Your Life Means Nothing to the State
Earlier this week, some TV talking-head defender of New York's draconian gun laws insisted that a man who shot an intruder he found in his child's room needed to be jailed. That's because his gun was not yet registered in the state of New York. An example had to be made of the man, you see, because of the importance of the state's gun laws in protecting public safety.
What should the gun owner have done? Sit back and allowed the invader to have his will with the family? The answer, apparently, is yes. Just be a victim, don't protect yourself, rely on the police to help you. That's the thinking of the officials who want to disarm all Americans.
Yet a court case in California makes it painfully clear — for anyone who places a great deal of trust in the government's armed agents — that police agencies don't need to respond to your call. They don't even need to help you with a simple call to an ambulance after you have suffered serious injuries in an accident. They usually will, but they don't have to help you.
In August last year, 25-year-old Aaron James Jelks fell from a bridge off of an Interstate highway near Sacramento. As the Sacramento Bee reported, Jelks crashed his car into a center guardrail between two freeways, then plunged 60 feet to the ground after he foolishly tried to jump six feet to the other side of the bridge. The details aren't perfectly clear based on the news story, but this much is certain: A motorist called 911 and reported to the California Highway Patrol that a man was hanging from a bridge, and two patrolmen came out to the scene.
"Minutes after Jelks fell, CHP officers Joe Frasier and Ron Whiting arrived on the bridge," reported the Bee. "The veteran patrolmen surveyed the scene and drove away after ordering a tow truck to remove Jelks' car ... The CHP has not denied the patrolmen knew Jelks was in peril."
Apparently, the man lived for two hours, probably writhing in agony below the bridge, but the police officers — told about the man's situation from the motorist — simply ordered a tow truck and drove away. A severely injured man is nothing more than a hunk of debris to the "brave" officers of the CHP. They didn't even have to risk a hair on their head or inconvenience themselves a bit. They just had to call an ambulance. As Jelks' mother complained, "They knew he was down there. Witnesses told them he was down there. All they had to do was help him."
The Jelks sued the CHP for this act of inhumanity and negligence. But rather than own up to their errors, CHP officials defended themselves with an argument that all Americans should keep in mind.
"Injured motorists have no right to expect help from the California Highway Patrol — even when officers arrive in time to save a life, a lawyer for the state Department of Justice office told a judge Tuesday," according to the Bee report. Here are the words of the Justice Department attorney:
"The officers have absolutely no duty to help him. The facts in this case are devastating, especially to his parents, but there is no duty by the CHP to offer help.... Mr. Jelks made a very poor decision when he decided to jump from one side of the bridge to the other. You can't transfer that liability to the CHP."
How outrageous. Certainly, CHP cannot be held liable for the actions of the man. But the family wasn't abusing the tort system in a way that is so typical these days, by blaming private companies for the misuse of their properly functioning products. The Jelks were suing CHP because its officers apparently knew that a man was injured, yet didn't even bother calling an ambulance for help. They simply, coldly, cowardly drove away. You or I could be arrested in this state for harming an animal, yet the state's officials can treat a human being like road debris with impunity.
I wonder if they sleep well at nights.
Yes, we all know, as the attorney said, that cops don't have to help any citizens unless the cop caused the injury or in a few other limited circumstances. Police also are immune to most lawsuits. We know that's true, yet we still act as if we can count on the police to help us in our time of need.
The judge had considered throwing out the lawsuit, but said that he was still thinking about how he would rule. It's not hard to guess how the suit will eventually wind up. Not many judges are willing to take on any aspect of the government, let alone the state's most powerful police agency.
There are important lessons here. Remember that the government protects its own, and we are at the mercy of its agents. Remember that the police do not have to help you. Remember that prosecutors would rather you allow your family to be murdered than to allow you to pull out an unregistered gun in self-defense. Remember that many police do not care one whit about your life or your safety. Public safety is just a term they use to justify their 3 percent at 50 retirement plans.
As California struggles with a $38 billion budget deficit cause by runaway government spending, local politicians whine about the chance that the state will balance the budget on the backs of law enforcement and other local public safety expenses. No one ever challenges the assumption that police are there to protect us. The debate is only over how much more money to give them.
Yet think back about Jelks, his accident and his suffering. His life meant nothing to the California Highway Patrol — literally, nothing. That's exactly what your life means to your local law enforcement agent. The least we can do is raise those points when the police unions start demanding more of our tax dollars.
June 20, 2003
Steven Greenhut (send him mail) is a senior editorial writer and columnist for the Orange County Register.
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