Innocent Until Proven Guilty

Few things annoy me more than when I get punished for the indiscretions of others. You might think this doesn’t happen often—and that’s true, if you’re talking about innocent people being charged and convicted for crimes—but there are plenty of non-criminal examples where you and I unjustly pay the price for the bad things that others do.

Minor examples occur every day. When I was a senior at Liberty High School in Bedford, Virginia, I and several of my friends liked to eat lunch outside when the weather was nice. The cafeteria had a set of tables and benches outside and eating outside was permitted. One day, a different group of students sitting at the other side of the patio had a food fight. Ultimately, maybe four or five kids threw food at one another and the commotion lasted less than five minutes. How did the administration handle this? Asst. Principal John Eggleston suspended outdoor eating privileges for all students during all lunch periods for at least two weeks. In addition to punishing the four or five students involved, Eggy punished me and a number of others too without cause.

You see this flawed disciplinary method constantly in schools. Some students smoke in the bathroom, so instead of enforcing the no-smoking rules for those kids everybody has to be granted teacher’s permission to pee. Some students go to inappropriate web sites, so instead of paying attention to the students’ Internet use they install flawed, automatic net-nanny software that interferes with all students’ Internet access. More examples abound.

Unfortunately, this goofiness is not limited to our lazily-mismanaged public schools.

Have you tried to buy original Sudafed, original-formula Nyquil, or any other medicine that contains the psuedoephedrine decongestant lately? It used to be that when you needed a decongestant, you went to the drug store, picked up a box of Sudafed (and maybe some Tylenol and Kleenex while you’re there) went to the check out counter, paid, and left. Now, things have changed. You have to pick up a card, take it to the pharmacy, show your I.D. card, provide your name and address, sign some paperwork, and if you’re lucky you get to walk out with some relief for your stuffy nose. The drugs must be kept by the retailer in a locked cabinet or otherwise restricted area, non-liquid doses must be distributed in individual blister packs (so no bottles for Sudafed!), you can’t buy more than 3.6g of pseudoephedrine in a day or more than 9g in a month, and the store has to keep a retrievable record of the names and addresses of all pseudoephedrine purchasers for two years.

Why all this hassle for cold medicine? Because some criminals buy, steal, or otherwise obtain quantities of pseudoephedrine as a chemical precursor for the creation of methamphetamine—an illegal drug. Instead of tracking, arresting, and imprisoning shoplifters and meth cookers, it is apparently more convenient for the government to punish all/most sniffling visitors to your neighborhood drug store.

Insurance companies play a similar game. Men, young people, and unmarried people are forced to pay significantly higher auto insurance premiums than women, older people, and married people based on statistical analysis of he relative driving patterns of those groups. First, many of these insurance statistics are incorrect on a closer analysis since they usually don’t take relevant variables (like average daily mileage) into consideration—men, on average, drive more, and when adjusted to a per-mile value their propensity to crash is almost identical to women. Regardless, even if we lived in some alternate universe where 90 percent of men got into car accidents monthly, it would still be immoral to punish that remaining 10 percent with high insurance rates. Everybody, regardless of sex, age, or marital status, should start with an identical insurance rate (adjusted only for average daily mileage and individual driving record); if young men are really more dangerous drivers, then their individual driving record will result (in time) with significantly higher rates. The safe, young, male drivers, however, won’t be punished for it.

Music and movie companies play this game too. Because some consumers illegally copied purchased music and movies and placed them online for others to download, these companies began locking down their content with encryption and other ‘Digital Rights Management’ (DRM) technology. So, because somebody else put a Britney Spears MP3 on the Internet, I’m not allowed to play a Pink Floyd track I bought from iTunes on my Linux computer or on a non-Apple media player? Why am I being punished for the illicit activity of others?

Government and businesses should refrain from this technique of ‘punish everybody’ except in very few, specific instances with a clear public benefit—e.g., reasonably intrusive national security to prevent terrorist attacks. But our justice system is predicated, in part, on the idea that it is better to let a guilty person go free than to punish an innocent person. That same ideal should be applied to our legislation, administrative law, and—yes—our public schools. People should be given the benefit of the doubt and treated as innocent in all matters, until those people give the authorities a reason to believe otherwise and then (and only then) act accordingly.

In the private sector, there is nothing illegal about these practices but they are clearly immoral, and companies should by choice take a similar ‘innocent until proven guilty’ attitude toward their customers—lest those customers switch to competitors who don’t treat them like criminals as soon as they appear.

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.