There's a simple way to eliminate crime: legalize it.
But legalizing a proscribed action does not remove the moral or physical hazards attached to it. The legalization of activity once considered criminal often is not a neutral, much less a salutary, change. State sanctioning of previously illicit behavior can have serious consequences for individuals and society.
These ill effects can occur even without legalization when failure to enforce a law effectively nullifies it.
There are at least three consequences from not enforcing a valid law. One is that the proscribed activity goes unpunished and undeterred. Another is that the lack of punishment acts as an incentive for further violations of the law. A third is that citizens forget the reason for the proscription and come to think of the banned behavior as harmless and to view the law as unnecessary.
Rare enforcement of the laws against barratry – popularly known as "ambulance-chasing" -- offers a perfect example of this phenomenon.
A little over a year ago, the Texas House Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence heard testimony about our barratry laws, ostensibly in an effort to improve enforcement of those laws. Tort reformers and trial attorneys agreed barratry is a problem in our state and something must be done about it.
Houston attorney Christopher Villasana and Austin chiropractor Donald McKinley have challenged the constitutionality of our barratry code in court, arguing their right to legally engage in behavior proscribed by it.
A district judge ruled in their favor, holding the code unconstitutional, but State Attorney General Greg Abbott appealed. Last month the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district judge's decision and reaffirmed the constitutionality of the law.
The House Committee hearings and the constitutional challenge by Villasana and McKinley suggest that our laws against barratry need to be enforced more strongly and consistently.
High-profile prosecutions of flagrant violators would be a benefit for us all.