Enforcing laws against victimless crimes is never easy. Limited resources force local governments to constantly assess their law-enforcement priorities, assigning the squad cars and jail beds to the most pressing problems facing their jurisdiction. The problems that don’t make the cut? Unless there’s a revenue motive at play (see: red light cameras, speed cameras), local law enforcement often has little choice but to tolerate the breaking, or under-enforcement of certain laws. Which begs the question: on a scale of, say, murder to marijuana possession, just how bad is speeding?
It’s a question that the fair city of Chicago is grappling with right now, following an investigative report by the Tribune that shows:
For hundreds of motorists caught driving that fast every year, court supervision helps keep their insurance rates low while stopping officials from using the tickets as a reason to suspend their licenses… A Tribune analysis of state police tickets, license data and court records shows that since 2006, Chicagoland courts have given supervision to nearly two-thirds of those found guilty of driving 100 mph or faster.
The implication: citizens of Chicago can speed with impunity. But then, what motorist sees speed limits as being as important as, say, laws against theft or assault? Luckily, the Trib’s exposé isn’t about legal theory, or even the devastating effects of unpunished speeding… it’s pure political gotcha.
Judges across the area defended supervision as a helpful alternative to conviction, but some were surprised at how often their peers handed it out. Also surprised was the state’s keeper of driving records: Secretary of State Jesse White. Citing the Tribune’s findings, White now wants to ban supervision for extreme speeders.
Not because the state doesn’t have bigger law-enforcement priorities, or because road deaths are disproportionately due to speeders (winter conditions and drunk drivers are the big killers on area roads). Or because serial supervision-receivers aren’t being targeted (a 2005 law forbids more than two supervisions per driver per year). The IIHS’s Russ Rader does bring up a good point when he argues that “a lot of what these (supervision) programs effectively do is hide the records of careless, reckless drivers.” But what neither he, nor the now on-the-warpath White want to face are the real reasons for the popularity of the court supervision program for speeders. A local judge explains:
Some judges do 7,000 cases a month, and you have municipalities who are as interested in revenue as they are in a conviction.
Ah, the old “R” word. In addition to community service and a probationary period, court supervision usually involves a larger fine than might otherwise be levied. In essence, it’s a plea deal that pays for itself (if you speed often enough) by keeping a conviction from running up your insurance premium. The court brings in revenue, and drivers caught breaking a law that every citizen breaks at least once if they drive often enough, get to move on with their lives. Where’s the problem?
White will try to change that. Based on the Tribune’s findings, his office helped draft a bill last week to ban supervision for people going at least 40 mph over the speed limit. Because most area interstates have 55 mph limits, it would cover the vast majority of the area’s triple-digit speeders.
“No driver has any business driving that rate of speed,” said White spokesman Henry Haupt.
Note that he didn’t say “no driver is capable of safely driving at that rate of speed.” This is acutally important, considering that the Tribune caps off its politician-riling muckraking with a fittingly inapplicable example:
In July 2008, Johnson’s Lexus sped past a trooper at 110 mph while weaving along I-57 near Dixmoor, before exiting and hitting 105 mph on a side street. Police said his blood-alcohol level was 0.120, which is 50 percent higher than the legal limit.
In the eight previous years, Johnson had received five supervisions on six speeding tickets.
Still, a judge waived the state-mandated six-month driver suspension for the DUI arrest. Then another judge gave the Bourbonnais man supervision for two years. Illinois law allows supervision for a first-time DUI. In exchange, Johnson agreed to pay $1,035 in fines and promised to follow the law.
But in June 2009, while on supervision, Johnson was clocked at 100 mph on I-57 in Markham. He never showed up in court and remains missing. To date, no judge has revoked the court-approved supervision for his high-speed DUI.
You see, the problem isn’t the non-enforcement of DUI laws, it’s the non-enforcement of speeding laws. Johnson shouldn’t have received supervision because he was driving over 100 mph, not because he was drunk off his face. Good thing we have newspapers like the Chicago Tribune to set our law-enforcement priorities straight. And good thing we have politicians as spineless as White to be cowed into embarrassed, unthinking knee-jerk reactions. Otherwise the good people of Chicago might think that speeding isn’t always necessarily an endangerment of others, and is therefore a less urgent law enforcement priority than, say, driving drunk. And God help us if that ever happens.