Paris Hilton: Another Victimless Criminal

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Paris Hilton finally finishes her much-publicized 23-day prison stint today, but as far as I’m concerned her release comes 23 days too late.

Never mind the obvious unfairness of making her serve a longer sentence than everyone else who commits the same crime simply because she’s rich and famous, though that’s bad enough.

The more important question is, what real crime has she committed?

Initially, she was fined and given 36 months probation for driving under the influence of alcohol. Her blood alcohol level was 0.08%, the minimum to support an arrest. The minimum level used to be 0.10%, so there was a time when she wouldn’t have been arrested at all for driving in the exact same condition. But in the year 2000, Bill Clinton and Congress used bribes to states through highway funding to make them move the blood alcohol limit down. And Paris Hilton is in jail only because of this entirely arbitrary government fiat.

Whether the level is 0.08% or 0.10%, why should someone’s blood alcohol level in itself be a crime?

Maybe having that much alcohol in their blood makes some people less likely to drive safely. But there are lots of perfectly legal things that can make you a less safe driver. Cell phones and ipods are common distractions. A law school professor of mine was known to read books while driving. Then there’s one of the biggest, most dangerous distractions: the person sitting next to you. And don’t forget noisy kids in the back seat. All legal, at least for now, despite putting other drivers at an increased risk of collision. (In California, using a cell phone while driving will get you a $20 ticket — a far cry from prison — beginning in December 2008.)

Why should alcohol consumers be singled out for punishment — as demanded by the 19th century Woman’s Christian Temperance Union — except that the prohibitionists’ modern-day counterparts, such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, are organized against them?

And there’s still more discrimination involved: because men on average are larger and heavier than women, men can consume more alcohol than women without reaching the magic number set by our federal overseers who say when we should say when. Could Paris be a victim of unlawful gender bias here? Where are the feminists on this one?

In general, we don’t punish people because of some factor that may simply make them statistically more likely to harm others. Instead, we punish people only when they actually harm someone else. If we arrested people based on statistics, rather than their own culpability, members of demographic groups most likely to commit violent crimes could find themselves arrested merely for walking the streets at night. Certainly no one would approve of that outrageous result — and there is no reason why peaceful alcohol consumers should receive such unfair treatment, whether they’re driving, walking, riding a bicycle, or sitting on a park bench.

Miss Hilton is in jail now not for the drunk driving itself, but for driving again after her license was suspended. This too is an injustice.

After all, driver’s licenses have nothing to do with safe driving. As anyone who’s traveled Los Angeles freeways knows, having a license does not make one a competent driver. And there are plenty of people without a license who undoubtedly would be fine drivers. Even without licensing, you already have a much stronger incentive to drive safely than the government could ever provide: your own life is at stake each time you get behind the wheel.

Instead of ensuring safety, driver’s licenses serve as a money-maker for the state. Worse, under the federal Real ID act, they will be a de facto national identification card, compromising everyone’s liberty and privacy. We are on a slippery slope from driver’s licenses to “Your papers please!” and ultimately it may take widespread civil disobedience to stop it. I’m reasonably confident Paris Hilton didn’t have that in mind when she broke the law, but she was justified in doing it all the same.

So although I’ve never watched her tv series or her sex video (really!), and I doubt whether she will produce anything I will want to consume in the future, I welcome Paris Hilton back to society — to which she never owed any debt, and which, despite her millions, may owe her something for her unwarranted trouble.

This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register.

J. H. Huebert [send him mail] an attorney and an adjunct faculty member of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Visit his website.

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