John Colson: Hit and Run
August 8, 2008
I can see it now.
A couple has just disembarked from their canoe on a warm night at a local reservoir, murmuring softly and lovingly to one another as they pull the canoe onto the shore near their tent, maybe stumbling a bit under the weight of the craft and the influence of the wine they shared while out on the water.
Suddenly an intense beam of light spears them where they stand, hands wrapped around the gunwales of the canoe, hair somewhat tousled, eyes staring like those of a deer caught on a highway by oncoming headlights.
Guttural orders are barked from the darkness behind the spotlight, as both tipsy boaters try to make out the faces behind the voices and start to argue with their captors. The young man reaches for the wine skin to show the officers, and stops as he stares into the gun barrel of a nervous park ranger. No one is hurt, but the couple gets to face a dreaded BUI (boating under the influence) charge, along with charges of possession of illegal drugs after the rangers find a film canister half-full of marijuana that the canoers swear isn’t theirs.
Far fetched? Maybe. But it could happen, thanks to a new state law that broadens and toughens an older law aimed at punishing anyone found drinking while operating watercraft on Colorado’s rivers, lakes and reservoirs.
The old law covered only motorized watercraft, a sensible precaution against drunks endangering everyone around them as they hotrod around on the waterways.
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This new law, though, appears to be nothing more than an outgrowth of our national tendency to overemphasize law enforcement’s role in governing human frailties and foolishness, an extension of puritanical hypocrisy that goes back centuries.
It puts canoes, kayaks and rafts on an equal legal footing with high-powered speedboats, and offers up the grim potential for sending offending parties to jail for nothing more than the simple enjoyment of an alcoholic beverage while paddling and sightseeing on the water.
Granted, people can be pretty stupid about gauging their capacity for drink while engaged in a wide range of activities, and I can’t argue with some of the laws aimed at curbing and punishing rank stupidity. But there is such a thing as carrying it too far, and this seems like a prime example.
For one thing, there is no evidence that laws eliminate stupidity. People generally do not think, “Oh, dear, I might get in trouble over this” as they suck down a beer or sip at a martini while doing something that they shouldn’t while drunk. It’s not the way we’re built.
Instead, we rationalize our need for a little relaxation into an excuse for bad judgment, and in most cases the outcome is not fatal for ourselves or anyone else in the vicinity.
Occasionally, of course, the outcome is tragic, and those whose actions precipitate such tragedies certainly should be held accountable.
But you cannot legislate intelligence or judgment. Steadily ratcheting up the legal consequences of minor lapses in judgment does little but fatten the state’s coffers, create an ever-expanding police-state mentality, and overcrowd our jails, as is readily apparent in the failed War On Drugs.
And where, in the name of all that is fun, is the hazard presented to society by someone who partakes of a little booze while paddling a canoe or a kayak?
If a rafting guide gets drunk and kills off some of his clients in an accident on a river, that guide should answer to the full extent of the law for his bad acts. But where is the sense in making criminals out of people floating around with a buzz on, posing a threat to no one but themselves?
This is a bad law, perhaps just another example of overzealous lawyers eager to create new ways to earn their exorbitant fees. It’s a sign of a government gone haywire, and should be revised or repealed.