Tragic, Sublime, Outrageous, And The Merely Political
By Jeff Smith
SEPTEMBER 15, 1997: LAST WEEK I'M reduced to being a teenager in love and spilling my guts to a disinterested world, and this week all hell breaks loose. I'd like to hunt down the sonofabitch who promised me a rose garden and gut-shoot him.
I could have spent this week's column-inches feeling sad about Princess Diana and Mother Teresa, or waxing philosophical about Beavis and Butt-Head and their bounty-hunting buddies in Phoenix, or vented my spleen anent J. Fife the Third and karma, but wouldn't it have been more convenient to have these topics present themselves in succeeding weeks?
I was caught off-guard late Saturday night driving home from the big city, listening to a country music station from somewhere up north, when the dj announced Diana Spencer had been killed in a car-wreck in Paris. It made me feel pretty sad because I'd been thinking about her just that morning as I drove to Tucson. It shouldn't surprise anyone that I fantasize about oddball things, and in this one, for reasons I'm not entirely clear on, Princess Diana showed up in Elgin to look over the Research Ranch and its bird populations and surrounding grazing land, and somehow she hopped in my truck to avoid the news media, and we got to talking about the media and my work in it, and I told her that she really needed to bail on this whole Royal Family thing, and dump this guy Dodi, and live a realistic life with a man of realistic wealth in a remote area where people would pretty quick get over the novelty of having her around. No doubt you've seen a lot of movies with similarly naive plot lines.
Anyway, that was it, and it proved prophetic. She never should have taken up with a guy named Dodi whose dad is a mideast billionaire. These are not down-to-earth people, but that was the thing about Diana Spencer: for an Olympian media star, she betrayed surprisingly normal wants and needs and weaknesses, and I guess it proved to be her tragic flaw. The term tragedy gets worked to death in the contemporary press, but the death of Diana comes pretty near suiting it.
The death of Mother Teresa was not a tragedy--this woman's long and exemplary life was merely refined into eternal greatness by her tossing of the mortal coil. She's going on to a better place, after all; and she'll probably be declared a saint before us sinners can say "Jack Christmas."
BUT THE DEATHS of Chris Foote and Spring Wright in Phoenix are well beyond tragic. Try outrageous, maddening, confusing and at the same time morally black and white.
The young couple was killed by bounty hunters who smashed their way into their apartment, took another young woman and her children hostage, and got into a gunfight with innocent people. Why? Because they made a deal with a bail-bondsman to find a minor-league crook suspected of jumping a $25,000 bond.
This is grounds to break into someone's home, take hostages, wave firearms in their faces and finally kill them? No, but to read the reports of it you might think so.
The deal is this:
You're an accused criminal and you appear for arraignment and plead not guilty. The judge sets bail at 25k and you don't have the cash, so you get a bail-bondsman to put up the money. Your contract with the bondsman says that if you jump bail, fail to appear in court, whatever, and he has to cough up the whole amount, he, the bondsman, may employ "whatever force is necessary" to drag your sorry ass back to court, to jail, to get the bondsman's cash back.
"Whatever force necessary" means he can hire bounty hunters to come after you with guns. That's the contract between you and the bondsman, and it means you have knowingly forfeited a bunch of your constitutional rights.
It does not mean that anybody else has forfeited any rights, or that bondsmen and their hired bounty hunters have any right to do anything illegal.
This is where the present bounty hunter story has become confused. Press reports have said the bounty hunters didn't need search warrants, like a cop would need to enter and search an apartment for fugitives. This is only true to the extent that the bounty hunters did not need a warrant to search for and arrest the specific suspected bail-jumper. That person had signed away those rights, in his contract with the bondsman.
But not needing a warrant for the suspect does not mean the bounty hunters had carte blanche to search anywhere, in anyone's domicile, using any degree of force. When you do something like that it's called criminal trespass, whether you're a bounty hunter, a civilian attempting a citizen's arrest, or whatever. And if you criminally trespass--in utter stupidity and arrogance, as in this case--and you tie up and take hostage innocent children, and kill householders who fire at you out of fear of your own guns and ski-masks and black ninja costumes, that's called kidnapping, assault, murder.
And being a bounty hunter does not exempt you from any of the law's provisions.
So don't believe everything you read and hear about bounty hunters in Arizona being exempt or above the law. True, the goofy nature of the bail-bonds business and its contracts with clients does encourage a definite type of mercenary/vigilante cowboy to take up arms in pursuit of an exciting vocation. If any regulation is necessary, it's in licensing and education of people who are going to be employed as quasi-law-enforcement types, authorized to use lethal force. This is only good sense on the part of the bail-bonds industry.
I'm grateful that thus far the reaction from the general press has not been to disarm everybody but the cops and the army. But the furor ain't over yet, and stupidity has plenty of time to compose a speech.
Frankly, if existing laws had been enforced, this situation probably would have been avoided. Much has been made of the fact that one of the bounty hunters who entered the wrong apartment, where the bail-jumper never lived and the occupants never knew the object of the illegal search, was a convicted felon, and armed. Reports in the daily papers said this was legal. Outrageous, they said.
Well, it wasn't legal. By law, a convicted felon is not allowed to possess or use a firearm. So the existing legal situation is not as lax as has been implied. What we have here is proof of the axiom that shit happens. Especially when some people are stupid to start with, and careless of existing laws. And when the press doesn't bother to find out what laws actually are on the books, and have been broken.
WHICH SPEAKING of...breaking laws...how about that old Fife Symington?
I was in the Home Plate in Patagonia having breakfast when news of the guilty verdict on the seven counts came on the tube, and the whole place cheered. We hate liars.
And that's what Symington is: a lying sack of shit. He lied when he ran for governor on the platform of being a successful businessman and political outsider. He lied to the lenders every which-way imaginable to get mega-millions in loans, and when it didn't suit him to pay the money he owed them, he simply didn't pay. So his lawyer's contention that "not a dime was missing" is just another lie.
Fife's crimes were dishonesty, arrogance and selfishness. The arrogance and selfishness he inherited and learned, being born and growing up among wealthy white folks. The dishonesty he can take credit for himself, and there are laws on the books against this sort of thing. So don't waste too much time sympathizing for Fife: He has no excuse for trying to cheat the banks, even if he believed he had some divine right as a rich white boy to do it, and even if he believed all the other entrepreneurs of his class were doing the same thing.
Fife deserves prison.
Having said that, I do not believe any public or moral purpose is to be served by sending him up the river for the rest of his life. Let him do six months or a year, to get it through his thick skull that he done wrong. And to let whatever drugs he's been taking, to keep reality from intruding upon his consciousness, fizzle out of his system.
Then let him out on probation to spend his wife's money and stay off the streets and out of trouble.
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