“A Person Is Innocent Until Proven Guilty By Law.”

 

So you lend Phil $20. Months go by. They don’t pay you back.

Another friend tells you he’s thinking about lending Phil $500 to tide him over until his next paycheck. And you say, “Well, I lent him $20, and I’m still waiting.”

Your friend looks you dead in the eye and goes, “Come on, man. You know I can’t accept that information. It hasn’t been proven in a court of law.”

And you go, “Oh, shit, right. I forgot. Phil’s innocent until proven guilty by law! I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have brought it up.”

You finish your lunch, a little embarrassed. And you know, you’d thought of having Phil’s untrustworthiness put on the record – taking the day off from work to go to small claims court, paying the court fee, putting your word against his on the judge’s docket and hoping the judge sides with you – because it’d be nice to have your loss of a $20 be, you know, a fact. That you could discuss with people. And have them take it seriously.

But your lunch buddy’s right: unless the law has acknowledged this was true, it’s not actionable data. And there’s no sense discussing it, because you have a date later this evening. Rumor is she’s monogamously dating an angry boyfriend with a shotgun, but that hasn’t been proven in court either, so what are you going to do?

Obviously, that’s a crazy fucking example, but it proves my point: Whenever anyone discusses consent, people often cite variants on “A person is innocent until proven guilty by law.”

Which is true, when you’re facing the penalties of law. It’s really good to have the highest possible standard when you’re dealing with an entity that can strip you of your money and force you to live in prison for the rest of your life.

In fact, the dangers of innocents being hurt by malicious or incomplete testimony are so high that the noble principle of the court is, “We’d rather let multiple guilty men go free than mistakenly convict one innocent person.”

As happens all the time. We’ve all heard of mobsters who’ve gotten off because the testimony wasn’t enough to put them away, but that doesn’t mean that in real life these Goodfellas weren’t putting bullets in heads. We’ve all heard of incompetent corporations/doctors/cops/contractors who made massive, sometimes fatal, mistakes, where the court could not find enough evidence to put them to the full penalties of law.

This is a wonderful system. It means that corrupt cops can’t just manufacture evidence to toss people into jail at will.

But you start making foolish, foolish mistakes when you believe that the lofty, purposely-difficult standards the court has set to acknowledge something as true before they are willing to jail a person for life are the same as “This is what actually happened in real life.”

Most people, when confronted with “This doctor has been sued seventeen times by different patients for fatal malpractice, but never successfully,” would not go, “Oh, well, I’m psyched he’s doing my appendectomy tomorrow!” even though by every standard of court, he is completely innocent.

Why? Because the stakes for your personal safety are now higher. Now that your life is on the line, you might want to explore using alternative standards of “I’d rather penalize an innocent doctor than risk being harmed” instead using of the court’s standard of “I’d rather let a guilty person continue to operate than convict an innocent doctor.”

It’s all about what standards you hold yourself to – and as I demonstrated in the opening discussion, the court’s standards are pretty damn high for real life. In fact, they’re supposed to be high, as I’ll mention for the third time, because if the court gets it wrong, we’re talking the full force of the government being brought to bear upon you.

Which is entirely different than the standard of evidence you might want to apply if the penalty is, say, “Phil doesn’t get the $20 he wants to borrow.”

The standards for court are high, because the penalties are high. But literally any lawyer will acknowledge that what you can prove in court is not the same as “What actually happened.” There’s always a distinction. And idiots who conflate “A person is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law” without adding the “because the penalties inflicted are very high” is either thoroughly foolish or purposely omitting stuff to try to fool you.

Which is not to say that Phil is always wrong. Maybe Phil needs the $500 because his wife died and he can’t pay the rent without her income. Okay, fine, in that case the penalty for Phil is pretty stiff. Maybe Phil paid you back and you forgot. Maybe you have a grudge against Phil, which is why you’re mentioning this $20 when you’ve never mentioned all the other loans that have never been paid back. All sorts of shit happens, because life is complex.

And all the complexity comes to a boil when we’re discussing how to handle missing stairs in a community – potentially dangerous people who have gossip swirling about them, but no definitive proof. (Because most consent violators are smart enough not to do terrible stuff in public with witnesses.) And what do you do to keep your parties free of dangerous players when the only proof you have is the equivalent of “She said Phil didn’t pay her back”? Do you ban people on someone’s word?

Maybe you think the court’s standards are worthy for any institution, which is a noble goal. There is a strong case to be made for “I will hold the people who would spread rumors to the highest of standards,” because yeah, the ugly truth is that there are corrupt cops and there are people who’ll trash folks they don’t like. Having standards for evidence is good, and though there’s no single True goal, having high standards when the penalty is “Banning someone from a party” is not necessarily a bad thing.

But stop extending that to the idiotic argument of “If something someone says has not been proven in a court of law, it is automatically untrue.” No. If that happens, you are adopting the court’s standard of, “We would rather have someone guilty attending our parties than risk ejecting an innocent person.”

And because nobody’s devised a 100% safe method of keeping rapists, molesters, and otherwise people-hurting people from parties with an arbitrary number of attendees, that’s a legitimate call to make. But stop pretending that “unless someone can prove it in a court of law, it’s not true,” which carries the heavy implication that that every rumor is malicious and that your parties are safe.

No. It means your parties are as safe as the real world, which is to say occasionally you’ll have malpracticing doctors and mobsters – doctors and mobsters who exist in part because the people they’ve hurt know how much effort it takes to prove someone wrong in court may be more than they have the energy to expend right now.

(Before you start complaining, by the way, I had my wife the bankruptcy lawyer vet this for factual accuracy. She said “Yup. Why would this statement be controversial at all?”, though mentioned I was utilizing the standards of a criminal case.)

0 Comments

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. How We Help Breed Charming Sociopaths, Or: The Con-Bayashi Maru | Ferrett Steinmetz - […] have to go through on the stand in order to get a 7% conviction rate? The court system is…

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *