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Hot Dogs and Over-Criminalization in Berkeley

| September 13, 2017

The now-viral video of a UC-Berkeley police officer seizing a bacon hotdog vendor’s money begs some deeper scrutiny. The officer’s department issued a statement saying the money that was seized was entered into evidence as part of the issuance of a citation. The officer taking money from the vendor’s wallet certainly looks bad, especially coupled with the alleged presence of other vendors and some not-very-professional language on the part of the officer. But is the officer doing anything wrong?

Professionalism and discretion issues aside, the officer is doing his job and enforcing the law. And this is where the problem lies. Police officers are given wide latitude in their use of discretion, including to whom they give a citation. Seizing money to prove illegal transactions is commonplace and necessary; this is not a forfeiture issue at this point. So, if the officer is simply enforcing the law, why is this a problem?

Onerous licensing requirements are burdensome on a person’s ability to earn a living, and over-criminalization of what are simply administrative functions compound the burden. Whether outlawing or overregulating a street vendor is part of the university’s method of raising revenue or protecting other more preferred area businesses, the outcome is the same. The little guy is smothered, and stamped out of existence.

If this is wrong, it is not because the officer enforced the law. It is not because he wasn’t the model of professionalism. It wasn’t even because he was wearing that goofy bike helmet while he took the vendor’s money. It is simply because the laws that he was sent out to enforce are wrong, and that is where the change needs to be made. Police officers do not sign up for their jobs hoping to take a few dollars from a guy selling hot dogs. Stop making them do it.

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MARC A. LEVIN is Right on Crime’s Policy Director, as well as the Director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.  Based in Austin, Texas, Levin is an attorney and an accomplished author on legal and public policy issues.  Levin served as a law clerk to Judge Will Garwood on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and Staff Attorney at the Texas Supreme Court.  In 1999, he graduated with honors from the University of Texas with a B.A. in Plan II Honors and Government.  In 2002, Levin received his J.D. with honors from the University of Texas School of Law.  Levin’s articles on law and public policy have been featured in national and international media outlets that regularly turn to him for conservative analysis of states’ criminal justice challenges.

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