Earlier this month (pre-layoff) I replaced the 65,000-mile tires on the Yaris, enabling me to pass inspection and get a shiny new sticker on my windshield. That sticker reads “4/12,” and not “6/12” because my inspection was actually due by the end of April, not the beginning of June.
In other words, I drove around for five weeks with an expired inspection sticker — with an illegal car. And DRIVING AN ILLEGAL CAR IS AGAINST THE LAW. That’s why at any point in May or early June I could have been pulled over and ticketed. I would have been charged a fine and I would have had to pay that fine, because my inspection was out of date, my paperwork was out of order.
But despite doing something illegal, something against the law, I was never in danger of arrest, because while driving a car with expired inspection stickers is “illegal,” it is not criminal. It’s a civil violation.
It’s fashionable these days to pretend that this distinction doesn’t exist — at least when the subject is immigration — but it’s a significant and essential distinction. A civil violation doesn’t make someone a “criminal,” it earns them a ticket and they have to pay a fine. That’s why lovely Rita the meter maid carries a pad of tickets instead of handcuffs. She’s not out to arrest anybody, just to leave a ticket under their windshield wiper.
I’m now back in the good graces of the Pennsylvania Department of Motor Vehicles. My paperwork is in order, my inspection is good through next April and I am, once again, a law-abiding citizen. When processing my belated inspection, the DMV surely noticed that it was several weeks overdue, but they follow a better-late-than-never policy and do not issue a fine at that point. This is a sensible policy in that it encourages those with overdue inspections to come forward and correct the situation by getting their vehicles inspected. If they knew that doing so would result in a fine, that fine would be an incentive to not come forward and correct the situation. And creating incentives that encourage people to violate the law would be a foolish policy.
The alternative view would be to characterize this policy as “amnesty.” Or, rather, to characterize this policy as OMG AMNESTY!!1!11 and then to insist that, whatever that may or may not actually mean, it must be the worst possible thing in the world.
I have tried, unsuccessfully, to discuss this with those most vehemently opposed to “amnesty” and to ask why they consider that word an epithet. It’s proven difficult to get them to articulate exactly why they think amnesty is such a bad thing, or even what it is they understand “amnesty” to mean other than “a Very Scary and Bad Thing that I fear and condemn because it’s Very Scary and Bad.”
I can’t help but wonder if those folks have ever allowed their inspection or registration to lapse and, if so, how they responded when their DMV allowed them to correct that lapse without penalty.