Dissent as Law Enforcement Trigger

Commenting on the Giuliani years in New York City, the NYT offers the following anecdote that raises some troubling questions about law enforcement practices:

In August 1997, James Schillaci, a rough-hewn chauffeur from the Bronx, dialed Mayor Giuliani’s radio program on WABC-AM to complain about a red-light sting run by the police near the Bronx Zoo. When the call yielded no results, Mr. Schillaci turned to The Daily News, which then ran a photo of the red light and this front page headline: “GOTCHA!”

That morning, police officers appeared on Mr. Schillaci’s doorstep. What are you going to do, Mr. Schillaci asked, arrest me? He was joking, but the officers were not.

They slapped on handcuffs and took him to court on a 13-year-old traffic warrant. A judge threw out the charge. A police spokeswoman later read Mr. Schillaci’s decades-old criminal rap sheet to a reporter for The Daily News, a move of questionable legality because the state restricts how such information is released. She said, falsely, that he had been convicted of sodomy. Then Mr. Giuliani took up the cudgel. “Mr. Schillaci was posing as an altruistic whistle-blower,” the mayor told reporters at the time. “Maybe he’s dishonest enough to lie about police officers.”

This story offers the “flip-side” of what has been described as “tolerated lawbreaking” in America. Law enforcers may not crack down on, say, every file swapped online. An unpaid ticket does not usually mean a trip to jail. But when it does, should there be some “forbidden criteria” for bringing someone to justice? If so, complaining about government should be near the top of the list. Kudos to the Times for ferreting out this story.

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