It would appear that the Georgia General Assembly is under the impression that police officers in this state are endowed with wizardry skills, namely the ability to divine the future and see beyond this physical realm into the invisible and incorporeal dimensions. The Georgia House voted last week (the Senate similarly approving it a month earlier) to approve Senate Bill 94. In broad terms this bill’s stated purpose was to modernize many of Georgia’s statutes under Title 17 relating to criminal procedures. There do appear to be some genuine improvements to the law in this piece of legislation. For example Section 17-20-2 covers procedures for witness identification lineups. It is now forbidden that the person conducting the line up have any knowledge of the identity of the actual suspect. This ensures a true “double-blind” outcome free of unconscious cues directing the witness to the “correct” choice.
However there are other aspects to this legislation which take a decidedly two-steps forward one-step back approach to improving the state of criminal law in this state. Perhaps the most egregious is Section 17-5-22, which now includes language that warrants may be issued if probable cause can be shown that a crime is about to be committed. Yes you read that correctly – about to be committed. Taking a page out of the movie “Minority Report,” Georgia now has a “pre-Crime” clause in its criminal code. We are fortunate that police officers in this state can now exercise a power none of us mere mortals posses: the ability to see into the future. Nostradamus would be proud. So, that leaves an open question – can the state get a conviction for a crime that was about to be committed but then because of the warrant was not? What are the standards of evidence? Is merely possessing a weapon “proof” you were about to commit a crime? If I have a gun or knife on me does that mean I am about to commit the crime of murder? Armed robbery? Assault? Which one? All three perhaps? If I own an analytical balance does that mean I’m about to commit the crime of drug distribution? I wonder how much easier it will be for the police to harass someone they have it in for if any of a number of innocuous items could be used to commit a crime. Let me just interject here now to say I don’t mean the Oconee County Police – they are the best and would never do anything like this! Ok, that was mean to be a bit of levity, but I’m also serious, I am fortunate to live in a county with a police force that does not engage in the sort of shenanigans you sometimes hear about on the news – they truly are top-notch. So, what am I complaining about you might say, none of these legislative games affect or are likely to affect me? Because I can see beyond my own little world, and I can see how although some officers would not abuse the power granted in this new law, I can also see how it could easily be abused by those with personal vendettas or discriminatory inclinations. We’ve all heard the phrase “driving while black” – can you imagine how much easier it will now be for officers with racist inclinations to concoct suspicion of some “pre-crime” when they fail to find any evidence of an actual crime? I believe the question answers itself.
On the lighter side of inanity contained in this bill, there is a change in the definition of “property”. Section 17-5-1 now defines property to encompass “intangible, … incorporeal… or invisible” things. Hmmmm… so are they going to confiscate my invisible friend? That doesn’t seem very respectful of the rights of invisible, incorporeal beings. Ok, I know what they mean; they are referring to digital media (well I hope that is what they mean, otherwise someone let Casper know about this). The intent here is unclear but one could imagine that it allows them to now collect a physical device (phone, hard drive), copy all the data off, and then erase it and return it to you empty. That way they can say they returned your physical goods and kept as evidence the “incorporeal” digital evidence. Of course if making a copy of someone’s property” is supposedly a crime then haven’t the police just committed the same crime by copying your copy? Perhaps if the General Assembly used the correct definition of property, e.g. scarce, rivalrous resources, it would free up police manpower to go after actual property crimes (theft, rape, murder) rather than acting as referee in disputes that amount to nothing more than schoolyard disputes over who said something first.