not just from law school but from my undergraduate philosophy courses, the theories of punishment are more nuanced than merely utilitarian, retribution and later restitution.

    They can be reduced to: deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation and retribution, which incorporates restitution. Implied in your point, however, is the reality that modern society long ago gave up on anything but the retributive model and to a lesser extent, deterrence.

    In the case of your former client, however, what’s clearly at play in spite of his now much diminished and dire circumstances is incapacitation. He’s already done this to himself and as a result, he isn’t going anywhere in a car anytime soon. In the abstract, though, what underpins punishment for DUI is the notion of keeping offenders off the road and thereby, presumably from harming the rest of us on the roads. In your ex-client’s case, unfortunately, prosecutors don’t normally abide by “there but for the grace of god go I” but tend to adopt instead a holier-than-though attitude requiring them to bring down the full force of the law on offenders no matter their altered circumstances. I you know this better than I. This is your area of expertise not mine. But I completely understand and empathize with why your blood boils over it.

    – Mo

  2. Sometimes—disturbingly often—it’s clear enough that the only purpose of criminal sentencing some really care to pursue is retribution. Then the outcomes sought or eventually imposed are determined well in advance of any offer of mitigation. This is a common enough foible in people (making up one’s mind like this ahead of time), but the consequences can be particularly outrageous when it manifests itself in our courts. We can take a garden-variety human frailty and ruin people’s lives with it to no intelligent purpose.

  3. shg says:

    A few years back, Jeralyn Merritt at TalkLeft coined the phrase “life plus cancer” to capture the insatiable need for retribution.

    Is it not enough that your client will never walk again? No. For some, it’s not enough. For some, it’s never enough.

    1. Matt Brown says:

      For me, the most unsettling part about some people never being satisfied unless the justice system is involved is the fact those people are not just overwhelmingly the ones who pass and enforce the laws but also seem to make up a majority of the voting public.

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