Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Do the right thing... OR ELSE

As I tend to be liberal leaning, I am, of course, a proponent of social responsibility and community. But I also understand the importance of personal freedom. Most of us remember the series finale of "Seinfeld"... the plot revolved around the Seinfeld characters being arrested and convicted under a "good Samaritan" law, whereby people could be arrested and convicted if they did not intervene on the behalf of a stranger in distress. The episode took a direct jab at many such "Samaritan" laws that have been passed in states throughout the country. They were being mocked, and rightfully so.

Today's online edition of the Ithaca Journal (Ithaca, NY) carries an editorial about a proposed bill in NY State known as "Steven's Law", after Steven Bacon, the victim of a tragic hit and run accident in 2007. If passed, the law would carry penalties for witnesses of an accident that do not report the accident to the appropriate authorities. The penalties would include fines of up to $500... but more importantly could count as a misdemeanor on a person's criminal record.

In principal, (and of course absent the over-the-top comic delivery presented in the Seinfeld episode) it sounds like a good idea. We should all endeavour to help our fellow humans, especially when they are in real distress. However, is it the responsibility of a society to impose this morality on its citizens? While I personally have a strong internal imperative to intervene and offer help when it is needed, and to report crimes or abuses when I see them, I find the enforcement of those morals, under penalty of law, to be an affront to personal freedom.

While reporting an accident is certainly the right thing to do, and I would of course encourage anyone to do so in any circumstance, is it really right to hold someone criminally negligent for not doing so? I'm not sure I can make that argument. People have all sorts of reasons for not wanting to become involved in certain situations... is it the responsibility of society to adjudicate that decision? I have a hard time with that.

Additionally, I think an attempt to enforce such a law would be nearly impossible. The concept itself is too ambiguous and far to open to interpretation of a given incident. So, besides being socially questionable in my mind, passing a law that is almost impossible to enforce is simply irresponsible. And while I am saddened by the tragic accident that caused the death of an otherwise innocent man, and am outraged by the behavior of a thug that would drive away and leave someone to die, passing a law that punishes the witnesses, especially with a misdemeanor on their record for the simple act of refusing to get involved, seems more like anger and vengeance than justice. That's not what our system of justice is supposed to be about.

Thankfully, this bill never got through the committee, but the editorial writer of the Ithaca Journal article believes it deserves more attention. The article concludes with the line: "It's a law that could save a life". While this may be true, it's unlikely. What is far more likely is that some witness, while in no way involved with an accident, will find themselves with a criminal record for not wanting to get involved. I'm sorry, but I must whole-heartedly disagree with the editorial writer. Doing the right thing is a virtue. Forcing people to do the right thing... I'm not so sure.

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