Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Beware the scarlet letter "D" for DUI

The Daily Sound recently published a list of persons arrested for misdemeanor DUI on a particular weekend under the heading, "Police were busy over the weekend". While smalltown news outlets may experience slow news days, this practice of putting the names of persons arrested on this class of crimes (even though they are public record) has not been the standard practice of journalists here in Santa Barbara unless the individual is a public figure or concerns the public at large in some way (like, for instance, when the community christmas tree gets hit). So, what's going on here? Is this another isolated case of poor journalistic judgment here in Santa Barbara, or could it be seen as part of a national trend to publicly shame DUI defendants?

Maricopa County, Arizona, often on the leading edge of retrograde draconian punishments (e.g., its most famous effort: tent city), has hatched a new way to "crack down" on the "growing" problem of drunk driving. The County Attorney is putting his name along with the mugshot of DUI arrestees on billboards as a threat to motorists that they too could end up having their likeness published in an unflattering light if they end up getting arrested for DUI.

Whatever the public safety benefit, there is another way of looking at this. Criminal Law Professor Dan Markel, at Florida State College of Law, commented on the practice of shaming of DUI defendants as follows:

"The very goal of shaming is the dehumanization of another person before, and with the participation of, the public. Before we permit democratic institutions to subject an offender to ridicule, scorn and humiliation, we have to ask whether this kind of punishment comports with evolving standards of decency and the dignity of humankind. The answer is clearly no."

The question is, have we evolved beyond the witch-hunting days of Salem, Mass., or are we destined to repeat the mistakes of the past? Is the public shaming of the fictional adulteress Hester Prynne with the scarlet letter "A" fiction? Cutting off the hands of petty thieves and public floggings are likely effective deterrents, but in the United States, at least, we reject these forms of punishments. There is a lot we can do to deter drinking and driving that we are not doing. Less ambiguity in our laws, and better public transportation are dui deterrents that do not simply appeal to our base instinct to humiliate, dehumanize, and shame our fellow human beings.

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