Guest column: ‘Evil people’ is a lousy basis for laws

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By Clay Wirestone, Kansas Reflector

You don’t expect Kansas legislative committees to take up deep philosophical problems. Usually, they deal with the text of proposed legislation or, in their more whimsical moments, rightwing fantasies.
Yet the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee looked within and grappled with the question of evil.
The panel heard testimony about a bill banning no-knock search warrants, which allow law enforcement officers to enter a residence without announcing their presence. A bipartisan group of legislators and activists united against the practice, which can put both residents and officers in danger. Getting Republicans and Democrats to agree on anything these days, let alone Libertarians and the ACLU, must count as something of a miracle.
But Rep. John Wheeler, a Garden City Republican and former Finney County prosecutor, wasn’t happy with the proposal. Neither were a collection of law enforcement organizations.
“I will tell you upfront, I don’t agree,” Wheeler told ACLU of Kansas representative Aileen Berquist. “I want to ask you if you recognize that there are very evil people in the world. Not everybody is innocent. They may be evil. You recognize that?”
“Yes, sir, as someone who has had family members murdered, I do recognize that,” Berquist said, according to reporting from Kansas Reflector’s Tim Carpenter.
“I hate that,” Wheeler replied. “Now, I am sure that you’re aware that multiple bullets can be fired through a door at no time at all and it happens frequently. You aware of that? Also, are you aware that a no-knock warrant cannot be issued without a review of the judge?”
“I am, and yet we still see instances where things go wrong,” Berquist said.
“So, maybe we need to do away with judges, in your eye, as well,” said Wheeler, who is also a former judge.
Committee chair Rep. Stephen Owens then broke in.
I quote this exchange at length because the representative’s statements underlie a pernicious line of thinking at the Statehouse. Because some people do bad things sometimes, they reckon, it’s the business of legislators to provide moral correction.
That means allowing law enforcement agencies to break down doors without warning, or putting juveniles in shackles. That means continued delays in passing broadly popular medical marijuana legislation. That means refusing to hold employees accountable in the death of Cedric Lofton in a Wichita juvenile detention facility. We need these protections, however imperfect, because they prevent “evil.”
Anyone can see the problem here. In attempting to head off evil, however you define it, more damage is done.
A no-knock warrant was issued in the Breonna Taylor case; the Louisville woman died after officers raided her apartment and shot her. Shackling children traumatizes them. Banning marijuana criminalizes an everyday activity for many Kansans. Letting folks off the hook in a case like Lofton’s sends the message that detainees’ lives have less worth than others.
These are unacceptable outcomes.
You might even call them evil.