I wrote recently about what happens when the unwritten rules change. Aspirational speed limits became computer-enforced speed limits. Or the school bus driver waits for everybody to sit down. A sheriff stalks the wrong victim. Or most recently, a police officer fails to anticipate the result of the next election.
We have a victim of a retroactive change in the rules. Maybe victim is the wrong word. Call him a career criminal who finally got caught. But five years ago he would be another trigger-happy man with a badge.
Massachusetts State Police officer Matthew Sheehan’s trouble started when he participated in a mass arrest of people riding ATVs along Interstate 93. He shot one of the riders in the foot. The shooting wasn’t too unusual, but in the aftermath a reporter turned up some politically incorrect social media posts. Also nothing unusual in the cesspit that is an unmoderated online form. But the Boston Globe called him racist. It’s the trigger word of the moment. The administration felt obliged to respond. He was suspended without pay for causing offense, not for causing actual injury.
Then he was linked to the State Police overtime scandal. Again, nothing unusual in collecting pay for hours not worked. It happens to be a scandal now instead of five or fifteen years ago. And it’s a scandal in the California Highway Patrol’s East Los Angeles office now instead of five or fifteen years ago. Troopers in both departments have been thieves for as long as anybody can remember. By their own admission. The defense of the accused is “everybody does it.”
And then the real shocker hit. Traditionally a police officer in Massachusetts can shoot somebody in the back of the head and get away with murder. Prosecutors accept police officers’ claims of acting in self defense. The public may see a street execution, but prosecutors depend on maintaining good relations with police.
After the shooting Boston elected a progressive prosecutor. Not my label — she’s a self-described progressive. The statute of limitations hadn’t expired. New Suffolk County DA Rachael Rollins convened a grand jury and indicted Sheehan for felony assault. Same charge a civilian would face for shooting an annoying ATV rider.
This is not the only time she got attention for failing to stand with the police. A conservative demonstration in Boston attracted liberal protesters who were arrested by conservative police. DA Rollins immediately let the protesters go over the objection of a judge. Which is undoubtedly her right under the written rules, regardless of actual guilt or innocence. But it’s not the way the unwritten rules used to work.
I’m worried about the apathy people show towards traffic regulation. It’s illegal for a police officer to shoot you because he’s having a bad day. But it’s also illegal for you to drive 25 miles per hour when the government mistakenly posted a 20 mph speed limit on a major highway. And it’s illegal for the company plowing your driveway to leave a little streak of snow on the street. And it’s illegal to stop over the line, no matter how far back it is from the intersection and even if that intersection doesn’t need a stop sign.
Everytime you accept a law figuring “I probably won’t get a ticket” keep in mind that the rules are subject to change, possibly retroactively.
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