The importance of taking intent into account

Tuesday, April 20, 2010
This story regarding the usage of GPS, speed cameras and license plate identification brought back a memory of an argument I had with a law professor several years ago.

The issue was (surprise) of intent. I was surprised to learn that in Michigan (at the time ... this may have changed), shop-lifting had to be intentional (or at least had an out for the absentminded). This protected the guy who forgot about the case of soda at the bottom of the cart while loading items on the belt while checking out.

I argued that intent was important based on a pre-WWW experience I had as a teenager. I had walked into a CVS, my girlfriend had purchased a few items and I had started reading the ingredient list on a pack of Certs (just what is Retsyn). Distracted, I walked out without paying for the breath-mints and we went to see a movie. I realized after the movie that I had not paid for the roll of Certs that I had half-eaten. Since I was now a common thief and wanted to rid myself of that personal blight, I went back to the drug-store, and paid up. All was well with the world. I got to keep up my streak of never shoplifting or stealing (to my knowledge) and the store got paid for the item I absentmindedly had forgotten to pay for.

This got into traffic law. Practically everyone thinks they're a good driver and yet everyone has had cause to be yelled at by another driver on the road entirely by accident. It's the single biggest reason that it's a bad idea to have something representing your church or political beliefs on your car, why inflict your mistakes on others?

I have no statistics to back it up, but I'm guessing that most of us have received a warning or citation for violating a speed limit, turning on red when there's a "no turn on red" sign, being the third car at the yellow light turning left or some other traffic law. Intent is not taken into account because you're *supposed to be paying attention* so as not to endanger the lives of other people.

Traffic/road laws where I'm from are strict and extensive. Enforcement, however, is limited by ratio of traffic patrol officers to ... well ... traffic. This is balanced by the idea that traffic enforcement officers take intent into account, if for no other reason than to be efficient with their own time.

On the right roads, there's no time to waste on the folks going 1-5 MPH over the limit, or the folks who cut a yellow light a little too close.

Take the human judgment aspect out of the picture, though, and those restrictive laws turn us all into "criminals by accident". Automation without human oversight and "Zero Tolerance" laws eliminate good judgment. (see or for examples).

The child who brings a butter knife to school to better manage his turkey sandwich is being treated like the kid who brought a gun. The responsible driver who looks in his rear-view mirror, and assesses the road conditions before deciding whether or not to slam on the brakes at a yellow light is trained to choose between his life at the will of a cement truck driver or a ticket and higher insurance rates. A red light camera doesn't take that into account even if a judge might. Time and court costs are money.

As someone with a 60 mile round-trip trek for work, speed cameras are the worst. While attempting to safely drive you might focus less on the dashboard and more on the vehicles around you, especially if you're surrounded by someone who appears to be in more of a hurry than they should be. The idea of being hit with a ticket without the circumstances or "intent" being taken into account is scary to me.

But maybe I'm wrong?