Martini: shaken not stirred

 just call it the ownership tax  

An interesting change has crept into Canadian culture that threatens us all. Chances are you've heard about photo radar, red-light cameras, and other surveillance-based forms of law enforcement. These approaches make sense upon an initial, casual glance. After all, who isn't in favor of stopping the carnage on our highways by keeping speeds at reasonable levels and nailing those who run red lights?

The problem is not the intention of these technologies, but their implementation. Because what they've introduced is a new legal viewpoint that has chilling repercussions.

To make photo radar viable, the law has to assume that the person receiving the ticket is guilty before being proven innocent. This turns our accepted understanding of constitutional rights on its head. Guilty as charged. You now have to prove your innocence or accept the verdict. That's a scary concept for a number of reasons, primarily because it opens the door for more oppressive legislation in the future.

The other frightening thing that photo radar brings to light is the subtle change it has made to due legal process. Rather than charging the perpetrator with the infraction, this new process requires the recipient to take the blame purely on the basis of ownership rather than action. Whether you were driving the vehicle or not isn't even the point when you receive such a ticket. What matters is only that you own the vehicle that committed the deed.

When this concept is drawn out to its natural conclusion, the prospect is scary indeed. Imagine if your neighbor borrowed your axe to chop some firewood. Perhaps you've known him for years. A few days later the police arrest you on the basis that your axe was used in a murder. Instead of seeking to identify the true perpetrator of the crime, the case is built against you entirely on the fact that you are the legal owner of the weapon used in the crime.

An unlikely scenario? Today it is. But I'm not so sure it will always be so unlikely. There are already many cases where people are wrongly convicted of crimes, often on the most circumstantial evidence. Once it's accepted that mere ownership of a tool used in a crime (even a crime as benign as speeding) makes you guilty, then it's a small step to take that argument to more serious crimes. Just as scary is the knowledge that those advocating these tools are claiming that we have a "responsibility" to ensure that our possessions are used responsibly. In other words, don't let anyone--not even your closest family members--use anything that belongs to you for any reason in case you have to pay the price for how they use it.

This viewpoint pulls friends, neighbors, and family members in opposite directions. It destroys cooperation and friendship. What kind of stress is caused when parents refuse to let their teenage children drive the family car in case they speed or cause an accident for which the parents will be held responsible? What kind of tests are people supposed to apply to argue successfully that they took every precaution before loaning someone anything?

I'm amazed that judges can actually look the other way when legal battles over photo radar have been fought. Without such clear definitions, surveillance-based law enforcement turns our constitutional rights upside down, and forms nothing more than a tax on asset ownership, a tax on the family and a tax on friendship. If we don't reverse this process now, it may be too late by the time we see where it takes us.

Note to readers: A few years ago a friend of mine received a photo radar ticket which, it turned out, was snapped while I was driving his vehicle. Yes, I paid his $150 fine. 

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