The Common Good

Traffic Cameras, Domestic Drones, and Mandatory Sentencing

At first I had no problem with domestic drones joining the plethora of surveillance cameras to “keep us safe.”

Big Brother — keeping his eye on me from above in stores, in traffic and everywhere else — would find my personal reality show boring. As a pastor, I’m used to living in a fishbowl. Besides, as John Calvin said, if you fear the eye of a human more than the eye of God, you have spiritual issues to address.

But then, there may be another problem with increased surveillance and flooding our nation’s skies with drones. Let’s take traffic cameras as an example.

When I was driving to a speaking engagement in Southern California a while back, I thought I could still slip legally into an intersection but was surprised by the quick yellow. Sure enough, I received a fine in the mail for $350 with a photograph showing my front tires crossing the white line on red.

Likewise, recently my daughter-in-law was making a right-hand turn on red in Villa Park, Ill. She got slapped with a $100 fine because the video showed that she had stopped for one-and-a-half seconds before turning rather than the required three seconds.

“Dad,” Sarah asked, “why does that feel so wrong?”

Indeed.

Traffic cameras give average Janes and Joes a taste of mandatory sentencing such as that imposed by the notorious three-strikes laws. The public is weary of mandatory sentencing because it ties the hands of judges by preventing them from administering justice in each unique circumstance.

We got to mandatory sentencing by misconstruing justice as raw payback. If justice is about payback, who needs judges? But if justice is about making things right and restoring shalom, you need a judge to weigh the evidence, understand the context, evaluate the situation, and make a determination on how best to go forward. Because it lacks due process, “one size fits all” sentencing is a far cry from justice.

In our traffic system, the police officer is prosecutor, judge, and jury. She is under no obligation to ticket you. The officer can issue a warning or just wish you a nice day. You can challenge a ticket in court, but, well, good luck with that. What the officer decides carries the day. You have traffic court in your car.

So when an officer stops me for speeding, I can make my case. She can evaluate the circumstances, check my record, make a determination. In other words, I can get justice, or some semblance of it. But I can’t get justice from a camera that mails me its verdict.

And herein lie my questions regarding drones patrolling our cities.

Since the War on Drugs began, our police forces have been growing ever stronger with virtual military power and now a first-class military weapon. Could domestic drones ignite an explosion of fines with photos in the mail? More aggressive police action? More take-no-prisoners presumption of guilt? More vigilante justice and hair-trigger reactions? In other words, won’t another type of mandatory sentencing — punishment without due process — rear its ugly head?  

Drone surveillance will render traffic cameras child’s play as we turn civilian living space into a war zone. Sure, we may need fewer squad cars, which would result in incredible savings. But I can’t get justice from a drone that mails me tickets — or from one that shoots me. And, as always, especially the poor and marginalized will be vulnerable.

We shouldn’t fear what people see more than what God sees, but that’s not in view here. Short-circuiting justice makes for grumpy prophets (cf. Micah 6:8; Amos 5:10,12,15).  Pictures as a part of due process may be helpful, but images alone cannot tell the truth, the whole truth, let alone nothing but the truth. Traffic cameras reveal where drones will lead and suggest the harrowing possibilities that human nature willexploit and abuse.

H. David Schuringa serves as president of Crossroad Bible Institute, an international discipleship and advocacy agency for prisoners and their families.

Image: Rendering of a small police drone, Glenn Price / Shutterstock.com

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