Back to previous post: Are those gears on your staff?

Go to Making Light's front page.

Forward to next post: Reason 6,136 that the internet is not a waste of time

Subscribe (via RSS) to this post's comment thread. (What does this mean? Here's a quick introduction.)

November 9, 2010

It’s good to be all the king’s men
Posted by Avram Grumer at 10:56 PM * 47 comments

Did Congress declare Educate the Public About the Hierarchy of Justice Week and I missed the announcement? Because the past few days have drawn a very clear diagram of the modern American law-enforcement privilege pyramid.

At the bottom of the pyramid, black and Hispanic men, who can be stopped on the street and frisked for no legal reason.

Just above that, college students, for whom a non-violent crime like hacking into a high-profile website nets a 30-month sentence.

Above that, local cops, who can kill an unarmed and restrained man and get a shorter sentence than our computer hacker, above.

What’s better than being a cop? Being a financial manager for “ultra high net worth individuals”. A Morgan Stanley Smith Barney money-shuffler in Colorado rear-ended a bicyclist, then drove off, but the state DA has decided not to bring felony charges, because that might affect the guy’s job.

But there’s a rank even higher than that! At the top of the heap, you get federal intelligence agents, who can destroy evidence in a torture-related murder case, and the Justice Department will just sit there “investigating” until the statute of limitations runs out.

Comments on It’s good to be all the king’s men:
#1 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 11:11 PM:

You . . . you, you're engaging in CLASS WARFARE!
[/righteous indignation]
[/slow, disgusted shake of the head, indicating that only spoiled whiners would even think about comparisons like this]

#2 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 11:56 PM:

You get the president and vice-president, who can publicly admit to lying to start a war, or to ordering people to be assassinated or tortured, with no fear of ever being charged with war crimes. (And they aren't ashamed of any of it.)

#3 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 01:58 AM:

Abraham Maslow is spinning in his grave even as we speak.

#4 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 02:42 AM:

The Cops We Deserve (via Whump)

#5 ::: glinda ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 02:48 AM:

We've got yet another of the cops-killing-unarmed-man things in Seattle - the latest is the supposedly oh-so-dangerous woodcarving knife, with the 3" blade, was locked in the closed position.

But, y'know, the guy who got shot was homeless, and Native American, and and and (do NOT read any of the newspaper comment sections about this. Just, don't.)

Gah. Must be nice to have that much entitlement in one's backpack. (And yeah, I know local cops have been jumpy, what with the horrible trap-the-cops-and-shoot-them events last year, but still.

Some days I really have to struggle to have any faith in the human race.

#6 ::: dichroic ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 03:06 AM:

I knew a financial manager for “ultra high net worth individuals” once. Despite also being an aerobatic flying champion, I bet she doesn't rank high enough to get a 'get out of jail' pass - just because she's a she.

#7 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 06:31 AM:

#4 ::: Earl Cooley III:

In re your link: Coates says that more severe punishment for bad police isn't the solution when the whole system is abusive.

Anyone have information about what, if anything, has been shown to clean up bad police cultures?

#8 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 07:16 AM:

The more you steal, the more likely it is that your friends will demand that you get a light sentence.

#9 ::: Wesley ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 07:54 AM:

Coincidentally, I'm currently in the middle of Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov tells Porfiry Petrovich that there are two classes of people--ordinary and extraordinary people--and the extraordinary people have a special right to transgress the law:

"In his article all men are divided into 'ordinary' and 'extraordinary.' Ordinary men have to live in submission, have no right to transgress the law, because, don't you see, they are ordinary. But extraordinary men have a right to commit any crime and to transgress the law in any way, just because they are extraordinary. That was your idea, if I am not mistaken?"
"What do you mean? That can't be right?" Razumihin muttered in bewilderment.
Raskolnikov smiled again. He saw the point at once, and knew where they wanted to drive him. He decided to take up the challenge.
"That wasn't quite my contention," he began simply and modestly. "Yet I admit that you have stated it almost correctly; perhaps, if you like, perfectly so." (It almost gave him pleasure to admit this.) "The only difference is that I don't contend that extraordinary people are always bound to commit breaches of morals, as you call it. In fact, I doubt whether such an argument could be published. I simply hinted that an 'extraordinary' man has the right... that is not an official right, but an inner right to decide in his own conscience to overstep... certain obstacles, and only in case it is essential for the practical fulfilment of his idea (sometimes, perhaps, of benefit to the whole of humanity)."

Also, at one point Raskolnikov's sister's fiancee insists that charity is unnecessary because if everybody looks after their own self-interest everything will work out. I've heard that one before, too. I find this 150-year-old Russian novel has quite a bit to say about 21st century America.

#10 ::: paul ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 09:25 AM:

Oh, and don't forget: Confess to war crimes on national television, and get secret service protection for life.

#11 ::: Steve Buchheit ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 10:03 AM:

Well, and then there's the position of Vice President who, apparently, can shoot someone in the face with bird shot and get the victim to apologize for spoiling the day. Now that is a "get outa jail free card" if I ever saw one.

#12 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 10:18 AM:

paul @ 10... That works only if you're a Republican politician.

#13 ::: paul ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 10:25 AM:

Serge @ 12: In general, being a republican seems to be about +10 on the immunity-to-prosecution scale. But the correlation with rich and white is strong enough to be a confounder.

I'm always amazed (I know, I shouldn't be any more) at how the [non-]prosecutors manage to keep their faces straight while spinning the decision to let privileged people walk as somehow in the interests of the public or even of the victim.

#14 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 10:34 AM:

"Your Honor, if we let this Jean Valjean go free for stealing bread, Society will be toast!"

#15 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 10:38 AM:


IIRC, John Kerry is a Democrat.

#16 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 10:43 AM:

SamChevre @ 15... What crime did Kerry commit that he confessed on national TV?

#17 ::: Neil in Chicago ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 11:09 AM:

“dog bites man” is the definition of not news.
The only thing close to remarkable here is having such a graduated set of examples in a row.

#18 ::: paul ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 11:31 AM:

Serge @ 16: I wonder if Sam is referring to the time when Kerry, shortly after his return from a tour of duty in Vietnam, testified before congress and read into the record first-person accounts of soldiers who had participated in what they later came to realize were war crimes.

#19 ::: DavidS ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 11:35 AM:

It is possible Sam is mixing up John Kerry and Bob Kerrey.

#20 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 12:14 PM:

According to my rather amateurish reading of U.S. history, the system here has always been— to varying degrees over time— a plutonomy. I'm curious to know what the professional historians think. In particular, if you accept my proposition that we've always been a plutonomy, then I'd like to know if there's something to the observation that what's new here isn't so much a strengthening of the cultural hegemony of the wealthy classes, but rather a remarkable shift in the cultural hegemony away from the rule of law.

The contrast between the story about the bankster getting pled down to a misdemeanor explicitly because the court didn't want to hurt they defendant's future employability, on the one hand, and the ongoing stories about the innocent victims of foreclosure and repossession fraud, really seem to me to be indicative of something new and different: I think our cultural elites have finally been supplanted completely by criminal gangs.

I'd prefer to think there is really nothing new here— that the U.S. has always been a kleptocracy— because that would make it easier to apologize for my country and not get too worked about the need to do something about it. Alas, I'm not so sure...

#21 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 12:33 PM:

Neil @17, it's the fact that we got all of those items hitting the news over the course of about a week that got to me.

#22 ::: James ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 12:39 PM:

Via BoingBoing: The DA in the hit-and-run case has explained the plea bargain reasoning, and it does not appear to be "so that he can keep his job". See

#23 ::: Mattathias ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 12:50 PM:

In the interest of accuracy in reporting, it should be noted that financier Martin Erzinger has in fact been charged with a felony. See the update included at the foot of this article. If Mr. Erzinger were tried and convicted of the felony, the most probable outcome is that after a few years' good behaviour, the felony would be purged from his record. Under the offered plea deal, Mr. Erzinger would plead guilty to two misdemeanors which would remain on his criminal record for life, and would be responsible for restitution at the criminal, rather than purely civil, level.

I'm not going to make any judgment call as to which outcome is more just, as I know only the facts reported by the media, which are unlikely to be the full facts of the case. However, it does appear that Mr. Erzinger is wending his way through the American justice system in the same manner as any other defendant, and is being shown no particular preferential treatment. He may be getting better advice, as his financial position permits him access to a broader range of attorneys, but the offering of plea deals is hardly unique to his situation.

#24 ::: Jon Marcus ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 01:17 PM:


Yes, that's what the DA's saying now, after being hit with a shitstorm of protest for his earlier explanation that:

"Felony convictions have some pretty serious job implications for someone in Mr. Erzinger's profession, and that entered into it,” Hurlbert said.

To be fair, he tried to tie employment to the ability to pay restitution. Somehow I don't find the risk that a multi-millionaire would suddenly be unable to pay an especially convincing argument.

#25 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 06:14 PM:

Wesley @ 9:

Always good to be reminded of Ayn Rand's cultural roots.

j h woodyat @ 20:

I think our cultural elites have finally been supplanted completely bybecome criminal gangs

Fixed that for you.

#26 ::: paul ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 09:03 PM:

Not that it really matters, I call BS on the DA's explanation. The offenses mentioned are not exclusive.

And as for the restitution, if it were anywhere near the appropriate amount, it could well dent the pockets even of this criminal (his counsel has apparently agreed to the plea bargain) jerkwad's clients.

Liver transplant surgeons are not thick on the ground. So in addition to the million or so a year the victim isn't going to gross (plus his ongoing pain) there's the money that the anesthesiologists, OR and treatment nurses, rejection-therapy personnel blah blah blah aren't going to be making, and the tens of millions of dollars every year that the extended lives of the surgeon's patients won't be worth, because they'll be dead. All because of one negligent and malicious papershuffler.

#27 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 10:15 PM:

Mattathias, #23: You may not be aware that it's an extremely common occurrence for drivers who hit bicyclists to get off very lightly; go poke around a bit on any cycling forum, and you'll get an earful, with links. I can't help thinking that part of what's going on here is an unexpressed, "Oh, he just hit some dude on a bike, it's not like it was anyone important."

#28 ::: Mattathias ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 11:02 PM:

Lee@27: I'm a cyclist. I'm well aware of the perception.

#29 ::: Magenta Griffith ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 11:22 PM:

These days, you can get thrown in jail for being in debt. We are definitely moving back to the 19th century, and not in a good way at all. The rich get richer, and the poor get thrown in the for-profit jail.

#30 ::: Sten ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 08:21 AM:

Magenta, #29: Note: I am not familiar with the US legal system. This is an honest question.

That article is not very clear, and it seems to freely mix "being arrested for not paying your debts" with "being arrested for not attending the court hearing about your debts."

The impression I got is that
(1) if you don't make your payments, the entity who lent you the money can sue you, and
(2) if you don't go to the court when you are called, you can get arrested for contempt of court.
Is this correct? I would imagine that (2) happens for all kind of court cases, not just debt-related. Or are there people who go to jail simply because they haven't paid the money they owe?

#31 ::: paul ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 09:11 AM:

Sten @30: nuh-uh. Some people get jailed for missing hearings (of which they may or may not have been informed -- summons service in some parts of the US is, politely speaking, unreliable), but as the article says, others are jailed simply for failure to pay.

In Illinois and southwest Indiana, some judges jail debtors for missing court-ordered debt payments. In extreme cases, people stay in jail until they raise a minimum payment. In January, a judge sentenced a Kenney, Ill., man "to indefinite incarceration" until he came up with $300 toward a lumber yard debt.

Sure, it's a court-ordered payment rather than just the debt as asserted by the alleged creditor, but if the debtor doesn't have the money that's pretty irrelevant. (And assuming that the court takes ability to pay into account when ordering payments is the same as assuming that the debtor is present at the hearing and has adequate representation. I.e., pull the other one.)

#32 ::: David Manheim ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 09:36 AM:

This is making me sad.

Magenta: I was previously under the impression that this would be a violation of the FDCPA, threatening jail time, but on rereading, it's only illegal to threaten if they aren't actually planning on doing it.

Debtor's prison. Wow. What is this country coming to?

#33 ::: Sten ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 10:24 AM:

paul, #31: Yes, that was the part where I was unsure whether it was correctly reported, given that the rest of the article seemed to be about contempt of court rather than failure to pay. But OK, they really did mean that. Thank you.

#34 ::: scyllacat ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 11:08 AM:

Yeah, all what they said. It seems to me that the difference is not that SOMETIMES people get away with something because they're important and a few people look the other way and everyone blushes, but it's for the greater good (more or less), or a little grease to keep the wheels running or something.

Now, it seems like, law? What law? We don't bring the law into this unless we feel like it. Every criminal on the street knows that enforcement is more or less arbitrary. If you can keep the cops from noticing, get them distracted.... people get away with stuff all the time, but you expect if they SEE it, they have to do something about it. But now it's like they've embraced that arbitrariness. Like they've said, "See, we can't enforce EVERYTHING, ALL the time, so we'll just enforce it when we feel like it."

And "feeling like it" seems to involve bullying a lot of have-nots and even hapless "haves" as long as they're clueless about how to deal with the State Enforcers. Cuz, if there's profit, bonus.

Make any sense?

#35 ::: Mark ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 12:17 PM:

Sten @ 33: The trouble starts when judges - or just as often, civil magistrates who may or may not be retired judges - start considering failure to keep up with a payment schedule incorporated into a judgment (most frequently a default judgment pursuant to a hearing the defendant did not attend) contempt of court regardless of any evidence or lack thereof regarding the defendant's ability to pay.

#36 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 04:26 PM:

Sometimes contempt of court is completely justified.

#37 ::: theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 04:52 PM:

From "My Little Chickadee":

Judge: Are you trying to show contempt for this court?
Flower Belle [Mae West]: No, I'm doin' my best to hide it.

#38 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 05:45 PM:

About three years ago I predicted that the Powers that Own in the US would shortly be re-instituting involuntary debt servitude so as to get some profit out of all those lower class welfare cheats and layabout brown people that have been trying to become first class citizens. I regret to say it looks like I was right. I wonder: if this is successful, will they try to bring back chattel slavery?

#39 ::: chris ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 07:24 PM:

@35: IANAL, but isn't that illegal? I thought an element of contempt was willfulness, which clearly isn't present if you don't have the money you aren't paying. So the creditor or other opposing party would have to affirmatively prove that you *can* pay before trying to call it contempt when you don't.

#40 ::: rm ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 09:17 PM:

Bruce @38:

Chattel slavery would be such an archaic financial product for this age of innovative investment vehicles.

I think your prediction of three years ago (here) has been coming true (here) for at least twenty or thirty years (here), where it hasn't actually been a continuous evolution from slavery to today (here).

#41 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 08:08 AM:

40: that last link (the truthout one) is pretty ferocious. It's difficult for foreigners not to assume that prisons in the developed world are all pretty much the same, but that's far from the truth (at least, if you count Louisiana as being in the developed world, that is).

#42 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 01:14 PM:


In the modern world, we will not have simple chattel slavery. Instead, we will have Coerced Labor Obligations. A pool of slaves will be created, and the fruits of their labors will be divided up into tranches, with the investment-grade tranches getting paid off first, and the collateral-grade tranches getting paid off last.

Over many years, these instruments will become a well-understood part of the financial system, with early manumission of the slaves being the really important component of risk on the investment, and escapes being extremely rare. Then one day, there will be a slave crisis, in which millions of slaves decide to run away all at once, and the financial system will collapse. (At least until the president and treasury secretary decree that the slave-investors must be made whole at taxpayer expense, and that they must be trusted to declare anyone a slave, making up paperwork as needed, to avoid further inconveniences to those investors.)

#43 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 02:14 PM:

ajay @ 41:

Part of my cynicism in the last few years comes from the fact that my older son took a job at LSU a few years ago (just after Katrina). Part of his research program was to set up a free clinic in New Orleans to diagnose and treat schizophrenics. After a year of dancing around the city officials who, if he had danced for another year or two and given them enough lagniappe, would have authorized the clinic, he gave up in disgust and went ahead without city approval or assistance. At that time, he told me, the city of New Orleans had 1 mental health professional per 80,000 population; he had planned to add at least 6 with that clinic, but was forced to scale back to fit his research budget.

I concluded from his experience that Louisiana is a pilot project for the migration of the US into the 3rd World.

albatross @ 42:

You know, that sounds (minus the fancy financial instruments) exactly like what happened in the South after the end of the Civil War, as soon as Pres. Grant's attempts at change had been nullified.

#44 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2010, 04:17 PM:

#43 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers)

My spouse is talking about these very things tomorrow when he gives his presentation at the Congo Square Festival's Conference on the Links Between Haiti and New Orleans.

Love, c.

#45 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 12:11 PM:

if he had danced for another year or two and given them enough lagniappe

I had to look that one up. (At first I thought it must be Greek and pronounced "lag-ni-ap-pay".) But it fills a niche - kind of "sweetener" without necessarily the same implication of out-and-out dishonesty.

42: this is why I hate companies that describe themselves as "Investors in Human Resources".

AfCor (formerly the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa) is an Investor in Human Resources, helping families and industries in North America fill their staffing needs since 1688.

#46 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 01:30 PM:

ajay @45: Lagniappe is one of those fornerly-French, peculiarly-Louisianan concepts (and specifically South Louisiana). Where others might say "scratch my back and I'll scratch yours", folks in and around New Orleans refer to lagniappe. It can be benign, such as an extra helping of something, or it can be an expectation of under-the-table "assistance".

Laissez les bon temps rouler!

#47 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 04:52 PM:

ajay/Ginger: or it can be something as simple as an expression of appreciation. I occasionally get an inexpensive bit that I've been eying for free as a thank-you from some of the merchants at the HBS show, where I spend a lot of time doing volunteer work; I think of that as lagniappe. It's not something I expect, but it's nice if it happens.

Welcome to Making Light's comment section. The moderators are Avram Grumer, Teresa & Patrick Nielsen Hayden, and Abi Sutherland. Abi is the moderator most frequently onsite. She's also the kindest. Teresa is the theoretician. Are you feeling lucky?

Comments containing more than seven URLs will be held for approval. If you want to comment on a thread that's been closed, please post to the most recent "Open Thread" discussion.

You can subscribe (via RSS) to this particular comment thread. (If this option is baffling, here's a quick introduction.)

Post a comment.
(Real e-mail addresses and URLs only, please.)

HTML Tags:
<strong>Strong</strong> = Strong
<em>Emphasized</em> = Emphasized
<a href="">Linked text</a> = Linked text

Spelling reference:
Tolkien. Minuscule. Gandhi. Millennium. Delany. Embarrassment. Publishers Weekly. Occurrence. Asimov. Weird. Connoisseur. Accommodate. Hierarchy. Deity. Etiquette. Pharaoh. Teresa. Its. Macdonald. Nielsen Hayden. It's. Fluorosphere. Barack. More here.

(You must preview before posting.)

Dire legal notice
Making Light copyright 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020 by Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden. All rights reserved.