Out of court

Monday, June 17, 2013

Peruvian Boot Caper

     My wife and I just returned from a fantastic 17 day trip to Peru, including the Amazon basin and high Andes mountains sites.  Machu Picchu lived up to its reputation for its high plateau setting, its variable lighting and the stunning stone work of the Incan city and terraces there.

     When we came back to Lima from the Amazon part of the trip, our group of 16 rode a bus to the national history museum.  At the museum, our guide encouraged us to leave all of our backpacks and other property on the bus, since it would be safe.  We did as instructed.  Upon our return, they had switched buses.  Our backpacks and property were all piled in the front seat of the new bus.  Except that Dana's boots were missing.  She had changed into sandals at the museum and left her brand new Merrill boots and custom made inserts near her backpack.  We notified the guides about this.

    The new bus and its cargo hold were thoroughly searched to no avail.  Dana was questioned about whether she may have left her boots back in the Amazon.   Despite our certainty that they were on the bus, our trip leader set a search of our previous lodges in motion.  At some point the blame game began.  Our trip leader-guide implied that the local Lima guide who encouraged us to leave things behind on the bus should have warned us about the bus switch.  But later we found out that he might not have been warned about the bus switch.  Even so, the local Lima guide initially denied encouraging us to leave things behind.  Later he apologized to Dana but I don't think he actually accepted any responsibility.  The next day our trip leader told us that the bus company is not supposed to do any property handling or transfer without a guide present.  So now the bus company was to blame.  Later we learned that the driver of the first bus denied any knowledge of the boots and was ultimately fired.

     I told the trip leader that from our point of view the travel group--Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) should just let us know that they are taking responsiblity for the loss and ultimate restitution for the missing boots and inserts.  No such statement was made but the trip leader spent many hours on the phone tracking down every possibility.  Coincidentally we had travel insurance with OAT, which they suggested we file a claim under.

     Before we left Lima, our trip leader took Dana to the local cop shop to make a report.  There was one high ranking officer (male) and a female tourist police officer.  They only spoke Spanish and Dana did not understand them.  They had one internet connection between their two computers and they had to keep plugging and unplugging each computer to do their work.  After over an hour, they produced a typewritten report in Spanish.  It was never fully translated for Dana, but she felt compelled to sign it.  It turned out that it stated that the boots were in a black daypack (which was untrue.)  The trip leader insisted on this unnecessary fiction to make sure the Peruvian police took it seriously (as if it would solve the problem.)  Why we never knew. 

     One thing is for sure: The Peruvian police and our trip leader spent a heckuva lot of time on this without any resolution, except that a bus driver lost his job.  If this had occurred in the U.S., the police might have spent 15 minutes on a report and filed it away.  Without proof, though, no one would have been fired here.  We theorized that the boots might have been dropped in the transfer and lost.  Or that the bus driver stole them, or that he accidentally left the bus unlocked and someone else stole them.  Theories but not answers.  Now we have to file an insurance claim.  In the end, a minor mishap, and an insight into the strange methodology of the Peruvian police in an otherwise magnificent trip.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


     This motto of TV news can often drive the criminal justice system.  Seattle recently has had several horrific DUI (alleged) accidents in which innocent people were killed.  Within just a few weeks, our new Governor and the Legislature--a bipartisan group, no less--are proposing stiffer new penalties and restrictions for driving under the influence.  Obviously they are reacting to the news.  Nothing unites liberal and conservative politicians more than an easy target which has no constituency.  Well, maybe the restaurant/bar and liquor lobby...but they won't object as long as it doesn't dent their wallets.  The Legislature will have to hurry, as the regular session expires on April 28.  That does not bode well for a thoughtful new law.

     So the easiest political solution is to increase the penalties--more jail, which is what is proposed for second and third DUI's.  A second DUI will have a 6 month mandatory sentence or time on a transdermal device.  This device is an ankle bracelet that measures the alcohol exuded in one's sweat and then electronically sends a signal to the supervising company.  Sentinel Offender Services is the company Seattle Municipal Court uses.  These devices cost the defendant about $11 per day, which for a six month period would cost nearly $2000.  Now most arrestees do not have that kind of  scratch at hand, so either a city or county will pay (doubtful) or jail will be the only alternative--also a taxpayer expense. 

     This expense is over and above the mandatory fines and assessments which for a second offender are around $1,500, not to mention the high risk insurance, the ignition interlock device ($70-100 per month) and the cost of alcohol treatment.  All but the well off DUI offender will be in debt for a second offense.  For a third DUI, the mandatory time of a year is the proposed penalty, which also is the maximum penalty.  This means there will be no incentive to plead and more trials (expense) will ensue.

     The proposal for first offenders is a criminal filing within 48 hours and no release of the offending vehicle until an ignition interlock device is installed.  With 38,000 new DUI arrests in Washington each year, this poses a challenge to financially strapped city and county prosecutors.  Even Seattle Municipal court which files much faster than King County normally does not file within 48 hours.  As of 2013, in King County, which files the most DUI's of any jurisdiction in the state, there is about a 60 day lag between routine DUI arrests and the first appearance in court.   Shortening this time up will take a few more deputies at a minimum.  If booking in the jail is required after every DUI arrest, the cost to the counties and the prosecutor's offices may not be within their current budgets. 

     As for the imposition of interlock devices before release of the vehicle, there is a due process problem.  Without time for a court or administrative body to provide a meaningful hearing on whether the arrest and/or seizure of the vehicle is legal, it may not withstand a constitutional challenge.  More significant is the right of an innocent owner of the vehicle, such a spouse or a parent.  Will they be deprived of a ride to work or school for the sins of another?

     Finally, the most radical proposal is the ten year ban on alcohol for third timers.  This prohibition would be enforced by creating a special driver’s license and requiring bars, restaurants and liquor stores to card everybody, regardless of age.  Here is where the restaurant/bar and liquor lobby may object. For they would become drink cops making sure everyone at the table is allowed to drink!  What if the prohibited husband is caught taking a taste of his wife's wine?  Will he be booted from the restaurant?  And will she go down as an accomplice?

     Will any of this work?  Will this decrease alcohol related accidents--the ultimate purpose of all this lawmaking?  Isn't our drive and drink culture at the root of this?  For starters we know that these new laws will cost the taxpayers more money.  One proposal is to re-up the beer tax.  Maybe Tim Eyman will propose an initiative to block that--wrecking more havoc on government programs and budgets. 

     As long as suburban restaurants (their prime profit maker) and country taverns serve alcohol, people will drink and drive.  In big cities, there are more taxis and public transit to turn to, but people still like the freedom of driving.  So I am skeptical that the proposed draconian penalties will quickly reduce alcohol related accident rate, as long as some drinking and driving are legal--which is the case.  How about a designated driver custom?  Every person or group at a bar, restaurant or tavern must have a designated driver, whether a taxi, bus or person in their party before alcohol can be served?  What would the  restaurant/bar and liquor lobby think of that?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Corruption is a Cancer

     I happened to be in Egypt touring about 2 months before the revolution in January 2011.  People often ask me if I noticed any sign of it coming.  Frankly few Egyptians would openly discuss their politics with an American tourist, other than some nicety about our current Prez.  However, one older taxicab driver did mention something that I now realize was a peek into an open sore there.  It happened when he told us to meet him in a certain location after we toured a mosque.  When he hastily pulled up, he told us to hurry up and get in his cab before the police came.  I asked him if that was due to traffic.  No, he replied, he did not like paying bribes to the police so normally they would not let him pick up or drop off passengers in that location.  He was angry about that and went on about how corrupt the police were and how it made life for him much tougher.  I didn't connect that complaint to the revolution until later when I learned of the Tunisian vendor who burned himself to death because he was harassed by the police for their bribes.  Corruption is what ignited the Arab Spring.

    Egypt is still in political turmoil due to the reigning party refusing to share power or respect minority rights, but I have no idea if there is less corruption.  What I do know is that in many societies corruption is endemic.  We were just in India last November and there corrupt police took bribes right before our eyes.  It happened in the holy city of Varanasi, which is on the Ganges River where people come from all over India to purify themselves in "Mother Ganga."  (To me the Ganges is filthy and polluted.  I wouldn't put my toes in it, but we saw people bathing in it and drinking it right next to holy cows that ambled past them in the shallows.)  Anyway, I was standing on a street corner about a mile from the riverfront and apparently the police were preventing most motor vehicles from entering this very congested street where the hordes descend to the water.  However, every now and then, a tuk-tuk driver (3-wheeled golf cart-like cab) would stop and hand a few bills or coins to the cop and drive into the so-called forbidden zone.  If I wanted, I could have waited and videotaped more transactions.

     This was minor corruption compared to what the high level politicians in India had going.  While in India, the India Times ran a story about the millions of dollars each and every ruling government coalition since independence from England in 1947 had scored from corruption--building contracts, payoffs, permit payments--you name it.  The justice system and police were especially corrupt.  This was well documented in a recent Pulitzer prize winning book--"Behind the Beautiful Forevers."  Reading like a novel, this book details the actual lives of some individuals living in the slums of Mumbai (aka Bombay).  Several family members in the book are falsely accused of murder and the family is literally forced to bribe police and judicial officers to prevent further injustice.  It is a book to make anyone angry.  Recently the rape and murder of a young woman which was ostensibly aided or at least overlooked by corrupt police made the news.  Whether it will lead to meaningful reforms is hard to say.

     Just scan the news and stories on corruption span the globe.  Consider the drug cartels in Latin America, or the national sport of tax evasion in Italy or Greece, or the near absolute power of industrialists in China and don't forget the Russian Mafia and its government which will punish its own un-adopted children to spite America.    

    Which leads to America.  Here, the police and judicial system is quite clean.  I grew up in Chicago where voting "early and often" were touted. It is no longer corrupt there but in many states there have been barriers erected to make it harder for some people to vote.  More significant is the corruption that unlimited campaign spending has caused.  It is complex but it is obvious that Congress is beholden to powerful interests and lobbies who donate to their campaigns freely.  Maybe a congressman cannot enrich himself personally but he can fatten his campaign budget by voting the right way.  After he retires from Congress he can work for one of his favorite lobbies or industries and then enrich himself.  This is corruption American style.  And it is slowly eroding our democratic ideals. 

    I doubt we will have an "Arab Spring" here but the power of money is perilous.