Bureaucratic Inertia Is A Feature, Not a Bug

At his informative blog Photography Is Not A Crime, Carlos Miller covered the appalling case of a Florida woman who was arrested for videotaping police officers arresting her son, an arrest that culminated in her receiving suggestive and crude email from (it appears) one of the arresting officers. Prosecutors, showing good judgment, dropped all charges against her, making what appears to me to be a rather remarkably broad declination statement:

“Based upon the facts and circumstances articulated in the probable cause affidavit and police report, the Committee unanimously determined that the State will not be able to establish beyond a reasonable doubt either that the defendant’s actions constituted a violation of the interception of communication statute or that the officers were acting in the lawful execution of a legal duty.”

So naturally she sought to get her camera back. It was no longer evidence of a crime (if it had ever genuinely been evidence of the crime), and the police had no right to detain it.

But anyone who has to deal with the government knows that there are rights, and then there is the ability to vindicate those rights. Even though she has no longer charged with a crime, she encountered a preposterous bureaucratic morass in her attempt to retrieve her own property.

This is not, as one might assume based on contact with other agencies, only about indifference or incompetence. It's also by design. Bureaucratic delay, like main force, is a tool the state wields to thwart and retaliate against citizens who exercise their rights in ways that the state's agents do not like. That's why, for instance, it once took me twelve days to get a client out of federal custody after he had been acquitted of all charges in a manner that infuriated the case agents and the judge; I was met at every turn by a wall of implacable leave-at-4:30, lose-paperwork, don't-return-calls bureaucracy. That's why I am still trying, three years later, to get a client's car keys back from the police department that arrested him. And I do this for a living. The vast majority of citizens, confronted with smug indifference or thinly-veiled hostility, give up before they succeed in forcing the government to respect their rights.

What's the answer? I don't know. But people like Carlos Miller covering the case and naming the names of the bureaucrats is a step in the right direction.

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. Ezra says

    Hmm. This story sure doesn't do anything to lessen my cynicism expressed below about police…

  2. dbt1949 says

    That's why guns are preferable to carry than cameras. That way when you shoot someone doing a crime………

    Alright! Lighten up people. It was just a joke!


  3. Mark says

    This is a very interesting inversion of a common point about the constitutional system of checks and balances. In some contexts, we favor governmental inertia. For instance, we'd rather Congress take its time and deliberate than move constantly from one perceived crisis to the next. (How far we have shifted from that ideal!)

    Most bureaucrats seem to view rules as a mechanism for avoiding work.

  4. Paul Baxter says

    in the world of finance, there is this thing called fiduciary responsibility, which means, to my limited knowledge, that someone entrusted with someone else's goods can face repercussions for mishandling said goods. Wouldn't it at least be imaginable to have legislation specifying rights in this regard for confiscated property? I suppose personal responsibility is out of the question, but organizations can respond to financial incentives.

  5. says

    This is good to know. Depending on your line of work, getting your camera confiscated could be disastrous. What if you were a documentary crew person or a filmmaker and the police gets your camera.. and then it takes months to get your camera back? Not cool, I say. But what happens if you refuse to give your camera?

  6. SMV says


    File a Notice of Claim, sue them in small claims court for breach of bailment and conversion or replevin if the camera is returned within a week after service of the summons before you buy a new equivalent one, and see how quickly the camera gets returned.