Monday, April 16, 2007

The enforcement problem in Mayberry

Early this morning I took breakfast at Hannah's, a favorite hyper-local eatery here in White Pine and a place where I can sometimes be spotted enjoying the first meal of the day once a week or so. It so happens that Hannah's has a smoking area much larger than its non-smoking area. Many, if not most of the regulars at Hannah's are smokers, and if you don't like the smoke, you can either eat in the back room (the non-smoking area) , or you don't have to eat at Hannah's. Hannah's has no problem getting good regular business, and if tobacco is going the way of Fat Sam, nobody who eats at Hannah's knows about it.

It occurred to me this morning over my bacon, egg, and cheese biscuit that the Governor may have a bit of a problem with his precious smoking ban. Who is going to enforce it in rural Tennessee?

The Police Department here in White Pine consists of seven officers, much of whose time is spent charging people with speeding or minor traffic violations. The worst I have seen or even heard tell of since we came to White Pine was a meth bust in the Food City parking lot, and if my memory serves me correctly, there was also a Jefferson County Sheriff's Deputy and a Morristown Police Officer present for that. A lot of the serious work that our Department does usually involves doing the work of other agencies. A friend of mine told me, for example, that the police were at his house the other day because a missing person from an out-of-State jurisdiction had written his phone number down as a point of contact-he did not know the person.

It is not the least bit uncommon for code violations that are considered minor to go unnoticed, or noticed but simply ignored, because whatever the person or persons may be doing is not harming anyone else. I have a strong sense that this is the general attitude adopted by small-town and rural law enforcement all over Tennessee: If no one is being bothered by it, whatever it may be, than why bother with pursuing it unless someone should complain?

Call me crazy, but I have a hunch that if the smoking ban passes, the local police may not fully enforce the ban at every place in town. If the State wants the ban enforced here, it may be that the State will have to enforce the ban themselves.

Places like Hannah's exist in small towns and wide spots in the road all over this State, and while the smoking ban may be very easy for the authorities to enforce in Knoxville, Nashville, Memphis, and Chattanooga, it will be much more difficult to enforce this ban in small town and rural jurisdictions. Local authorities will not be inclined to waste their time harassing smokers at the local diner when they will have more important things to do like patrol the traffic through town and do legwork for nearby agencies on more important investigations.

The State may come in here and attempt to enforce the smoking ban. Can the State of Tennessee really justify sending State agents into every hamlet and burg to enforce a ban on lighting up when there are far worse crimes to deal with? If the answer is no, it bears recalling that 60% of our fair State is still considered rural or "small town." This means that in roughly 60% of the State, the proposed ban may only be enforced when local law enforcement has nothing better to do. Why would anyone in their right mind pass a law that will only be selectively enforced in 3/5th of their jurisdiction?

It is a question worth asking as this anti-freedom bill careens toward passage.



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