When Government Privileges Trump the Rights of Citizens

California creates a two-tiered system, with government workers on top.

Democrats and Republicans in the California Legislature have once again broadcast this troubling fact: They are far more concerned about the ever-expanding demands of a relatively small group of public sector union members than they are about the public welfare of the citizens of our state.

On May 17, the state Assembly voted 68-0 to support the most despicable piece of legislation that’s come through the halls in a while, which is saying a lot given the foolhardy proposals routinely on display in Sacramento. (It still requires approval by the Senate and the governor.)

The bill, AB 2299, allows a broad swath of public officials—police, judges, and various public safety officials—to hide their names from public property records. It is based on the unproven notion that criminals use such records to find the homes of law enforcement officers, then track them down to commit harm. This could theoretically happen, but even the most overheated advocates of the bill can’t point to specific instances. Lots of things can happen, theoretically.

The Sacramento Bee editorial page, hardly a font of anti-government-worker thinking, made the obvious point: “None of the testimony presented in committee indicated criminals seeking to harm law enforcement officials actually got information about where their targets lived from property records. Most just followed them home from work.”

The state is about to destroy the most significant source of public records, and create an open invitation to fraud and theft in order to combat a phantom threat. The bill was introduced by a legislator who ought to know better, Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles). Not long ago, Feuer argued that openness is the key to stopping abuse in his city’s terminally troubled children’s court system, but now he is the champion of secrecy.

“AB 2299 would bar journalists and the public from investigating the situation unfolding in Los Angeles where the assessor is accused of collecting campaign contributions from property owners in exchange for lowered property assessments,” wrote the California Newspaper Publishers Association’s Jim Ewert in a letter to Feuer. “The bill would completely insulate and protect any public safety official who might be involved in this type of scheme … .”

Public officials and their family members will be able to hide their identities, which will undermine the reliability of property transactions. Dirty officials will pull off real estate scams without scrutiny. If an assessor did mistakenly release a record, those officials could receive financial judgments paid by the taxpayers. As the Bee asked, “If names are redacted, could law enforcement officials prevent their estranged wives or husbands from asserting a legitimate legal interest in the property?” The property system will become far less reliable. Buyers will be less able to guarantee that the title they receive is free and clear.

What a mess we are creating, and all because union officials are constantly pushing for new and expanded privileges for their members, and because legislators never have the courage to say no. Law enforcement advocates constantly trumpet the dangers their members face, but they often exaggerate such dangers. They ignore that many other people who work outside government face dangers, too. Bail bondsmen face potential dangers from criminals, as do various attorneys and average citizens going about their lives. It’s not right to bolster the idea that public officials are members of a separate caste with rights and protections that exceed those enjoyed by the citizenry at large.

It’s fundamental to our democratic society that government officials are held to the same standards as the rest of us. Yet we see many scandals involving public officials, many crimes committed by duly sworn officers. Do we really need yet another privilege that exempts “them” from the standards that apply to the rest of “us.”

One can be sure that the number of protected categories will expand rapidly and quietly. Even the original list is fairly broad. Within weeks, lobbyists for other public-sector unions will insist that code enforcers, billboard inspectors, and milk testers receive the same protections given the dangers these officials supposedly face. If you think I'm overstating this, then consider that the latter categories made that same argument to gain expanded “public safety” pensions.

Many officials will abuse this, just as police and their families routinely abuse the “professional courtesy” granted by other officers to evade traffic tickets and DUIs. In 2008, the Orange County Register published an investigation about a special license plate program “designed 30 years ago to protect police from criminals, [that] has been expanded to cover hundreds of thousands of public employees—from police dispatchers to museum guards—who face little threat from the public. Their spouses and children can get the plates, too. This has happened despite warnings from state officials that the safeguard is no longer needed because updated laws have made all DMV information confidential to the public.”

The newspaper found that these public servants often run red lights and drive on toll roads without paying the tolls because the agencies cannot access the addresses, which are in a protected database. When these scofflaw government employees are pulled over by police officers, the newspaper reported, they often are let go with a warning because their protected plate status signals that they are part of the law enforcement fraternity. After the Register article, the Legislature actually voted to expand the number of categories of employee eligible for the program.

Now this two-tier craziness will expand to our property ownership system, undermining public records and allowing corrupt public employees to exploit other people. We know from history that free and open societies are the ones least susceptible to corruption. Yet the California Assembly has decided to cast aside those time-tested lessons and put the demands of unions above the needs of the public. So what else is new?

Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Almanian's Evil Twin||

    Not seeing the problem hier. Their public SERVANTS. We should be thanking them. But no - fibbertarians want to "out" hour noble officials.

    Let them have they're privacy!!one!1

  • cw||

    Yeah, I find the "servant" part quite laughable. They should just admit they depend on taxes for their livelihood, nothing any more noble.

  • Bruce Majors||

    Are you spoofing your average Democrat graduate of state schools, or do you not know how to spell?

  • Almanian's Evil Twin||

    "Authoritah! Respect It"

  • T||

    They already do this in Texas, and it's a recent change. My next door neighbor is a cop. His house is invisible in the tax records.

    I guess cops and judges are doing something wrong, since if you're not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to fear, right?

  • Ragnar||

    Ironically, a smart criminal has only to check the tax records and target the houses with no names.

  • Killazontherun||

    Exactly. If I ever need to go back to a life of crime, I'm targeting public employees only so my conscience will stay clean this time around.

  • Jake W||

    I hope you don't mean 'go back' as in you have done it before. Unless it was to public "officials." Note: not servants. They are your RULERS!

  • JoshSN||

    If there were 10,000 houses in Dallas with no names, how would you know which one held the cop that had arrested you?

  • CockGobbla||

    OT:

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/di...../#comments

    Ed Brayton, at the Dispatches from the Culture War blog at Freethought Blogs posted link to Penn Jillette's anti-drug war rant. To Brayton's credit, he was very supportive of Penn's statement.

    But, the comments are hilarious. They just keep mentioning their disagreement with Penn's libertarian politics and missing the point of the video. Fucking shit, do I hate liberal atheists?

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    Don't worry, liberal atheists aren't *real* atheists.

  • CockGobbla||

    I always thought atheism freed people up to make up their own minds, politically.

    Now, according to many leftist atheists, you aren't truly godless until you submit to their political ideology.

  • sarcasmic||

    True atheists worship the government.

  • Concerned Citizen||

    Can't remember who pointed this out, but liberal atheists believe the universe and all life happend spontaneously, and evolved on it's own. But now, NOW, every living thing, up to and including Earth, must be micromanaged. For it's own good.

  • ||

    The war on drugs is very profitable for american companies. It won’t end until that reality ends. Those crop dusters and prisons aren’t free, the government pays for them and industry gets richer for their efforts in an unwinnable struggle. When elected officials talk about crop dusting other countries in our hemisphere they care about what state is going to get the contract, not what it does to the people they spray with chemicals.

    Jillette will never rail against the systems in place that make the war on drugs a reality, just select leaders, as if they are really able to change things on their own. He is so breath-takingly obtuse about the practical considerations of politics, it is amazing to me that anyone gives a shit about what he has to say at all.

    *barf*

  • CockGobbla||

    Apparently, the drug war is a spin-off of the "military-crop duster complex".

  • Killazontherun||

    It's not even possible to parody their stupid without coming across as an authentic progressive.

  • Tonio||

    That's some pure comedy gold you quoted there, Apatheist. But depressingly typical of the Myers crowd.

  • KDN||

    He is so breath-takingly obtuse about the practical considerations of politics

    Takes one to know one, eh?

  • Tonio||

    Meh. Brayton is the source of funding for FTB and one of the peevish schoolmaster's (PZ Myers) enablers and sycophants. They really have a love/hate affair with Jillette - love his rationalism while irrationally hating him for his libertarianism.

  • CockGobbla||

    Tonio, you're not suggesting that Lord Myers has an iron grasp on what the other Freethought Blogers are allowed to say, are you?

  • Tonio||

    No, no, of course not, CG. They are after all free thought blogs. It's just that they all come to the same conclusions that Myers does, understandable given the perfection of his thought processes.

  • CockGobbla||

    Okay,

    But given that, I still say that Brayton is one of the better bloggers over there.

    He routinely links to Balko's work, so he gets some credit for making a good use out of the space he was given by Myers.

  • Tonio||

    OK, to clarify: you wrote "blogger" but in my head I heard "commenter". My snark was mostly directed at the latter, particularly those at Myers' blog.

    Yes, Brayton is one of the better bloggers at FTB.

    And FTB is, I believe, Brayton's space, not Myers'. My recollection is that FTB was founded and bankrolled by Brayton after traffic to Myers blog was overwhelming ScienceBlogs. Also Brayton and Myers wanted to create a venue where non-scientists could blog about atheism. I'm also a fan of Blue Collar Atheist since he's not as pompous as Myers and lives and works outside the bubble of academia.

  • CockGobbla||

    YIKES!

    #12 straight up admits to not even listening to what Penn had to say.

  • dunkel||

    "Like so many Libertarians Penn Jillette seems to be unaware or simply obtuse to idea of private power. It appears in his view only government can coerce."

    that's a shitshow of dumb right there

  • Brandon||

    It gets better:

    "Ugh, spare me the fawning over Penn Jillette. He’s an unabashed libertarian who works shamelessly for the CATO Institute promoting an anti-science position on Climate Change and smoking, thinks it would be a good idea to scrap the Endangered Species Act, is opposed to animal welfare legislation, progressive taxation and gun control. He wants to effectively stop overseas aid to developing nations, cut worker’s rights, hates socialized medicine and is a free-market fundamentalist and disciple Ayn Rand (who wrote the disgusting tirade ‘the virtue of selfishness’). Why does it matter that he appears on radio stations and shouts obnoxiously for thirty minutes about subjects that he knows very little about? The atheist movement needs better role models."

    The message doesn't matter, it's the source that matters.

  • Tonio||

    The atheist movement needs better role models.

    Absolutely, just not the ones the author was thinking of.

  • Restoras||

    Am I to understand there will be no alt text?

  • Almanian's Evil Twin||

    Really, what more can be said than what we all know Cartman says anyway?

  • Pro Libertate||

    When don't government privileges trump the rights of citizens?

  • Raistlin||

    Durring revolutions. Sometimes after them.

  • Longtorso||

    It’s not right to bolster the idea that public officials are members of a separate caste with rights and protections that exceed those enjoyed by the citizenry at large.

    But they are a separate caste. Weapons are for "gentlemen", hence gun control for us and armed FDA agents. Conspicuous consumption means the cattle don't know their place, hence environmentalism-inspired restrictions on us while our betters jet to tropical islands for conferences. Kings used to ban others from wearing purple for the same reason. Now they want to ban SUVs instead.

    All govt is based on the same things that made feudal knights restrict the peasants.

  • Aresen||

    All govt is based on the same things that made feudal knights restrict the peasants.

    +13th century.

    The THEORY that justified feudalism was that the Kings, Lords and Knights were supposed to defend the peasants. Sounds exactly like "Serve Protect", doesn't it?

  • Loki||

    + 1 million internets.

    I may have to steal some of that the next time I get into a discussion with some big gov fluffing left-tard.

  • ant1sthenes||

    Need to harp on this whenever discussions about equality arise. Fuck your gay marriage, fuck your affirmative action, fuck your wealth redistribution. If you believe in a modern knight caste, or technocratic priesthood, or political pseudonobility (though unlike the French socialist nobles, ours don't yet seem to have jus primae noctis), you've lost the plot on political equality.

  • Tim||

    If you're Batman, you need a Batcave.

  • Brendan||

    So cops, who have access to much more of our information at their fingertips, many times in a laptop right in their cars would get to hide their property records?

    Last I checked, the standard line from the police and government was only criminals have something to hide.

    If a girl/woman is being stalked by a cop, can she have her information purged/masked from police computers?

  • ||

    "Last I checked, the standard line from the police and government was only criminals have something to hide."

    Well put.

  • Brandon||

    Obviously, if a girl is being stalked by a cop, the cop is not interpreting his Prima Noctae rights correctly.

  • AlmightyJB||

    " “The bill would completely insulate and protect any public safety official who might be involved in this type of scheme … .”

    Ummmm....don't you think that's the point. Government has pretty much taken taken over all activities that formally we're done by the mafia. Extortion, Union corruption, wiping out competitors, etc.

  • Paul.||

    I just skimmed the article (I'll read it in detail a bit later), but I'm guessing this has to do with situations like whnat happened in Bell California. And all the once-and-future Bell's are nervous.

    Public officials are getting tired of saying how underpaid and underappreciated they are, while people with two eyes and a 4th grade education look at their compensation and benefits and realize it's complete bullshit.

    If I can no longer find that a guy working in the department of transportation has a $750,000 home, it's going to make it a lot harder to refute the notion that the public servant is underpaid and underappreciated.

    The less the public knows about your expensive digs, the harder it'll be to vote 'no' at election time.

  • ant1sthenes||

    Wait, judges and high-ranking safety officials are unionized in California? Or is this just an attempt to squeeze unionhassen in where generic pubsec hate would serve better?

  • ||

    The California Judges Association is effectively a union. The police are definitely unionized. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) covers a lot of public safety officials such as prison guards. Interestingly SEIU also covers teachers who I can totally see asking for this kind of protection next. "We need to keep our addresses private so violent kids don't come attack us."

  • Brandon||

    Sure, if you completely ignore the fact that Police are included too.

  • JSebastian||

    Uh oh, the roaches are trying to go underground. We better exterminate them before they escape into their lairs.

  • budlet2||

    as long as John Perez is in the legislature, the unions will always win as his only position has been a union organizer.

  • sweeterjan||

    criminals seeking to harm law http://www.vendreshox.com/nike-shox-r3-c-8.html enforcement officials actually got information about where their targets lived from property records. Most just followed them home from work.

  • Bruce Majors||

    Yes but those pesky property records also tell you when they bought a property, how much they paid, whether they are absentee owners and really live elsewhere, maybe in a district they are not elected to represent, who they'll it with, etc etc.

  • janvones||

    This is why the Constitution forbids granting titles of nobility. Nobles were given privileges and immunities above their subjects. The last capital punishment law NY had made it a capital offense to kill a policeman, or two non-police officers. Some animals are more equal than others.

  • JoshSN||

    The Roman Empire had the same sorts of laws. Romans were better protected.

    When the Germanic tribes destroyed the West, they reversed the laws, making the fine for killing a Roman half that for killing anyone else.

    Ah, good times.

  • janvones||

    This is why the Constitution forbids granting titles of nobility. Nobles were given privileges and immunities above their subjects. The last capital punishment law NY had made it a capital offense to kill a policeman, or two non-police officers. Some animals are more equal than others.

  • janvones||

    This is why the Constitution forbids granting titles of nobility. Nobles were given privileges and immunities above their subjects. The last capital punishment law NY had made it a capital offense to kill a policeman, or two non-police officers. Some animals are more equal than others.

  • cheap sunglasses||

    The quantity of revenue of sunglasses is straight proportional towards the quantity of dollars invested on their advertisement. within their bid to outdo every other, the custom homes devote mind-blowing bucks on advertising and marketing their products. The inevitable outcome is definitely a sharp increase in costs of Wholesale Sunglasses

  • Bruce Majors||

    I live across the street from Harry Reid's $800,000 one bedroom condo (large I am sure with garage parking) and former Fannie Mae CEO and Obama supporter Franklin Raine's multi-million dollar two level penthouse in the same building, the Ritz Carleton condos. Their real estate holdings are one thing they are trying to hide. A politician can have a zoning regulation changed so a cheap property he acquired, perhaps via eminent domain, is suddenly valuable, then sell is and use a 1031 Starker exchange to convert the wealth into a like kind property in another state. No money is ever deposited into is bank account as it is just transferred from on settlement company to anther. Many of these people already hold properties in the names of trusts and LLCs and in DC many already have their names hidden in the tax records. Making it impossible to investigate what they own will make it harder to track their use of government to enrich themselves.

    http://s1140.photobucket.com/a.....9412f1.mp4

  • JoshSN||

    On a Senator's salary, with interest rates as low as they are now, an $800,000 home isn't really out of the question.

    But you are exactly right, this is how crooked officials could trivially begin tons of different real estate scams, and keep it all out of the public's eye.

    Go Reason, for being against this nonsense bill.

  • JoshSN||

    California hasn't gone far enough to protect the children!

    What we need is thousands of new roads, that only public officials can drive on, so that no one follows a police officer, judge, prosecutor or prison guard home from work.

    And, further, we need thousands of new prisons, courthouses, and police stations, set up as a ruse, so the criminals won't know where to go to look for the LEOs, in order to fail to follow them home.

    And why just property records? Should anyone be allowed to keep any records at all on our dear, trusted, public officials?

    I swear this new, special privilege for the people in power won't be abused, but even if it is, isn't it worth it?

    /sarcasm

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