Trashing the Constitution in New York City


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Perhaps the single most dangerous politician on the national scene these days is New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.  He is dangerous in part because he appears to be a megalomaniacal would-be dictator and in part because he is a billionaire who is willing to spend considerable sums of his own money to achieve his blatantly unconstitutional political aims.

Whatever rationality Bloomberg may once have brought to political discourse has rapidly dissolved with his recent series of assaults on personal freedom and liberty in New York and across the country.  Hizzoner “I Know What’s Best For You” is well-known for his attempts to dictate to his subjects when where and how much they can eat (transfats), smoke (cigarettes) and even drink (sodas).  See, for example:

http://www.refusetoregain.com/2012/06/mayor-bloombergs-war-vs-the-freedom-to-eat-whatever.html

And now, Bloomberg has now gone off the statist edge of the political platform, declaring:

“I do think there are certain times we should infringe on your freedom.”

Bloomberg Infringe on Your Freedom

Bloomberg’s irrational and unconstitutional claim has been reported and discussed on any number of websites, such as:

Hotair.com:

http://hotair.com/archives/2013/03/25/mike-bloomberg-i-do-think-there-are-certain-times-we-should-infringe-on-your-freedom/

The NRA Institute for Legislative Action:

http://www.nraila.org/news-issues/articles/2013/3/outrage-of-the-week-bloomberg.aspx

PoliticalOutcast.com:

http://politicaloutcast.com/2013/03/mayor-michael-bloomberg-government-infringe-freedom-piers-morgan/

To all of which, I say, NO, there aren’t certain times when you should infringe on our freedoms.

Here are some thoughts for you Michael:

“[It is] the people, to whom all authority belongs.” —Thomas Jefferson to Spencer Roane, 1821.

“… all power is inherent in the people … it is their right and duty to be at all times armed ….” –Thomas Jefferson to John Cartwright, 1824.

“But of all things, they least think of subjecting themselves to the will of one man.” –Thomas Jefferson to Francis W. Gilmer, 1816.

“Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” –Thomas Jefferson: Declaration of Independence, 1776.

“What country can preserve its liberties if its rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them.” –Thomas Jefferson to William Stephens Smith, 1787.

“The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the atmosphere.” –Thomas Jefferson to Abigail Adams, 1787.

“Most codes extend their definitions of treason to acts not really against one’s country. They do not distinguish between acts against the government, and acts against the oppressions of the government. The latter are virtues, yet have furnished more victims to the executioner than the former, because real treasons are rare; oppressions frequent. The unsuccessful strugglers against tyranny have been the chief martyrs of treason laws in all countries.” –Thomas Jefferson: Report on Spanish Convention, 1792.

“I hold it that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms are in the physical. Unsuccessful rebellions, indeed, generally establish the encroachments on the rights of the people, which have produced them. An observation of this truth should render honest republican governors so mild in their punishment of rebellions, as not to discourage them too much. It is medicine necessary for the sound health of government.” –Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1787.

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.” –Thomas Jefferson to William Stephens Smith, 1787.

Thomas Jefferson — remember him, Michael?  You couldn’t carry his slop jar.

The Righteous Mind — A Study of Human Morality


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What is human morality and how does it affect (primarily American) politics and religion?

In his book The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People Are Divided byPolitics and Religion, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt purports to answer that question.  Despite having conducted extensive psychological research, however, Haidt ultimately fails to deliver a satisfactory answer.

In part, the failure is attributable to a rhetorical trick on his part — that is, the withholding from the reader until nearly the end of the book the fundamental premise upon which his conclusions are based.  And even then, he does not provide what he promised:  a definition of “morality” upon which to base his discussion of how “morality” impacts politics and religion.

Rather, what he ultimately provides is a definition of “moral systems”, rather than “morality”:

“Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.”

Which sounds like a definition written by a group of politicians or lawyers!

Although a lawyer myself, I would have defined “morality” much more simply as “doing what’s right under the existing circumstances”, which comports more closely with the dictionary definition.  See here, for example, the Merriam-Webster online dictionary definition:

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/morality

… where morality is defined as “a doctrine or system of moral conduct” or “conformity to ideals of right human conduct”.

And I say “under the existing circumstances” despite the criticism often leveled at the term “situational ethics”, because what may be the “moral” course of conduct in one situation may not be acceptable in another.  The most obvious example of the circumstantial nature of morality is in the killing of another human being, which most people would agree is generally immoral, but is acceptable in self-defense.

The book is also somewhat tough going because Haidt writes in a rather esoteric and somewhat pedantic style.  For example, he slavishly follows the timeworn advice, “Tell them what you are going to tell them; tell them; then tell them what you have told them”.  While this might (or might not) be a good approach to making a relatively short oral presentation, the repetition gets downright boring in a book as lengthy as Haidt’s.

(As an aside on this subject, see the note “Oh Spare Me!” at the end of this discussion.)

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Moral Foundations Theory

In support of his thesis, Haidt posits what he and other social psychologists call “Moral Foundations Theory”.  The theory is discussed in detail on the “MoralFoundations.org” website at:

http://www.moralfoundations.org/

On the home page of their site, the group says, “… the theory proposes that several innate and universally available psychological systems are the foundations of ‘intuitive ethics’”, then goes on to describe six such foundations as follows:

1) Care/harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.

2) Fairness/cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulated the theory in 2011 based on new data, we emphasize proportionality, which is endorsed by everyone, but is more strongly endorsed by conservatives.]

3) Liberty/oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor.

4) Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”

5) Authority/subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.

6) Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).

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My Take on Haidt’s Studies

I have a fundamental disagreement with Haidt and his compatriots with respect to their conception of “morality” as necessary and appropriate “to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible”.  In other words, and in the modern context, to make us compliant with the will of government.

Addressing each of Haidt’s six supposed “foundations” of morality:

1)  Care/harm:   I accept and agree with the observation that how we care for and avoid harm to others (human and animal) is a fundamental aspect of morality.  Under most circumstances, caring for others is the “moral” (or “right”) thing to do.  This, of course, is particularly true with those closest to us, our family and friends.  It is also true of our pets.  To the extent that each of us is capable of doing so, it is also true with respect to others we do not know personally.  We exhibit our morality in this regard by making donations to charities, assisting others in time of need, buying cookies from local girl scouts or even such simple acts of kindness as holding doors for women and stopping our cars for people crossing the street.

2)  Fairness/cheating:  While I also agree that treating others “fairly” and not “cheating” is “moral”, I am not sure that this isn’t just an alternative or particularized formulation of the so-called care/harm “foundation” — we “care” for others by treating them fairly and we avoid harm to others, at least in one limited respect, by not “cheating” them in our dealings with them.

On the other hand, I’m not convinced that concern for either “equality” or “proportionality” is properly considered an aspect of morality.  In a political context (to the extent that politics has anything to do with morality),  treating others “fairly” does not necessarily mean treating them “equally” … or even “proportionately” (whatever that means).  Whether or not any individual or group of individuals can achieve “equality” or “proportionality” is an amoral concern;  that is, the end result is not a moral consideration at all.

3)  Liberty/oppression:  Once again, it seems to me that this “foundation”, as defined by Haidt, is just a particular application of the “care/harm” foundation.  Someone who “dominates” others and “restricts their liberty” is harming them, psychologically and emotionally at least, if not physically or materially.  “Bullies” and “dominators” are people who fail to care for others and intentionally harm them.

In the political context, giving moral people the liberty to do what is right will generally result in them doing so.

4)  Loyalty/betrayal:  While I agree that matters of loyalty and betrayal can be matters of morality, it seems to me that they become such only when an individual has made a commitment of some kind to others.  And even then, this is once again just another expression of the care/harm foundation.  Take for example the most basic human relationship — male and female.  Once committed to each other, a man and a woman have a moral duty to maintain loyalty to that commitment (that is, to care for and avoid harm to the other).  Failure to do so by harming the other in some way, would constitute a betrayal of that commitment.  Similarly with respect to parents and children;  by having a child, a parent makes a commitment to care for and avoid harm to that child.  Maintaining loyalty to that commitment is morally correct;  failing to do so would be immoral.

On the other hand, no one has a moral obligation of loyalty to any other person or group of persons with whom he has exchanged or made no individual commitment.  And no person or group of persons can impose such a commitment on any other person against that person’s will.  Doing so, using Haidt’s terminology, would constitute “bullying” or “dominating” and would itself be immoral (“harmful”).  Under such circumstances, there would be no moral imperative to maintain loyalty or avoid betrayal to the bullying or domineering person or persons.

5)  Authority/subversion:  Politically, I am a libertarian.  Perhaps not surprisingly then (at least in Haidt’s view), I put little or no weight on what he characterizes as the “authority/subversion” foundation in evaluating “morality”.  In his book, Haidt notes, “On the Moral Foundations Questionnaire, libertarians join liberals in scoring very low on the Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity foundations.”

That would be me;  in fact, I consider resistance to authority to generally be the “right” (and therefore moral) thing to do under many circumstances.  The reason is actually quite simple — if the “authority” is seeking moral conduct, then any individual should act accordingly on the basis of that individual’s own moral code;  no imposition of “authority” is necessary to achieve the desired result.  On the other hand, if the “authority” is seeking conduct which is immoral, any individual acting in accordance with the dictates of that authority would be acting immorally.  Doing what is “right” under those circumstances requires one to resist that “authority”.  A single word makes the point clear:  Hitler.

In other words, no degree of “authority” can make moral what is not;  to make right what is wrong;  or to justify what is not right under the circumstances.  Therefore, “authority/subversion” has no bearing whatsoever on one’s individual morality.

6)  Sanctity/degradation:  Similarly, I reject the idea that “religious notions” have any bearing on morality.  Just as no “authority” figure can make right what is wrong, no religious (“sanctity”) figure can make moral what is not or — as is more commonly the case with religion — make immoral that which is not.

In fact, throughout human history, “religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way” have more often than not been used by individuals or small groups of people to “bully” and “dominate” those within their sphere of influence and to impose the will of the minority on the majority.

Furthermore, when it comes to the actions of any individual which might “desecrate by immoral activities and contaminants” the “temple” of that person’s body, there is no moral issue because such actions are (or at least should be) of no concern to anyone other than the individual involved.

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YourMorals.Org

Haidt’s group has a website on which you can “Explore Your Morals” by taking one or more of the questionnaires and surveys contained on the site:

http://www.yourmorals.org/

The basic “Moral Foundations Questionnaire” is described as follows:  “Why do you care about some virtues and issues more than others?  This survey gives you a broad overview of your morals.”

“Your morals” as defined by Haidt, of course.

After finishing the book, I went to the website and completed the questionnaire.  My results are reproduced below.  Interestingly, I scored higher than the average for both liberals and conservatives on the “care/harm” scale; between the two on the “fairness/cheating” (below liberals and above conservatives) and “loyalty/betrayal” (above liberals and below conservatives) scales; and below both on the “authority/subversion” and “purity” (“sanctity/degradation”) scales.  The questionnaire, as currently constituted on the website, does not evaluate the “liberty/oppression” characteristic of the responses.

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YourMorals Questionnaire DescriptionYourMorals Questionnaire Results

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Note:  Oh Spare Me!

In his blog “The Articulate CEO”, Brett Rutledge, the “World Champion of Public Speaking”, posted a discussion entitled, “Tell them What You’re Going to Tell Them, Tell Them, Tell Them … Oh Spare Me!”  In it, he says:

It’s the holy grail of presentations training:

“Tell them what you are going to tell them; tell them; tell them what you have told them”

It’s also quite possibly the biggest load of nonsense I have ever come across and the one piece of advice that, if followed, is guaranteed to make your next presentation a boring one. The simple format outlined above is great if you are a six-year-old doing show and tell at your school. It gives the little tike some basic structure to bolster their confidence and help get them through the dreaded five minutes they have to fill. If you are an adult, however, you require something more.

Repeating something three times does not make it interesting or engaging. Nor does it make it memorable (particularly when your audience has nodded off in the first ten minutes). If you want an audience engaged and interested in what you have to say then you need themes and stories rather than mindless repetition.

Rutledge’s complete discussion of the subject is on his website here:

http://thearticulateceo.typepad.com/my-blog/2011/07/tell-them-what-youre-going-to-tell-them-tell-them-oh-spare-me.html

Why You Should Never Talk to the Cops


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A post today on the “Personal Liberty” Facebook page on the subject of how to interact with law enforcement prompted me to both respond there and to address the subject here.

In his interesting interview about how to respond to attempted over-reaching by law enforcement officials, Attorney Evan Nappen emphasized three responses with which I agree — invoke your right to remain silent, demand your right to speak with an attorney and never consent to anything until you have spoken with an attorney.

Expanding on those basics a bit:

Never submit to a police interview, even if you are innocent. I have seen many cases in which innocent responses to accusatory questions were twisted to make the suspect look guilty. Even statements which you believe to be exculpatory can ultimately be used against you. On the other hand, anything you say which is truly exonerating is generally not admissible in court, so you can’t help yourself by talking to the cops.

Contrary to popular belief, if the cops have enough probable cause to arrest you, you are not going to be able to talk your way out of that arrest.  And don’t even think about believing it when a cop says he can help you out if you talk to him or that you can help yourself by doing so.  The only objective of a police officer interrogating a suspect is to gain additional evidence to make proving the case easier.  Furthermore, cops have no authority to make “deals” about criminal prosecutions;  only the prosecutor’s office can do that.

Even denying that you committed any crime won’t help.  For starters, the cops won’t believe you … and the denial will not be admissible in court, so you gain absolutely nothing by making such a statement.

There are other good reasons for not talking to the cops — even if you’re innocent, you might tell a small lie or even just make a mistake, either of which can be used against you in court.  And, unless the statement is being video or audio recorded, the cop may mis-recollect or even lie about what you said.  I recently tried a child molestation case in which my client said within hearing of a police officer, “I just tickled her”, but the cop who heard the statement testified that he said, “I just diddled her”.  The statement was not recorded and the jury believed the cop’s version.  In the end, this made a huge difference in the minds of some of the jurors.  Maybe the cop mis-understood what was said and maybe he lied about it.  In either event, this damaging statement could not have been used against the defendant if he hadn’t made it to begin with.

By the way, this is true even for such simple situations as traffic stops. For example, if a cop stops you and asks if you know why, do not answer because whatever you say can be used against you if you decide to fight the ticket. If you feel coerced by his position of authority into answering, the only acceptable answer is “no”.

Because of the inherent dangers in speaking with the cops, always invoke your rights to remain silent and to speak with an attorney before answering any questions.

Never consent to anything. Without a warrant, police cannot enter your home. So, if they ask if they can come in, the answer is “no”. If they ask you to step out of your residence, the answer is “no”. If they ask you to open the door to your residence, the answer is “no”. If you’re in a vehicle and they ask if they can search it, the answer is “no”. If they ask if they can search your person, the answer is “no”.  Do not let them intimidate you into consenting, either.  Politely suggest that if they think they have grounds to conduct a search, they can get a warrant, at which point you will let them search.

If the cops have probable cause to arrest you, they will do so and you’ll have to go with them involuntarily. If they don’t have probable cause to arrest you, they cannot compel you to go anywhere with them. So, if they ask if you’re willing to go to the station to be interviewed, the answer is “no”.

Also, do not be fooled by the old, “if you have nothing to hide, you’ll talk to us” trick. If you have nothing to hide, refusing to answer questions, consent to a search or go with the cops cannot hurt you. Answering questions, consenting to a search or going with the cops can hurt you even if you have nothing to hide.

Finally, even if you’re actually guilty, don’t admit it to the cops.  There will be plenty of time later, during plea bargaining between your attorney and the prosecutor, for you to accept responsibility for your actions.  The terms of any plea agreement … and, in particular, the amount of time that you might have to spend in jail or prison … may well depend on the strength of the prosecution’s case.  So, don’t help them increase your ultimate punishment by making incriminating admissions.

So, to reiterate the primary points, never talk to the cops, always invoke your rights to remain silent and to consult with an attorney, and never consent to anything, particularly searches by the cops of your person, vehicle or residence.

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For a detailed constitutional discussion of the 5th Amendment and why you should never talk to cops, see this video by Regent Law School Professor (and former criminal defense attorney) James Duane:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6wXkI4t7nuc

For more on why you should not talk to the cops, also see this video of my KRON-TV (Channel 4) interview on June 23, 2010, uploaded on YouTube November 29, 2010. In it, I discussed the impact of the US Supreme Court case of Berghuis v. Thompkins, which was decided on June 1, 2010.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KqY2smL1oJo

Berghuis essentially held that individuals must affirmatively and unambiguously invoke their rights.  Simply remaining silent and declining to respond for an extended period of time (3 hours in this case) is not, by itself, enough to constitute an invocation of rights.

For the full text of the Berghuis decision, see:

http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/08-1470.ZS.html

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The “Personal Liberty” Facebook page is here:

https://www.facebook.com/personalliberty

And the article on the “Personal Liberty” webpage with the interview of Attorney Nappen is here:

http://personalliberty.com/2013/03/21/interview-attorney-evan-nappen-explains-the-moore-ordeal-and-how-to-protect-yourself-from-unconstitutional-activity/

My Facebook page is here:

https://www.facebook.com/jamest.reilly.3

Red Light Camera Tickets … Update


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Many of the visitors to this blog continue to read my 2008 post about red light camera tickets.  I looked back at it myself today and saw that it is somewhat outdated, in part because of changes in legal and administrative procedures.  So, I decided to update it.

I remain an adamant opponent of the use of cameras to enforce the traffic (or any other) laws. Too much Big Brother for my Libertarian philosophy of what government should be.  Nevertheless, it remains true that, generally speaking, California courts uphold the use of these red light cameras, even though no law enforcement officer saw the violation.

However, in some California jurisdictions, such as Los Angeles and Riverside Counties, red light camera tickets have fallen into disfavor, in part because they are an administrative headache for the courts, in part because in some communities they have resulted in a net loss in revenue, and in part because they simply do not accomplish the desired goal of reducing accidents.

For a great website addressing red light camera ticket issues, see:

http://www.highwayrobbery.net/

Among the common red light camera ticket problems addressed there are:

What to do if you weren’t the driver when the car supposedly ran the red light?  Do you have to identify the driver?  Generally speaking, no, you do not.

What to do if duration of the “yellow” light seems too short?  There are minimum limits below which the duration of the yellow light may not go.  If it is not long enough, the ticket is not valid.

What if the “ticket” comes by email?  Or you are told it is “delinquent” or “in collection”?  These are almost certainly tricks to get you to pay a fine that otherwise cannot be imposed.

Can you use reflective spray on your license plate to defeat red light cameras?  No, you can’t, at least not legally.  You can be cited for a separate violation for doing so.  California Vehicle Code section 5201, which you can see here:

http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/cgi-bin/displaycode?section=veh&group=05001-06000&file=5200-5206

Is running a yellow light a violation?  No.  If any part of your vehicle has crossed the limit line when the light turns red, it is not a violation.

HighwayRobbery.Net also contains suggestions about how to fight red light camera tickets.

This site also contains suggestions for fighting such tickets:

http://www.ehow.com/how_5040059_beat-light-camera-ticket-california.html

Neither addresses every possible legal or factual defense that might conceivably apply, but anyone who is thinking about fighting such a ticket would do well to check out their suggestions.

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Fighting a Red Light Camera Ticket

If you do want to fight such a ticket, the first thing you should do is to read the code section itself:

http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/cgi-bin/displaycode?section=veh&group=21001-22000&file=21450-21468

Make sure you understand what it says and exactly what is or is not prohibited by this law.  Once you have decided to fight the ticket, you can do so by appearing in court or by submitting to a Trial by Declaration.

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Trial by Declaration

Using this procedure, you can submit your side of the case to the court by written declaration.

The California Judicial Council forms for a Trial by Declaration are located at:

http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/forms/documents/tr200.pdf

http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/forms/fillable/tr205.pdf

http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/forms/fillable/tr220.pdf

http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/forms/fillable/tr225.pdf

The first two of these forms are the ones you will need to submit your request. The last two are for use if it becomes necessary to request a new trial after the first result is unsatisfactory.

Use of the trial by declaration, rather than simply paying the fine, will at least give you the chance to present mitigating factors to the court.  Even if the judge still finds you guilty (which, frankly, is quite likely, except in very unusual circumstances), mitigating factors may convince the court to impose a lesser fine than would normally be assessed.

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Court Trial

If you decide to fight the ticket in court, in most California counties you will have to go to the clerk’s office to request a trial date (in some courts, this can be done by telephone or by mail — check with the court clerk where your ticket is pending to find out what the correct procedure is for that court).

Review the  two websites linked above for suggestions on how to proceed in court.  The best single piece of advice anyone can give is to BE PREPARED — have with you any photos, documents or other evidence that you want to use.  If you tell the judge that some piece of evidence exists, but you “didn’t bring it with” you to court, the judge will not give it any weight.  Request discovery of what evidence might be used against you (see item #3 on the “How to Beat a Red Light Ticket in California” website).   Review the court decisions, transcripts and briefs on the HighwayRobberty.Net website page here:

http://www.highwayrobbery.net/redlightcamsLawaaIndexTransBrfsDecisions.html

Some of them may be helpful to your case.  Have a checklist of the things you want to tell the judge and make sure that you cover each one when making your presentation to the court.

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On Line Traffic School

If you do not want to fight the ticket, California also allows minor traffic offenses to be resolved by attending traffic school, which can now be done online. This requires payment of the full fine, plus the cost of the traffic school, so the expense will be greater, but has the advantage of resulting in dismissal of the ticket so that it does not appear on your driving record.

In the end, this could save you as much on insurance as the cost of the ticket and the traffic school combined.

The clerk’s office of the court where your ticket is pending will give you a list of approved in person and online traffic schools.

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Failing to Appear (“Just Ignoring It”)

In some counties (such as Los Angeles), failing to appear or otherwise respond to a red light camera ticket will not result in the issuance of a failure to appear warrant.  However, even in such counties, the failure to appear will remain in the court records and if you ever have to go for some other reason, is likely to be found and you will have to deal with it.

In other counties, if you do not follow any of the allowable procedures (pay the fine, do traffic school, file a request for Trial by Declaration or appear in court), a bench warrant will be issued for Failure to Appear (FTA). This will just make the situation worse, as that is a separate, misdemeanor criminal offense.  Furthermore, a  failure to appear warrant could be discovered by your insurance company. This would probably result in an increase in premiums or even outright cancellation of your auto insurance.

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Results of a Conviction (in Trial, by Pleading Guilty or by just Paying the Fine)

Conviction of a red light violation will result in a fine (these vary from county to county) and one point on your DMV record.  Points violations can result in suspension or revocation of your driver’s license and will almost certainly cause an increase in your insurance premiums.  To be clear, if you decide to “just pay the fine”, that constitutes a conviction of the offense and a point on your driving record.

Should Government Regulate the Sugar Content of Food?


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The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (Official) is one of my favorite organizations.  Dawkins, of course, is the author of  The God Delusion and other popular books about reason, science, evolution and religion.  The Facebook “About” page for the Richard Dawkins Foundation says, “This Foundation supports reason and science. We organize to overcome the suffering and intolerance that springs from religious fundamentalism.”

The foundation’s Facebook page is here:

http://www.facebook.com/RichardDawkinsFoundation

Today, the foundation posted an article which asked the question, “Do you feed your child toxins?” and suggested, “Read the science before commenting” along with a link to a New York Times op-ed piece by Mark Bittman:

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/27/its-the-sugar-folks/

The op-ed discusses a recently released study from the journal PLoS One which announced the results of a statistical “study on the relationship between sugars and diabetes”.  This study is available here:

http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0057873

And a blog explanation by the principal author of the study, Sanjay Basu, is available here:

http://epianalysis.wordpress.com/2013/02/27/sugardiabetes/

A number of comments to the Dawkins Facebook post suggest that this study is an appropriate basis upon which government could (and perhaps should) regulate the sugar content of American food, some going so far as to suggest that government should “ban” added sugar in food.  These suggestions follow a pattern of governmental regulation of what Americans eat and drink, such as New York City’s ban on servings of sugary sodas exceeding 16 ounces and the restrictions by many school districts across the country on what food & drink can be served to children for lunch (and even on what they can bring from home).

I usually find posts by the Richard Dawkins Foundation to be useful and, more importantly, accurate. However, this NY Times opinion piece misses the mark in one significant way — the author makes the statement (third paragraph):

“In other words, according to this study, obesity doesn’t cause diabetes: sugar does.”

The principal author of the study, however, in the blog about it, clearly states that this is NOT in fact what their study found. This was a statistical study, not a controlled scientific study. As Basu says in the blog, “There are, nevertheless, limitations to any statistical study. As we teach our students, we can’t ‘prove causality’ through any amount of statistics—we’re simply halfway between the typical weak medical correlation studies and the ideal case of a randomized controlled trial (which often also can’t prove causality for a variety of reasons, despite common misconceptions).” (emphasis added)

In other words, and contrary to Mr. Bittman’s conclusion, this study did not (and could not) find that sugar causes diabetes.  Or, as it is sometimes stated, “correlation does not prove causation”.

The Basu blog also makes some other significant qualifications about the study:

“… like any epidemiological study using aggregate data we can suffer from the ‘ecological fallacy’, which means that when we look at aggregate populations, we can’t be sure that those people eating the greater sugars were the exact same people who experienced more diabetes in that given country.”

Which is to say, they can’t even tell if the specific people who ate more sugar are actually the ones who suffered from an increased risk of diabetes.

“… the data themselves are not perfect—in addition to looking for selection bias and doing ‘robustness checks’ by repeating the analysis while excluding outliers or extreme data points (finding, still, consistent results), we have to acknowledge that food availability data from even the best sources are not perfect, and diabetes surveillance rates (even though we checked them against multiple sources), as well as estimates of overweight, obesity and physical activity in many countries are far from perfect. We just used the best data available to date, given the urgency of this question.”

Thus, the data on which the study was based may not have been accurate to begin with, leading to obvious reservations about the conclusions of the study.

And, most significantly:

“The study was conducted to understand a statistical theory, using a statistical approach. It doesn’t say anything about any specific person’s diabetes risk or provide any kind of dietary advice. This data cannot distinguish between types of sugars (like high fructose corn syrup versus other types of sugars), nor does it establish more insight into the mechanisms that are at play, which need to be pieced together in laboratory and experimental research studies. This study also can’t inform any specific policies like the New York City ban on large soft drinks, since the real-world effects of specific policies weren’t evaluated in this experiment.” (emphasis added)

In short, this study is NOT a basis upon which government should act to impose restrictions (or “bans”) on sugar, even if it was otherwise appropriate for government to be regulating what we eat — which, in my opinion, is not in any event the government’s business.

Perhaps the best approach of all is for people to simply “forthrightly accept responsibility” for their own food choices, “regardless of the consequences”.  And, once having done so, to make better choices.