Life for toll evasion? Only in China

Leave it to China to hand down such jaw-dropping sentences like this.

TIME NewsFeed recently reported on a case where a Chinese citizen used military license plates to avoid payment for tolls in the amount of around 3.5 million yuan (equivalent to US$530,000 or so). Shi Jianfeng evaded the tolls while running a gravel transporting business for about eight months (2008 May to 2009 January) and was sentenced to life in prison, plus a fine equivalent to US$303,000. Yes, life in prison for toll evasion.

The public outcry was to be expected, even in a fascist country like China, and surprisingly enough, that got Shi a new trial. One of the factors in his favor was that he only profited the equivalent of US$30,000 (yes, about one-tenth of the amount he was fined) during the toll evasion stint. It’s easy to see how were he to have “honestly” paid his tolls, he probably would not have been able to stay in business.

Followups to this story indicate that the judges involved have been fired (globaltimes.cn), and that the younger brother was responsible for the fraud and the tolls are going down over time (Canadian Press/Google). However, the older Shi may still face seven years in prison for forgery.

For the uninitiated, here’s a bit about my stance on toll roads. Toll enforcement is one of the few places I approve of video surveillance, as long as the cameras put in place to document and aid in prosecution of toll evasion remain in place for only that reason. Any automated toll collection system quickly becomes unworkable otherwise, and it’s obvious that toll roads are the future as, at least here in the US, gasoline taxes have not provided the needed funding to build new roads, and have even sparked criticism as discriminating in favor of more fuel-efficient (and thus against less fuel-efficient) vehicles. My viewpoint on the latter is clear; I’ll just say I have a bit of an environmentalist leaning, and I frequently swore at SUV drivers during my stint as a courier and you can fill in the blanks.

So no, I don’t oppose toll roads per se; that’s a losing battle. I do oppose charging excessive tolls, and tolling a road without leaving a feasible alternative route that does not require payment of tolls. Most of the toll roads in the Houston area don’t fit either category, though it’s close in the case of the Fort Bend Parkway (which is halfway between US 59 and Texas 288, which diverge by several miles by the time you’re in Fort Bend County). According to a Wikipedia article, it would appear all such roads are tolled in China. So there’s a pretty strong case to forgive Shi’s toll evasion, and for the government to rethink what it’s charging for tolls if they are enough to mean the difference between turning a profit or burning out red pens by the boxful while filling out the balance sheet.

I don’t approve of the evasion of fairly assessed tolls, but the kind of madness that passed for acceptable in China (until this case) just begs for non-compliance.

Censoring Mark Twain

This post contains uncensored language which some readers may find offensive. Normally, I redact these particular words, but in this particular instance I feel the point is completely lost if I do so. Those who may be easily offended by a frank discussion of censorship, which is itself uncensored, may wish to skip this post.

Continue reading Censoring Mark Twain

Who ordered the plane?

Some of you may remember a post from 2009 September entitled “A tale of two perjuries” about Robert McClendon who was wrongfully convicted after those testifying against him perjured themselves (over 150 times, if Robert’s story is to be believed) and were not prosecuted, versus a similar case also involving perjury where those perjuring themselves on the side of the defense (once) were nailed to the wall. (Unfortunately the link to KHOU-TV in that post is dead and the story appears to no longer be online.)

This followup is long overdue, and primarily concerns new developments in Robert’s case. In the year and change since my blog post, more evidence has been uncovered to prove that Christine and Paula Trent did in fact commit perjury when testifying to convict Robert. The Harris County District Attorney’s office has turned a deaf ear and blind eye to the new evidence.

Hopefully, that is going to change Wednesday morning, as Robert and his supporters give an entirely new meaning to airing one’s grievances: an airplane with a banner reading “HCDA allows perjury to convict the innocent” will fly over downtown Houston on Wednesday, 2011 January 19, from about 11:00 am to 2:00pm. I am encouraging everyone in the area who can make it downtown to join us to do so. There is also a contest for the best video of the event, which will win a T-shirt as well as be published on americaswrongfullyconvicted.com.

I don’t have details on a specific meeting place in or near downtown as of yet; I will update this post with new information as I receive it.

Twelve minutes

For once, I’ve found a story to write about where there’s a true hero.

This story was reported in many places, including KTRK-TV (Channel 13, ABC, Houston)TIME NewsFeed, and no doubt others. But the original post was from Christopher Elliott of  elliott.org, who gets credited in at least the TIME NewsFeed story.

Anyway, in brief: The grandparents of a three-year old get the news their grandson had been murdered by their live-in boyfriend. As tragic as this is by itself, the grandfather (Mark) is in LA and the grandson is in Denver. So the grandmother calls the ticketing agent to arrange the flight, which involves a “step off one plane, get on another” type of connection. In other words, no margin for error.

Well, Mark runs into delays on his way through security at LAX, arriving early and still in real danger of missing his flight. The TSA agents, and possibly some Southwest employees (it’s unclear from the narrative), don’t give a damn. Fortunately, the pilot of the Southwest flight (as yet unnamed), and the ticketing agent, cared. And they cared a lot. From Nancy Elliott’s blog post:

When [Mark] got there, the pilot of his plane and the ticketing agent both said, “Are you Mark? We held the plane for you and we’re so sorry about the loss of your grandson.”

The pilot held the plane that was supposed to take off at 11:50 until 12:02 when my husband got there.

As my husband walked down the Jetway with the pilot, he said, “I can’t thank you enough for this.”

The pilot responded with, “They can’t go anywhere without me and I wasn’t going anywhere without you. Now relax. We’ll get you there. And again, I’m so sorry.”

It’s a shame we don’t know who this pilot is yet. I know some people are a bit shy when it comes to publicity, however positive it may be. But I would consider it an honor to fly with this pilot the next time I travel. Twelve minutes, for those of you not in the know, is a long time to hold a flight (later in her post, Christopher mentions it takes Southwest 20 minutes to turn around a plane, i.e., prepare it for the next flight). So the pilot risked all kinds of trouble to do what he knew was the right thing. Thankfully, Southwest chose to be proud of the compassionate and heroic actions of this pilot.

As a traveler, I would be understanding of the pilot’s actions as well. There are far worse reasons for a flight to run late (mechanical problems, inclement weather, a queue of planes waiting to take off). In fact, there aren’t too many types of delays that would last less than 30 minutes, let alone 12. Delays happen and it’s a foolish traveler that doesn’t allow an hour or so of “oops” time on either end.

Anyway, I can’t let this go without an honest critique of the TSA’s actions here. (It’s not easy to do, but I am willing to let slide the indifferent actions of any Southwest employees since the pilot’s heroic judgment trumped them in the end.) I think this strengthens the argument that it’s time to either get rid of the TSA, or at the very least rethink the screening procedures and their effect on the passenger experience.

When travelers are delayed like this, for actions that have been widely criticized as mere “security theater” as opposed to actual security, something is wrong. Mark had to take his shoes off at security. The shoe bomb trick has already been tried once, and there’s really no need to keep screening for it again. To do so is mere “security theater.” Not real security. Real changes need to be made to how we secure air travel in this country. I’m not the security expert. I’m just a guy with a blog and an above-average IQ that can tell we’re doing it wrong today. The TSA has ruined too many trips.

In the end, they didn’t ruin Mark’s trip, though. It’s reassuring to see good can triumph over indifference.

[Edit: Just now realized I flubbed Mr. Elliott’s name in the original posting. Fixed.]

Calling the bluff: Twitter’s response to a subpoena

Wired.com’s Threat Level blog recently featured Twitter in what I believe to be a very positive light. Rather than just quietly fold when faced with a subpoena for information about people of interest in regard to Wikileaks and a corresponding gag order forbidding Twitter from informing the subjects about the subpoena, Twitter decided to call the bluff–or even raise, depending on how you look at it. From the article:

The court order came with a gag order that prevented Twitter from telling anyone, especially the target of the order, about the order’s existence.

To Twitter’s credit, the company didn’t just open up its database, find the information the feds were seeking (such as the IP and e-mail addresses used by the targets) and quietly continue on with building new features. Instead the company successfully challenged the gag order in court, and then told the targets that their data was being requested, giving them time to try and quash the order themselves.

Twitter and other companies, notably Google, have a policy of notifying a user before responding to a subpoena, or a similar request for records. That gives the user a fair chance to go to court and try and quash the subpoena. That’s a great policy. But it has one fatal flaw. If the records request comes with a gag order, the company can’t notify anyone. And it’s quite routine for law enforcement to staple a gag order to a records request.

That’s what makes Twitter’s move so important. It briefly carried the torch for its users during that crucial period when, because of the gag order, its users couldn’t carry it themselves. The company’s action in asking for the gag order to be overturned sets a new precedent that we can only hope that other companies begin to follow.

It is refreshing to see a company stand up and defend the rights of its users the way Twitter did here. I’m quite disgusted from a civil liberties standpoint that it’s now routine for law enforcement to attach a gag order to a subpoena. Someone needed to do something about it.

I concur with the author’s hope that other companies follow Twitter’s lead. Specifically, Facebook and Yahoo (who currently owns Flickr and Delicious) would do well to adopt the challenge of gag orders attached to subpoenas as a matter of company policy. For that matter, anyone responsible for an online service involving the data of others, even as a hobbyist effort, would do well to challenge a gag order attached to such a subpoena, especially one from a law enforcement agency, or perhaps even defy it outright (riskier, and only for the especially brave).

At the poker table, players who routinely bluff with nothing eventually have to show down a losing hand. Usually, they don’t bluff for a while after that. This is surprisingly similar to what happens in real life, certainly more similar than most cops and prosecuting attorneys would have you believe. Because the concept of a citizenry that knows their legal rights and asserts them is anathema to them, and a direct threat to how many of them do their jobs.