All Laws Must Be Enforced

With all the problems that we have in the United States, one of the most dangerous is when prosecutors, sheriffs, and police decide which laws to ignore and which to enforce.

I do not mean the ability of law enforcement to use discretion in whether to arrest someone or a state’s attorney declining to bring a matter before a grand jury. Those things have always existed and done properly, are a good thing for communities.

The problem comes with more organized movements such as the constitutional sheriffs’ philosophy. According to that movement county sheriffs are the ultimate law enforcement authority. They decide which laws to enforce in their county including federal laws. They claim this authority is somehow found in the constitution and in common law. That is clearly anything but constitutional.

Another threat would be prosecutors deciding they won’t charge people for certain misdemeanors. The legislatures should decide what should be categorized as crimes…not those charged with arrest and prosecution. A refusal by these officials to carry out their sworn duty is a breach of their responsibility.

In the 1970s in New York City and other large cities, the police and prosecutors looked the other way when quality-of-life crimes were committed. Ignoring prostitution and low-level drug dealing led to an array of other crimes the police would turn a blind eye to enforcing. Things like panhandling, public urination, graffiti, squeegee men and other minor crimes contributed to citizens feeling a sense of anarchy and that the streets were out of control.

The feeling in the NYPD was that if uniform patrol officers got involved in these types of arrests, they could be subject to allegations of corruption. Instead of the department weeding out the bad officers who would and did take bribes, the NYPD allowed chaos and a lawlessness to descend on the city.

Today we also have rising crime rates, but there are different reasons for the rising rates than 40 and 50 years ago.

The pandemic changed people’s behavior. Politics has become more of a blood sport allowing incivility that would not be tolerated in the past. We had apathy by the police during the earlier period. Today, they feel as if citizens do not have their backs. The constitutional sheriff’s movement has a more sinister belief that the final arbiter of what laws are constitutional rests in elected sheriffs and not the courts or legislature.

This movement is more prone to occur in rural areas where sheriffs are the only law enforcement. The refusal to enforce laws is just as illegal as the police looking the other way at petty crime in cities. Both are reprehensible and breed a contempt for the rule of law.

The same goes for district attorneys who refuse to prosecute cases for crimes they don’t believe should be adjudicated. We all feel sorry for the Jean Valjeans of the world…those who steal a loaf of bread to feed their families. We do not want to see police or sheriffs in the Inspector Javert mold who pursued Jean for decades.

Yet as a society we cannot ignore the crime. In France 200 years ago, there were no public and private programs to help those in need, but that is not the case today. Theft is a crime and those who commit it need to answer for it. In the past few years, we have seen district attorneys refuse to prosecute crimes such as petty larceny or street prostitution. However, they do not get to select the type of crimes they will not prosecute. That is not what they were elected to do.

Legislatures, police, sheriffs, and prosecutors have their jobs. Personal feelings or beliefs should not intrude on their sworn duties. Individuals can lobby for changes in the law, but they can’t write their own laws.

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Thomas F Campenni

Currently lives in Stuart Florida and former City Commissioner. His career has been as a commercial real estate owner, broker and manger in New York City.