Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Equal Treatment Under the Law

A friend of mine retired from a career with the Utah Highway Patrol a couple of years ago. He has a number of interesting stories from his years with the Patrol. One of them occurred a number of years ago during the run up to a general election.

My friend was patrolling in an area near the Salt Lake Airport when he saw a vehicle towing a rather large trailer. It was well after dark, but the trailer sported none of the lights that are required by law. The trailer had some kind of large sign on it. Given the nature of the traffic, the trailer presented a public hazard, so my friend pulled the driver over.

As he walked from his patrol car to the towing vehicle, my friend saw that the sign was a political sign for one of the candidates for governor. He greeted the driver and asked if he was aware that his trailer lacked the legally required lights. The well-dressed distinguished looking man in his mid 50s admitted that he was aware of this, but said he was in a pinch where he was unable to remedy the lighting problem prior to transporting the trailer.

My friend treated the man respectfully and took his license and registration back to his patrol car for normal checks. Everything checked out, so my friend wrote the man a ticket for his infraction. When he returned to the man’s vehicle, the fellow became rather upset about the ticket.

The driver looked at my friend and sputtered incredulously, “Why, don’t you know who I am?!” My friend looked at the man’s license. He honestly had no clue who the fellow was, other than from the information on his license. None of that rang a bell. But it seemed quite obvious that the fellow felt that he was someone of significant importance.

My friend was chagrined that this man would attempt to use his position of authority — whatever it may be — as leverage to prevent a police officer from performing his duty. Nevertheless, my friend worked to maintain a pleasant and calm demeanor. In answer to the man’s question, my friend honestly stated, “No, sir, I do not.”

The man’s mouth opened in astonishment. He started to say something, but then obviously thought better of it. He looked angrily at my friend and spat out the words, “Fine. Just give me the ticket then.” After my friend tore off the recipient copy and handed it to the man, the guy muttered, “I’ll get this taken care of myself.” He then drove off in a huff.

I contrast that event with an experience I had when I was 18 years old. I was riding in a car that was northbound on I-15 in the south part of the Salt Lake Valley. Our driver was an off-duty Utah Highway Patrol officer, who happened to have a little bit of a lead foot. Lights flashed in the rearview mirror and we were pulled over by a Highway Patrol officer. We were all surprised, because we were only exceeding the speed limit by about eight miles per hour.

I noticed that when our driver handed over his license and registration he was very careful to make sure that his law enforcement badge in his wallet remained concealed. After he received a warning and was on his way, one of the riders asked our driver why he was so careful about his badge in that instance. Couldn’t he have gotten off easier if he had allowed the officer to see his badge?

Our driver replied that if he got pulled over he should be treated just like any other citizen. He said that it would be an abuse of the public’s trust to attempt to use his position as a law enforcement officer to influence the outcome of a traffic stop or to get any personal favor.

I find it instructive that a lowly police officer had much more respect for the rule of law than did the politician. The former believed in equal treatment under the law. The latter did not. Perhaps this is simply because a significant characteristic of politics is the production and giving of special favors — purposefully treating people unequal, always in the name of doing good, of course.

I don’t know about you, but I felt that our driver in the second example demonstrated the kind of character to which we all should aspire, while the politician in the first story illustrates the ignoble elements of human nature that we would do well to shun.


Tim Malone said...

Your observation is well made. Sometimes character seems to escape those who seek after office as the pinnacle of success and influence. I'll take character over the giving and receiving of favors any day. I enjoyed your well written essay. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

If I had been the officer pulling over the politician and he said "Don't you know who I am?" I probably would have answered "Yes, sir, I do. That's why you're getting the ticket."

Anonymous said...

I'm impressed with your officer friend - it would be very easy for him to want to display his badge to minimize the consequences of his lead foot.

Sadly, the politician does not surprise me - "it is the nature of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, {to take advantage of that authority}." (Doctrine and Covenants 121:39)