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Man arrested for stealing a nickel of power

| December 12, 2013

In what is amongst the frontrunners for “Silliest Criminal Case of 2013”, a 50 year-old Georgian was charged with the theft of about 5 cents worth of electricity from DeKalb County.

The pernicious Kaveh Kamooneh, when not absconding with five entire pennies worth of electrical power from public sources, is the owner of an Atlanta area property rental and investment firm and formerly a university professor.  On November 2nd, as the electron rustler was picking up his son from a morning tennis competition at Chamblee Middle School, he plugged his Nissan Leaf into an outdoor power outlet.

After being alerted to the crime-in-progress by a “concerned citizen,” an officer from the Chamblee Police Department approached the vehicle.  Unable to find the culprit, the officer opened the unlocked car door to examine a piece of mail on the floor of the car thought to contain the owner’s address.  When Kamooneh approached, the officer gave him what was undoubtedly the sternest of finger-waggings, threatening to arrest the man before eventually allowing him to leave.

However, eleven days later, Mr. Kamooneh was met at the door to his home by two uniformed patrol officers.  The officers placed Kamooneh under arrest and in handcuffs before taking him to the county lockup.  He was held at the DeKalb County Jail for about fifteen hours.

Sergeant Ernesto Ford of the Chamblee Police, the officer who sought the arrest warrant, defended the decision.  His rationale:  “A theft is a theft.”  According to the Platonic law of identity, this is correct.  This also implies that Mr. Kamooneh’s actions are indistinguishable from those of Bernie Madoff, D.B. Cooper, and Catwoman.

Misapplication of legal semantics aside, the argument can be made that Kamooneh did violate a law.  However, this rote approach to law enforcement glosses over the violation of constitutional safeguards, wastefulness, hypocrisy, and the affront to the validity of government agents caused through this action.

Consider the procedural standards that the responding officer likely violated.  Seeing an electronic vehicle plugged into an outlet does not substantiate probable cause.  Certainly, he could posit that the driver was not given permission to top off, but absent school personnel to confirm this, this does not grant leave to violate an objectively reasonable expectation of privacy and search a closed automobile.

While the fruits of this obvious Fourth Amendment violation did not substantially contribute to the facts of the case, consider the transitive nature of the costs involved.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the three officers involved with this case are somewhat new to the force and make $36,000 per year as a base salary.  Assuming two weeks of vacation being provided, this would translate each officer making $18 per hour, or 30 cents per minute, or a ½ cent per second.

If it took the responding officer more than 10 seconds to clear the scene – likely, given the narrative – the county lost more money in enforcement than was commensurate with the crime.

If the two arresting officers took more than 5 seconds to place handcuffs on Mr. Kamooneh, transport him to the county jail, and fill out all necessary booking paperwork – likely, given the immutable laws of physics – and the county lost even more money.

If the responding officer himself left his car idling for more than two minutes, he has injudiciously squandered more of the taxpayer’s money in fuel than Kamooneh is alleged to have stolen.

Yes, those are simple, glib examples.  Each of these officers would be on duty regardless of whether or not Mr. Kamooneh plugged his car into a school, as would be the jailors, courtroom employees, and so on.  Kamooneh is not likely the proverbial back-breaking straw that will plunge the DeKalb County Jail into an overcapacity crisis or fiscal ruin.  At press time, it still exists.

More troubling are the intangible costs this incident has inflicted.  At the most basic level, the time of three bonded police officers was wasted tilting at Mr. Kamooneh’s windmill, while invariably other felonies or misdemeanors were happening in the area.  Even if none were, the jurisdiction of Chamblee was deprived of the effective deterrence and response presence of one or two officers during their involvement.

Perhaps the largest unseen cost of this ordeal is the erosion in the legitimacy of the police.  Empowered with the coercive force of the state (and outnumbered by the citizenry nearly 390 to 1), officers in the United States rely upon the public’s trust that they will engage in actions that, at least indirectly, protect and serve the public.  When enforcement actions are taken, the sum of the imposition on the subject should not be in excess of the harm they have caused or immediately will cause.

Let us also assume that Mr. Kamooneh makes $36,000 per year as well.  Since he was arrested at 8 PM on November 11th and held for about 15 hours, it is safe to assume he missed at least four hours of the next work day.  At the $18 hourly rate mentioned above, this incident of over-enforcement has directly cost this man $72 worth of productivity that would have been of marginal value to the greater economy, not to mention the long-term unseen cost associated with having a criminal record.

Law enforcement decisions should not solely derive from calculating the costs of enforcement versus anticipated gains in commensurate retribution or deterrence.  It would take some rather stunning mental gymnastics to even rationalize the social cost of a crime, much less the value of the absence of crime.

However, it is important to think about why we have the police – a group of fellow civilians who derive tertiary legitimacy from elected officials.  Ostensibly, we want for the police to protect us directly or indirectly, deter crime, and response when a crime occurs.  To accomplish this, society abdicates its own natural right to use force when needed and entrusts the police to do so.  Incidents in which this entrusted force is used incommensurately, arbitrarily, or capriciously, erode this trust, make their job more difficult and unsafe, and threaten public safety for all.



DEREK M. COHEN is Director of Right on Crime and the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Cohen graduated with a B.S. in Criminal Justice from Bowling Green State University. He went on to complete an M.S. degree in Criminal Justice from the University of Cincinnati, where he also recently completed his Ph.D. dissertation on the long-term costs and outcomes associated with correctional programming. His academic work can be found in Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management and the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Theoretical Criminology and The Oxford Handbook on Police and Policing, and has scholarly articles currently under review. He has presented several papers to the American Society of Criminology, the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, and the American Evaluation Association on the implementation and outcomes of various criminal justice policy issues. Prior to joining the Foundation, Cohen was a research associate with University of Cincinnati’s Institute of Crime Science. He also taught classes in statistics, research methods, criminal procedure, and corrections.