Friday, April 27, 2018

Blind justice

Can you go into debt for something you logically can’t owe?

It sounds like a neat trick, but the Czech justice system is Just That Good.

Prague’s public transit system is an honor system with inspections.

You are required to have a valid ticket in order to ride, but they don’t check you on your way onto the bus with a farebox, or on your way into the subway with a turnstyle.

But they carry out random inspections, and if they ask you for a ticket and you don’t have one, you pay a substantial fine—currently 800 Kč (about $40) if you pay the inspector right there, or 1,500 Kč if you simply take the ticket and pay later.

People who are blind are entitled to free travel on public transportation. The transit system issues you an ID card explaining your condition, and you show that when the inspectors come around asking to see people’s tickets.

In other words, it is logically impossible for you to be riding without a ticket.

Vladimir Patera lost his sight in childhood and has the appropriate travel card from Prague Public Transit, so he was surprised when he started getting debt collection notices relating to incidents of riding without a ticket between 1998 and 2003.

(Details of Patera’s case are from “Úspěch Vladimira Patery [Vladimir Patera’s success]”, Respekt, April 23-29, 2018, pp. 27-8.)

Maybe someone had misused the birth certificate he’d lost while moving house? He’d show his transit ID and the mistake would be recognized.

But two levels of courts said that Patera should have defended himself what is known as the “discovery process,” and that once a debt-collection proceeding has been started, it’s too late to deal with the factual substance of the case.

Patera said he had never received notice of the discovery process, but that didn’t help him.

The debt collectors garnished his wages and ended up collecting 200,000 Kč from him.

(The Czech Republic has a very abusive debt-collection process, in which relatively minor debts get blown up by high interest rates and legal fees that far exceed the original debt. In a country of 10,500,000, there are 4.8 million debt-collection cases open, involving 843,000 people. With an average of almost six cases per person, many debtors are at levels which effectively mean they will never legally get out of debt.)

Patera managed to keep after his case, to the Constitutional Court, the country’s highest judicial body.
The court called it an “absurdity” to fine a blind person with an ID card for riding without a ticket, and it warned the authors of the earlier judicial decisions that with their formalistic approach, they were turning the law into “an instrument of theft and absurdity.”
Well put, Constitutional Court.

What is it in humans that enables us to commit such ludicrous acts?

Because while the debt problem may be particularly Czech, the attitude of the lower courts in Patera’s case isn’t unique to this country.

When Antonin Scalia died in 2016, a supposed quote made the rounds in which he seemed to say that there was no constitutional problem with executing an innocent person.

As often happens, the quote was a distorted version of what he actually wrote in a couple of Supreme Court decisions, but it did come close to the sense behind his real words.

In a 1993 case, a death-row inmate said he had new evidence of his innocence and so he appealed, and made it to the Supreme Court, where he argued that his actual innocence was a reason not to execute him.

According to Lara Bazelon in Slate, the convict’s supposed evidence of innocence was farcical (affidavits that all pinned the murder on his deceased partner in crime). But the weakness of his evidence wasn’t the reason for the Court turning him down.

Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote for the majority that it was simply too disruptive to allow last-minute claims of new evidence.

Scalia went further and wrote in a separate opinion, “There is no basis in text, tradition, or even in contemporary practice (if that were enough), for finding in the Constitution a right to demand judicial consideration of newly discovered evidence of innocence brought forward after conviction.” glosses this in context as meaning that, “sufficient legal relief already existed for people presenting new evidence of innocence (not that factual innocence was irrelevant) and that ruling otherwise would impose an unmanageable burden on lower courts to review newly discovered evidence.”

Which, well, ... OK.

But what if there is actual evidence of innocence?

In 2009, another claim of innocence on the part of a death-row inmate made it to the Supreme Court, this time with more substantive evidence.

And this time, the Court ordered the lower court to hear the new evidence.

As it turned out, the lower courts didn’t find the evidence convincing, and Troy Davis was eventually executed.

But Scalia (and Thomas) hadn’t agreed with having the evidence even looked at:
The Supreme Court, Scalia pointed out, had sent the trial judge on a “fool’s errand” because it has “never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is ‘actually innocent.’ ” It was pointless to find Davis innocent because innocence, by itself, was not a legal basis to overturn the conviction.
In the case of Mr. Patera, the law was an instrument of theft and absurdity.

Antonin Scalia was apparently content for the law to be an instrument of murder and absurdity.

He showed greater concern that the operation of the justice system be smooth and predictable than that its outcomes align with reality.

While the Czech debt-collection system is horrific, at least they don’t have the death sentence.

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