Talking terminology: “Trespassers will be prosecuted”

“Trespassers will be prosecuted.”

GarnerDo you know Bryan Garner, author of Garner’s Modern American Usage? You don’t? Get thee to his blog immediately. Subscribers get an entry or two a day from his usage manual, a resource every writer should have and rely on, and a quote about language, speech, or usage.

Garner also teaches lawyers how to write better. His books and seminars are popular, but what I count on are his “Law Prose Lessons,” aimed at increasing clarity in legal writing. This one I’m quoting in full, because the distinction he notes is often mistaken in novels and news accounts as well.

“”Trespassers will be prosecuted.” This phrase, which most readers would construe as referring to criminal proceedings, usually expresses an untruth. In most states (Louisiana is a notable exception), trespass to land is ordinarily a tort — not a crime. Although the landowner can sue, the district attorney won’t prosecute. But a trespasser who causes damage, as by trampling crops or breaking windows, can be criminally prosecuted.”

A tort, readers of Books, Crooks & Counselors will recall, is a civil claim asserted by one individual against another, as opposed to a crime, a violation of criminal law, the rules of society as agreed upon by the state or federal legislature and enforced by the prosecutor (sometimes, but not always, called the district attorney), on behalf of society as a whole. So if you go walking or hunting on private property, you won’t be prosecuted by local authorities, although the property owner could sue you. But if you break into a house, expect to be charged with the crime of trespass, and maybe more.

On Star as an aid to law enforcement

The role of On Star, the road-side assistance and tracking program installed in some vehicles, caught my attention in this account from the Daily InterLake. The wife of a 70- year-old Helena man reported to police that he was missing and suicidal. Later that day, On Star contacted law enforcement in Flathead County — 180 miles away — and helped sheriff’s deputies locate the man’s vehicle. (To get there, he drove up the highway half a mile from my house.) He then led them on a chase around the southern edge of Glacier National Park, into Glacier County, and on to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, where he exchanged gunfire with officers and was killed.

On Star seems to have provided tracking assistance to both the Helena police and Flathead County sheriff. The report isn’t clear, but I suspect Helena police made the request to On Star, at the wife’s request and with her consent. While there may be constitutional privacy concerns in other cases, based on this report it appears to me to have been a good use of the technology.

Astute readers may ask why the FBI was involved. The shooting occurred on the reservation, where law enforcement is handled by a combination of state and federal authorities. (See the Q&A on jurisdiction in Books, Crooks & Counselors.)

The Saturday Writing Quote

“On some level, we are all artists, sharing the medium of life itself. Every day we add something new to the universe, bringing our human energy to the cosmic canvas. It is good to consider what we are contributing, good to do it intentionally, with the grandest of gestures, for this is our one brief chance to make a difference.”

Jan Phillips, writer, photographer, teacher, in Marry Your Muse: Making a Lasting Commitment to Your Creativity

Another state suspends the death penalty

I’ve written here about the death penalty, and covered it extensively in Books, Crooks & Counselors.  Now another state — Washington — has suspended the death penalty, Governor Jay Inslee calling its use inconsistent and unequal in this AP story. It’s still an available sentence — unless and until the legislature changes the statutes — but the governor’s office will issue a reprieve, meaning no executions will be carried out. The nine inmates currently sentenced to death will remain in prison, effectively serving life without possibility of parole. Blog readers know I think that’s a far greater sentence — life-long punishment served day by grueling day.

18 states have abolished the death penalty. Public debate continues.

Here’s a Feb 16, 204 update from the Seattle Times on local reaction.

Talking terminology: jail vs. prison

I’m not a peevish woman, not really. But I do have a few peeves—not pet peeves, exactly; dogs and cats make much nicer pets. But there are a few common errors in terminology, on the nightly news and in novels, that get my dander up.

And one of those is jail vs. prison. Both are secure structures holding more people than they were built for. They are both stark and noisy, warm enough but physically chilly. They are not nice places, nor are they meant to be.

OldMTPrisonHere’s the difference: Jails are, for the most part, facilities housing two kinds of people: those accused of a crime and awaiting trial, or those who have already been convicted of a misdemeanor and are serving their time. They are run by counties or municipalities, although in smaller communities, the towns and cities may have nothing more than a holding tank and contract with the county to house their inmates. When the sheriff of a large Montana county retired and became chief of police in a small town 75 miles away, he could be heard cheering loudly “I don’t have a jail! I don’t have a jail!”

Prisons, in contrast, are state and federal facilities housing persons convicted of felonies, violent or otherwise. A few states have licensed privately-run prisons. Like the federal system, a state may have several levels of prisons, housing maximum security inmates in one location, medium in another, and low risk in yet another. Many states have separate prisons for women.

Two exceptions I’ve seen: A state facing particularly serious over-crowding may contract with a county that has empty beds for temporary housing for low or medium risk inmates. As well, the federal marshal’s system often contracts with counties to house defendants pending trial, or between conviction and transfer to a federal prison.

Check your jurisdiction for particulars, but know the basic differences.

(Photo of Old Montana Prison from the Montana State Archives.)