Auto Lock-up

Senator John Kaites really ought to run for sheriff.
The Deputy Dawg of Arizona politics has successfully sponsored a piece of legislation even more brilliant than his failed attempt to have new mothers drug-tested (by testing the umbilical cord--and I'm not making this up).

On May 29, Governor Jane Hull signed the Kaites-sponsored Senate Bill 1278, the purpose of which is to make "a variety of changes to the criminal code."

Some of those changes make sense, such as allowing courts to impose lifetime probation on stalkers, or expanding the definition of "domestic violence" to include cases where the victim is pregnant by the defendant. (Although, in a hilarious example of legislative clumsiness, it actually reads, "where the defendant is pregnant by the victim"! Or perhaps the Legislature really does mean to protect men from being beaten up by their pregnant partners.)

But other parts of the bill are quite frightening.
The bill "establishes as a class 6 felony refusal to return a motor vehicle to a qualifying secured creditor," according to the state Senate's fact sheet. If you fall behind on your car payments for more than 90 days, and the financial institution handling your loan wants the car back, and you don't hand it over, you're guilty of a crime. A class 6 felony carries a minimum sentence of one year, and a maximum sentence of 2.25 years.

This provision makes the cops repo men.

Some categories of assault are only misdemeanors. You can assault someone, be convicted, and still not be a felon. But now you can become a felon--losing your right to vote and right to carry a gun--simply by defaulting on your car payments. Other categories of class 6 felony are shoplifting, assault using a vicious animal, sexual conduct with a minor over the age of 15, credit-card fraud, escape from jail, resisting arrest, jury tampering, selling guns to minors, prostitution, performing partial-birth abortions, poisoning, and some types of child abuse.

And, now, not keeping up with your car payments.
Only in a state like Arizona could such legislation even be considered, much less put in place.

As I write this, I can almost hear the hundreds of thousands of citizens who will shake their heads over this column, muttering, "You should pay your debts. The law should make you pay people what you owe them."

Yes, you should pay your debts.
And the law should make you pay people what you owe them.
And the law does. It already did before this bill existed.

No one ever had legal carte blanche to walk away from a debt. Under the law, you can sue a person who owes you money. All this bill does is criminalize a certain kind of debt.

My car is worth about $9,000. I called Mike Torres, public information officer for the Phoenix Police Department, and asked him a hypothetical question.

"If I lend a guy nine grand to buy my car, and he signs a contract agreeing to pay me back in monthly installments, but he falls behind and doesn't pay me for more than 90 days, will you arrest him if I call you?"

"No," Torres told me. "It's a civil matter."
"So I'd have to sue the guy, right?"
"The cops wouldn't get involved?"

But, according to this bill, if the debt was a car loan, the cops would have to get involved.

Torres wasn't sure about that. "I don't know if we'd be the ones who had to enforce it."

Then who would? Who else goes after felons, people whose crimes are so heinous that they're going to jail for at least a year?

Torres explains why such legislation would come into being. "Banks and financial institutions couldn't recoup their money. I don't think this law is aimed at Susie Housemaker, whose husband dies and leaves her with a lot of money problems. This is aimed at people who buy cars knowing they're not going to make the payments. They change their address, and the banks can't find them. They're committing fraud."

But the bill doesn't say anything about fraud. It doesn't say anything about people who buy cars with no intention of paying for them. It just says that you're guilty of a felony if you don't return the car on demand when you're 90 days or more behind with your payments.

It's not hard to see who this law targets. Nor is it hard to see who it doesn't target. It doesn't target frauds or con artists. Laws dealing with them already exist.

It targets poor people.
In Phoenix, you need a car. It's a necessity, not a luxury. You simply can't get around without one. The bus can take an hour to get you to someplace you can drive to in 10 or 15 minutes. Without a car, getting to work is a major obstacle, and the kind of job you can take is limited. If a person gets in financial trouble and can't make car payments for a while, taking his car from him is not going to help him get financially stable again. If he doesn't hand over his car when asked, putting him in jail for a year or two isn't going to help him get back on his feet, either.

This bill punishes people for being poor.

This would be slightly less outrageous if it applied to everyone, and served all creditors. But it doesn't. It serves big financial institutions. It tells us we'd better toe the line when dealing with the banks--or they'll lock us up. There could not be a clearer example of the law being the servant of commerce.

I called Senator Kaites, but, apparently, it takes time to get a message to such lofty heights. As we go to press, I haven't heard from him.

I had better luck when I called Richard Spector, a Scottsdale attorney, and asked him about class 6 felonies. Spector was at first disbelieving when I read him the legislation.

"So they're criminalizing debt," he said. "It's debtor's prison all over again. I thought there'd be a resistance to that, because it was a major point of the revolution. The colonists used to do that, put people in prison for debt, or put them in the stocks. That was King George, and after the revolution it wasn't supposed to happen anymore.

"It just shows how strong the automobile and banking lobbies are."

As a crime fighter, Senator Kaites really needs to go further. This bill is a good start, but it has some significant omissions. What about people who fall behind with their rent, and don't move out when asked to? Obviously, they should be given the death penalty.

But such minor quibbles are churlish, and I'm sure the Legislature will get around to them in due course. Meanwhile, Arizona is a safer place for bankers, who can sleep easily at night knowing that evil defaulters will finally be hunted down and given the punishment they so richly deserve.

Contact Barry Graham at his online address: [email protected]

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Barry Graham