Edward Lamar Young knew he should not be committing crimes of burglary, especially after he already had served time in Tennessee prison more than 15 years earlier for the same thing. He had promised to “go straight” after his 1996 release and pretty much had done so until 2011, when he “fell off the wagon” and stole some items from cars and a business warehouse.
However, he sits infederal prison for 15 years and never was prosecuted for burglary. Why? He had some shotgun shells in his possession (he did not have a shotgun in which to use them) and according to federal law, a person with any criminal conviction cannot own either firearms or ammunition.
When the Chattanooga Times-Free Press publicized that situation, the response from its “law-abiding” readers was pretty straightforward: Young broke the rules and now he has to pay. The ferocity of the law itself, the mandatory 15-year sentence, or the fact that federal authorities were using what amounts to legal technicalities to circumvent Tennessee state law was irrelevant to the readers. Rules are rules.
For more than a decade, I have written on issues involving federal criminal law and police brutality, and the two really do go hand-in-hand. While Young admits that he did wrong and was willing to serve the time for burglary, an ambitious federal prosecutor, Chris Poole, decided that what really was needed was for Young to be separated from his wife and four children for a decade-and-a-half over a legal technicality. After all, Young never had been cited for violence against another person and not even Poole would say that Young imposed a danger to society of shooting others.
No, Poole acted brutally because, well, he could act brutally. And the public thinks it is fine because Young “broke the rules.” When I posted my disgust with the case on Facebook, someone else posted, “What about the burglary?” In other words, since he committed burglary, the federal prosecution was justified, and his words pretty much echoed what other Chattanoogans wrote in comments sections. To them, having shotgun shells in one’s possession and committing burglary were one and the same.
This point hardly is insignificant and it points to a most important development that has taken place in this country in the century since the ongoing Progressive Era began, and that development can be put into this one sentence: The United States, once a “nation of laws,” has become a “nation of rules.” More specifically, Americans increasingly are governed by rules set by legislative bodies, rules that are based upon arbitrary numbers and rules that often reflect knee-jerk reactions to something that has happened, and rules that often carry draconian penalties when they are violated.
Laws vs. Rules
Americans from ordinary citizens to politicians to lawyers and judges have come to assume that laws and rules are one and the same. When a state legislature declares that anyone riding in a car must be wearing a seat belt or that a restaurant cannot allow individuals to smoke tobacco products on their premises, such declarations carry the same weight as a law against one person indiscriminately taking the life of another, or someone entering another person’s property without the owner’s permission and taking goods from that person’s home. In the state where I now live (Maryland), signs on the highway remind motorists that a blood-alcohol limit of 0.8 percent is the threshold for “driving while intoxicated” or that drivers cannot use hand-held cellphones while driving constitute “the law.” MORE