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Some laws we enforce, some we don't. So what?

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, May 16, 2005

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Over the weekend news reports reminded us that North Carolina law makes local poker playing contests illegal. Those who participate are, according to the law, criminals. The same rules would apply to most of the informal games of chance some of us enjoy from time to time.

The common office pool on the NCAA basketball tournament may be the activity that makes more North Carolinians common criminals than any other.

But there are contenders for that distinction.

North Carolina law makes it a crime for two people who are not married to each other to “co-habit.”

North Carolina law makes it a crime for two people who are not married to each other to “co-habit.” There are not enough prisons in or near North Carolina to hold all the people that this law makes into criminals.

“Wait a minute,” I can hear you shouting to me. “What about the speed limits? If everybody who goes over the posted speed limit is a criminal, then everybody who drives a car is a criminal.”

Of course, you are right. Everybody, it seems, drives at least a couple of miles over the speed limit. Anyone who does not is holding up traffic. We have our own rules about how much over the posted limit is our target maximum speed. What is yours? Five miles above the limit? Seven? Eight?

Many young people—18 to 21 years old—will tell you that they ignore the law that prohibits them from purchasing or consuming alcoholic beverages. They know that they are criminals and that there might be a risk that they would be arrested and convicted. But, they will tell you that their risk is not much more than the risk of getting hit by lightning.

Hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians who make catalogue or internet purchases of goods fail to pay the required “use” tax that arises when the merchant does not collect a sales tax. More criminals.

Thousands and thousands of illegal immigrants work in North Carolina homes, yards, and jobsites. The immigrants and those of us who hire them are often in criminal violation of the immigration laws. But nobody ever seems to go to jail.

A proposal in the legislature would grant “instate tuition” rates to children of illegal immigrants who attend institutions of higher education in North Carolina. I favor this proposal as I would any other that would increase the education level of people who live in our state. But the proposal reminds us how we have come to accept a set of laws that define almost every one of us as a criminal.

Is there a danger in having so many of us be common criminals—subject to arrest at almost any moment should a law enforcement officer decide he wanted to “get us”? What is the purpose of having so many laws that are usually not strictly enforced?

Maybe we would explain our un-enforced laws like a man in a western state did recently on National Public Radio. His state’s law against co-habitation is almost never used to prosecute anyone. But, he said, the existence of the law “sends a good message about the values of the community.”

Maybe our law prohibiting co-habitation sends a similar message about our values—as do our seldom strictly enforced laws dealing with gambling, speeding, drinking, tax evasion, and immigration.

On the other hand, what is the message our enforcement practices send about our respect for a system of laws?

How do we explain to our children (and ourselves) which laws we should obey and which ones are mostly to “send a good message about the values of the community”?

There are good and practical reasons for the policies of non-enforcement of some of our laws. These “reasons” do not diminish the danger of a lack of respect for all laws that is bred from a common “disrespect” for a larger and larger group of laws we do not enforce.

D.G. Martin is the author of “Interstate Eateries” a handbook of home cooking places near North Carolina’s interstate highways—available through Our State Magazine. He is the host of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs on Sundays at 5:00 p.m. This week’s (May 22) guest is Steven Sherrill, author of “Visits from the Drowned Girl.”

May 22: Steven Sherrill, Visits from the Drowned Girl

May 29: Carl Ernst, Following Muhammad

Special UNC-TV programming on June 5 and 12 will preempt NC Bookwatch

June 19: John May, Poe & Fanny

June 26: Walter Turner, Paving Tobacco Road

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Some laws we enforce, some we don't. So what?

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