By Eddie Adamson
After recently celebrating a few decades service in the “strong arm” of the executive branch of government which is better known as law enforcement, I feel somewhat qualified to offer my thoughts on why it is unrealistic for people to expect all laws to be enforced. In simple form, after the legislative branch passes a law, it then becomes the task of the executive branch to bring any violators before the judicial branch to be held accountable. However, there are some reasons why laws aren’t always enforced.
One of the reasons is simply when a large portion of the population chooses to ignore the law. An example of such a law deals with breaking the Sabbath.1
Here in Oklahoma it is a criminal offense to perform servile work on the Sabbath. When I came across this statute I looked up the definition of “servile” and found that even cutting your own lawn can be considered servile work. There are a few exceptions in the law but I can only imagine the backlog that would result in district court if each person who went to work or cut their grass on a Sunday was brought before the judge. According to state law it is a crime; but I feel certain that judges around the state would immediately have some vocal visits with law enforcement administrators and explain the judicious use of discretion by officers in dealing with such crimes.
This brings me to the issue of discretion which some people feel is a taboo topic. Discretion is that situation where the executive branch of government (law enforcement) may not enforce a law. To some people discretion is considered a nasty concept and should never be brought into the equation because it means people are not treated equally or some laws are not enforced. However, in real world situations, discretion is a necessary and normal occurrence. If you have ever received a warning for a traffic violation; that is an example of discretion at work. Law enforcement is constantly in a flux as to what are the most important problems and what crimes actually need to be dealt with for the good of the community it serves. I know of many cases around the country where it is routine for an officer working drug interdiction to catch someone with a few ounces of marijuana and simply write them a ticket and let them go on down the road. The logic behind the practice is that if you are spending your time on a few ounces then you aren’t spending your time to get a few tons that is being transported by someone else. It becomes a balancing act for the officers on the streets who face decisions on how to deal with a variety of crimes on a daily basis. It boils down to picking your battles. Which is more important to you as a citizen: having an officer on patrol looking for someone trying to burglarize a business downtown or having the officer inspecting a local bar to make sure there is no simulated sex with a baby hippopotamus taking place.2
Just in case you were wondering; Yes, that is illegal in a bar.
This brings us to the final reason why not all laws are enforced that being the sheer magnitude in the number of of laws in existence. With laws ranging from it being illegal to operate a self service gas station in Guymon without an attendant on duty,3
to the prohibition of murder; you can be pretty certain that just about any issue you can think up that needs a law there will already be a law in effect to cover it. With tens of thousands of federal and state laws, hundreds of thousands of local ordinances, and countless enforceable regulations on the books throughout our nation, the number of laws quickly becomes mind boggling. There are not enough policemen in our country to make even a veiled attempt at arresting for just a very small portion of the violations that occur every day. I also have to admit that although courts have said that ignorance of a law is no defense from its prosecution; it would qualify as utter insanity for anyone to believe they know all the laws that they are to follow. To give you an idea, I will mention just a few that are in effect in just our city. Did you know that before you throw trash in a dumpster it is required to be in a sealed up bag4
? How about the fact that you are required to clean your trash dumpster if anything is stuck to the inside after a trash truck empties it?5
Were you aware that if you wash your car in your driveway it is illegal to allow the dirty water to run into the street?6
More often than not, a law is followed by a person because the person feels that it is the right way to act rather than from any fear of a penalty for violating it. Historically, a populations teachings to their young children about what is right or wrong often steers the child away from violating serious crimes later in life. As society itself changes and its beliefs on what is right or wrong becomes even more varied, it makes it harder for a person to act in a way they feel is right and know that it isn’t illegal. Luckily though, in case you are torn on whether you believe it is right or wrong to ride a bicycle without a bell on it down a street here in town, that is one of the crimes that officers usually use discretion with when it is encountered.7
About the author — Eddie Adamson has been involved in law enforcement for over 20 years and been active in training police, military, and civilians throughout the country.