As published in the Winter Park/Maitland Observer, Thursday Jan. 3, 2012 Edition Offers... Read More »
State Taxpayers, Johns, Guilty Until Proven Innocent
Several months ago vice squads in West Palm Beach, Florida began the practice of giving local beat reporters the names and mugshots of men who had been arrested for allegedly soliciting prostitutes. I believed then, and still do, that in a country that declares a man to be innocent until proven guilty, the practice is illegal.¹
The reporters, of course, maintain that they have the first amendment right to publish the information. They are probably² right. But even if the first amendment allows newspapers to publish the names, the fourteenth amendment prohibits the state from punishing a man for a crime before he has been adjudicated guilty in a court of law, which makes it illegal for the police to disclose the names to the press in the first place.³
Today, cash-strapped states, in an effort to raise revenue and reduce costs, are similarly dispensing with costly due-process requirements by publishing the names of alleged tax scofflaws on the Internet.
Laura Sanders of The Wall Street Journal Tax Report reports in State-Tax Deadbeats Face Tough New Measures:
Here’s a wake-up call for state-tax scofflaws: On Oct. 4, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill requiring the Golden State’s motor vehicle department to suspend the driver’s licenses of its worst delinquents. … With the economy still reeling, California isn’t alone in its quest for unpaid taxes. All states have the traditional recourse of liens and wage garnishment. But these actions are labor-intensive. …
At least 19 states, including Wisconsin, North Carolina, New York, Florida, Montana, Connecticut, Kentucky and New Jersey, follow California’s approach by publishing the names of tax delinquents online.
There may be a good and legal reason for a person to appear on the delinquent taxpayer list. Here are a few I can think off the top of my head:
- The person might be in poor health, in a coma or suffering from dementia or some other debilitating disease and, therefore, unable to challenge the taxing authorities assessment;
- The person might be overseas, perhaps even risking his life for his country in Afghanistan or Iraq, and, therefore, unable to respond to state tax notices;
- The taxing authority may be wrong and the taxpayer doesn’t owe what it claims he owes; and
- The person’s identity may have been stolen.
Publishing the names of these individuals before they have been adjudicated guilty is unconstitutional because it violates the fourteenth amendment. It is punishment without due process of law.
We don’t do that in America.
¹ Listen to the outrageous statement made by West Palm Beach Commissioner Kimberly Mitchell (emphasis added):
We have to research it first. We have to find out if it’s legal. But as far as embarrassing the men and their families, well, they are criminals. And what about the families who have to explain to their kids what the men and women are doing out there in the street?
First, the fact that Mitchell says she has to find out whether the practice is legal tells me that she knows it’s not legal.
Second, and more important, even those these individuals have not had their days in court and have not yet been convicted of anything, Ms. Mitchell, a duly sworn government official, publicly announces that “they are criminals.” The statement is both slanderous and a dereliction of duty.
A public official who is unaware that a man is innocent until proven guilty is unqualified to hold public office and should be made to resign.
² I say “probably” because had the press colluded with the police in a joint venture to publish the names of the suspected Johns, it would have made itself an agent of the state and the fourteenth amendment apply equally to it.
³ What makes the publishing of the names illegal is the state’s active role in it. The fourteenth amendment would be made a Eunuch were states allowed to side-step its due process clause simply by using a non-state actor to mete out it’s punishment for it.
(Hat Tip: Paul Caron)