Recently a good friend of mine who lives in Northern California bought a new, expensive and fast car. When his neighbor, who has a similar type of car, noticed it he told my friend that he would now certainly want to make a $5,000 contribution to the California Highway Patrol’s 11-99 Foundation. “Why was that?” asked my friend. “Because that is like buying insurance against being cited by the CHP for speeding and other traffic violations. It has worked form me, my son and numbers of my friends,” was the answer.
So what is the CHP 11-99 Foundation? This charitable organization receives contributions from the public and uses them to provide financial support for widows and orphans of deceased CHP officers, scholarships for deserving dependents, and similar worthwhile activities. Donations in any amount are accepted with appreciation. But, according to the nice lady at the foundation who responded to my call and according to the brochure she sent to me, those who donate $5,000 or more receive an engraved license plate frame that says “Member, 11-99 Foundation” on it, and they also receive a pocket-sized wallet complete with a card with the donor’s name and lifetime identification number engraved in relief upon it.
Now there is absolutely no question that the family members of deceased officers of this great and professional law enforcement organization should be supported, and a foundation of this kind is a perfectly appropriate vehicle to accomplish that goal. But the furnishing of a license plate frame that will allow all law enforcement officers to see that the automobile owner supports their “families in need,” or a wallet that places proof of membership in this organization conspicuously close to that person’s driver’s license will at best be misunderstood by the public. And at worst they will appear to be what my friend’s neighbor said they are: an invitation for favoritism in the criminal justice system for people who donate to this cause.
To be honest, I do not know how effective those invitations are in obtaining favorable treatment from law enforcement officers on our streets and highways. I myself have asked several CHP officers if it makes any difference to them, and they have consistently denied it. But even the thought that these objects might work in even a few cases, or even appear to work, is enough to require that this part of this otherwise worthwhile program be disbanded.
As a practical matter, we will never run out of worthy causes for which donors could be considered for favorable treatment from government agencies. If we follow this lead, soon the California Franchise Tax Board could be giving favorable interpretations on close tax questions to donors who support the agents’ children’s scholarship funds, or the county board of supervisors could be giving the “benefit of the doubt” and approve land development projects for those who donate to the supervisors’ “pet charities.”
You might not be aware that judges are ethically prohibited from informing law enforcement officers about our status under circumstances in which that knowledge might affect the officers’ decisions about issuing us a traffic or other citation. That was not always so, to the degree that when I first became a judge back in 1983 I was offered a wallet with a badge right across from where I carried my driver’s license. (Actually some people might feel that this might hurt us more than help.)
But times and morays have changed, and I believe that restrictions of this kind are fully appropriate, and an overwhelming majority of judges understand and embrace those restrictions. But should not the same standards be applied to supporters of even such worthwhile programs as the 11-99 Foundation?
Now I agree that sometimes it is hard to draw the line. For example, I have a small “organ donor” sticker pasted right on the front of my driver’s license. Does this mean that under certain “close call” circumstances I might be treated with more deference by a police officer than someone without it? Probably not, but maybe so. I know that there is a socially justifiable reason for that sticker to be there, and I never really focused upon this issue until I began thinking about this column. In addition, I really think that the chances that this sticker would even be noticed by an officer much less be the cause of any special favoritism would be miniscule, but should I take the sticker off just to be sure? No, it is still there.
But seemingly there is no reason for the CHP to provide license plate frames or these particular wallets except to provide the opportunity for favorable treatment. Of course this is a legitimate organization commendably addressing a community need. Furthermore, the CHP officers I have encountered appear to be fine individuals who routinely provide a difficult and much-needed community service, often without sufficient appreciation by the public they serve. But at the end of the day, no matter how fine the organization, improper influence is just that: improper.
Many times in this column we have discussed things that are complicated and difficult to change. But here we have a specific area of ostensible inappropriate influence peddling that can be fixed right now. Accordingly, I request each of you to join me in doing whatever we can to cause the following three results to be realized:
- The practice by the CHP’s 11-99 Foundation of providing any form of object that can be used to call the attention of law enforcement officers to the identity of donors to this worthwhile cause be immediately curtailed;
- Officials at the highest levels of the California Highway Patrol be encouraged to instruct all of their officers that they are not in any way to be affected by the presence of such information if it is encountered; and,
- Those people who are presently carrying wallets with those identification cards and/or have those license plate frames on their cars be encouraged as a matter of personal integrity to dispose of them.
Some unintended consequences of discussing a program like this publicly could be that by calling attention to it we could actually start a “cottage industry” of people who would steal the license plate frames and sell them to others who would hope to benefit from some special treatment. Other results could be that people who did not otherwise know about the program now would make the requisite contributions so that they too might receive this special treatment. And finally, it is possible that some members of the CHP who might view this article will see it as another example of the public’s lack of appreciation of the invaluable services they provide, sometimes at the risk of harm, or worse. I hope not to be the cause of any of those results.
But equal justice under the law cannot exist in a climate that confirms some people’s already jaded view that government can be bought. As such, people of good will should do everything they reasonably can to help do away with even the hint that any influence peddling is occurring today in any fashion with the California Highway Patrol.
Judge Jim Gray (Ret.)