There is certainly a time for administration of justice and enforcing punishment for those who violate the law. However, there must also be reasonableness and the exercise of judicial economy in prosecuting for minor violations. In a Washington Supreme Court Decision issued today, the court addressed whether a Pierce Transit "fair enforcement officer" (FEO) is classified as "public servant" for purposes of making a false statement to a public servant under RCW 9A.76.175.
The case itself resolved around a fifteen-year-old who was asked to provide proof of transit fare to an FEO while riding the link light-rail. The fifteen-year-old provided a bus transfer ticket, but was informed by an FEO a bus transfer ticket was no longer valid for riding the light-rail. The FEO instructed the fifteen-year-old to exit at the next stop. The FEO then sought names and identification of the fifteen-year-old and his companions. Ultimately, the three young males provided false information or otherwise did not want to disclose their identities.
The Majority of the court found that FEOs in this context did not classify as public servants and overruled the conviction. Now, surely, the distinction and definition of "public servant" was important for determining criminal liability in this case, but the bigger point may have been made by Chief Justice Barbara Madsen in dissent. In her opening paragraph the Chief Justice wrote as follows:
In a time of fiscal austerity, it is surprising that King County elected to use its resources to prosecute a young man for his apparent lack of candor with uniformed officers after being informed that Sound Transit no longer accepted bus transfers as legitimate fare. The use of considerable public resources to prosecute such a minor infraction, especially one that can easily be understood as a crime of poverty, is remarkable.
I don't believe her point could have been more poignant. This case began with a kid unable to pay transit fare, which was probably a few bucks. The kid was then interrogated and dragged through the court system. The case proceeded to prosecution, trial, appeal, and finally supreme court review. Must we really expend such time and resources seeking such punishment? Don't get me wrong, no one should get a free ride or lie, but there must have been a more cost effective solution to this case.