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When I first conceived of writing this True/Slant blog about “the violent intersection between politics and sports,” I was thinking more along the lines of stadium welfare and senile blowhards like Sen. Jim Bunning (R-1964 Phillies) than, well, violent intersections. Certainly the last thing I wanted to write about was the senseless death of a nice-sounding young man and terrific pitching prospect who happened to play for the one team in all of sports that I truly, and madly, care about. But as the poet once sang, sometimes it snows in April.
There are some thoughtful, heartbreaking reactions to the tragic slaying of Nick Adenhart that you all should read in case you haven’t already: Bill Shaikin’s account of Adenhart’s dad Jim grieving at Nick’s locker, Angel clubbie Shane Demmitt’s intimate portrait of a young man his dad helped coach, the Orange County Register’s photo gallery of Angel fans making an ad hoc Adenhart shrine, and the reflections and comments (particularly from fans of rival teams) over at the great Angel fan site Halos Heaven. Since they’ve all got the emotion stuff covered like a blanket, I will focus on a far more marginal issue that hits closer to the purposes of this blog: How baseball player Nick Adenhart’s death is being used to further a political agenda.
Who would dare do such a thing? Well, Mothers Against Drunk Driving. That’s how they roll — using high-profile tragedies to help push anti-drunk driving legislation through the political process. In this case, the bill in question is a proposed California law that would require DUI convicts in four populous counties to use only cars with breathalyzer/ignition-lock devices for a minimum of six months. I disagree with that idea, for reasons we’ll get into, but first take a look at MADD’s revealing lead paragraph:
The suspected drunk driving crash that led to the death of three innocent people including Los Angeles Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart and the serious injury of another could have been prevented with a strong ignition interlock law in California.
Really? Let’s summarize what we know about the contemptible Andrew Thomas Gallo. 1) He was driving despite not having had a valid drivers license since at least 2007, possibly 2006, due either to a May 2006 DUI conviction or a subsequent parole violation. 2) He was almost certainly still on parole for some crime or another (his 2007 rap sheet alone includes a marijuana conviction plus drunk and disorderly conduct). 3) He was driving despite having “almost three times” the legal blood alcohol level of .08. How much booze is that? Probably somewhere around 10 drinks. 4) According to cops, Gallo was driving well in excess of the speed limit, doing 50-65 miles per hour in a 35 mph zone. 5) Oh yeah, he also blew through a red light. 6) After he smashed two cars, obviously hurting multiple innocents, he ran away.
So that’s at least six laws Gallo knowingly and brazenly flouted. Which begs the question: Why on earth would we suspect that somehow the seventh law would be the charm? Even on the very slim chance that a scumbag like Gallo would actually go through with installing an expensive breathalyzer on his ignition, the only thing stopping him from driving another car was opportunity. Which Southern California abounds in. Oh, and anyway, wasn’t the MADD law only supposed to cover the first six months after the original DUI?
It is a very difficult, and very unhappy thing to accept that when it comes to preventing the foul deeds of evil men, the criminal code is often somewhere between inadequate and impotent. There are people for whom the usual deterrence just doesn’t apply. While this doesn’t automatically mean that you shouldn’t pass new criminal laws, it does suggest caution and a sober cost-benefit analysis when reacting to a headline-making tragedy. Which, unfortunately, is about as rare as an unassisted triple play.
Here’s a story from Sunday’s Riverside Press-Enterprise, which has been doing a bang-up job covering the Adenhart crime and its aftermath:
A state bill to require ignition interlock devices on vehicles driven by anyone with a previous drunken driving conviction may gather more support after last week’s crash that killed Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart.
Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries, R-Lake Elsinore, co-authored a bill , AB 91, which would create a pilot program to require DUI offenders to install ignition interlock devices on their vehicles or any vehicle they drive.
“It’s a good idea long before tragedy occurs,” Jeffries said by phone Saturday. “When you have these really tragic stories occur, it tends to move public opinion, and move legislators.”
Italics mine. Quick — think of a sports tragedy that moved public opinion and legislators enough to substantially change the criminal code. The first one that comes to my mind is the 1986 cocaine-induced heart failure of basketball phenom Len Bias. How did that change our legal system? It created an enormous disparity of sentencing between crack and cocaine, a development that — even though it was originally championed by black legislators trying to combat the scourge of crack in their communities — has for a long time been seen as effectively racist, in addition to helping stuff our prisons and jailhouses with people guilty of nothing more than consuming a substance deemed by the authorities to be illegal.
Would the kinds of asset forfeiture and mandatory minimum sentencing imposed by the Bias-insipired Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 done anything to prevent Len Bias from taking that fatal hit? Oh hell no. But by the time people got around to complaining about the new law’s government-enhancing and rights-reducing powers, the only people still talking about old Len were traumatized Celtics fans.
My personal case against ignition-breathalyzer laws is brief and shallow. I don’t want to live in a world where drivers with clean records have to blow through a device to start their engines. There has long been talk about making ignition interlocks mandatory on all vehicles within certain states, and if that state happens to be the one where I currently live (the District of Columbia), then I’d be grappling with a local police force that delights in handing out DUIs to people with far lower than .08 blood alcohol level. I am creeped out by laws being enforced on me through automatic machinery installed on my personal possessions, and in general I don’t think the most cost-effective way to deal with deranged (and thankfully rare) criminals like Andrew Thomas Gallo is to hassle comparatively law-abiding (and plentiful) citizens like Matthew Lee Welch.
It is the most human of responses to react to a tragedy by wanting to Do Something that, had it been done beforehand, just maybe would have prevented the atrocity from happening in the first place. Over at Halos Heaven I’ve seen talk of maybe cutting off beer sales at the Big A by the 6th inning, or knocking off with the tailgating already, or just making a symbolic show of pouring out your own beer at the stadium. But rules, and most especially criminal laws, have unintended consequences that end up affecting different people in different ways than the supporters intended.
We’ve gone through a spasm of tough-on-crime laws these past four decades, often in the literal name of whichever victim just made the front page, and in the process we have shredded many of our constitutional protections against search, seizure, due process, and even speech, while watching the prison and jail population swell northward of 2 million people. We all have our different ways of mourning Nick Adenhart. But mine certainly won’t include rushing through another ambulance-chasing piece of legislation.