Morris: Citizen 0; Chicken Police 1

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Leo Morris

I intended to write something pithy about the just-concluded General Assembly session, since it was full of portentous news: a whopping $44 billion budget; new public health initiatives; an enormous expansion of school choice; last-minute, eye-popping raises for the governor and other top elected state officials; a deep dive into the morass of contentious social issues.

But then the commentary started rolling in, and it seems a consensus of sorts has been reached. The legislature did some good things, but just didn’t spend enough money on some things, never mind that this budget was about 16 percent higher than the last one. And, of course, the Republican supermajority catered to its intolerant conservative base by bringing up social issues no one cares about, never mind that the Democrats would have happily introduced legislation from the other side of the culture war had they been in the majority.

No way I could out-profound all that thoughtful insight, so I was at a loss.

Until I found a story about a minor issue in a small Indiana town, the kind of thing nobody else will be writing about. I will have the wisdom-from-on-high field all to myself on this one.

A poor schlub in Whiteland – Sawn Butler by name – has been raising chickens in his yard for a year. This violates two provisions of the town code, one that considers a small poultry flock a “nuisance” if it is 200 feet or less from another residence, and one that limits households to three pets (sorry, crazy cat people, you are not welcomed in Whiteland).

Wanting to stay on the right side with officials, Butler asked the Whiteland Town Council to change the law, and three of its five members said they would be in favor. But then they decided to duck the issue – I hesitate to say they chickened out.

They referred the matter to the plan commission, whose members said they weren’t in favor and sent it back to council with a “no” recommendation. They said they weren’t necessarily opposed to changing the rules in the future but didn’t want to now because of the message it might send to scofflaws like Butler.

“Plan commission members worried allowing chickens now would set a precedent that anyone in town can break the rules, and then come to the town council to ask for codes to be changed so they won’t be cited,” reported the Franklin Daily Journal.

Poor Shawn Butler had run afoul of a version ex-post-facto (after-the-fact) law. In its usual iteration, officials make something illegal that used to be legal and try to punish people who did the something when it was legal. In this version, Butler wanted something illegal made legal and to be forgiven for doing the something when it was illegal.

Which authorities are quite reluctant to do. They might happily try to retroactively make us criminals, but they do not like to give us a break on our past sins.

Except, of course, when they do,

Butler’s problem was going it alone instead of getting a bunch of friends to break the law with him.

If you, for example, dodge the draft and flee to Canada, then you can never come home, unless thousands do it, in which case all is forgiven. If you are a foreign national who enters this country without permission, that is illegal, unless millions do it, in which case amnesty will be granted. If a state allows its citizens to smoke marijuana, that is a violation of federal law, unless multiple states do it, in which case the violation will simply be ignored.

There are many other examples of this “safety in numbers” principle, but you get the point. “The law” is flexible, and those who enact and enforce it try always not to be too far ahead of or behind the people the law is supposed to govern.

If I keep that in mind, perhaps I will discover my hidden depths of profundity before the next legislative session.

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at [email protected].