Tuesday, January 16, 2007
Editorial from Orange County Register
Punishment for the Piecemakers
Zeal with which the Costa Mesa group
was prosecuted was out of proportion to their crime
As the Dickens character put it, sometimes "the law is an
ass." Many Americans understand that point, which is one reason that Martin
Luther King Jr.'s birthday was celebrated Monday. King and other leaders
of the civil rights movement challenged the laws – unjust, discriminatory
and foolish ones. They often did so by breaking them.
Perhaps laws that allow government inspectors to regulate,
raid and even shut down food-service businesses aren't as noxious as laws
that relegate members of certain races to second-class status, but they can
still be noxious and oppressive. Just because something is a law – even if
the law is supported by most people – doesn't mean that it is necessarily
just, or that is applied fairly or sensibly.
On Friday, Orange County Superior Court Judge Kelly MacEachern
sentenced 85-year-old Marie Kolasinski to 10 days in jail and three years'
probation for an act of civil disobedience. She and two other members of
a religious group called the Piecemakers received sentences for defying the
county's restaurant inspectors. They must also pay fines and nearly $10,000
in compensation to county health officials.
The group of about 26 people live communally in Costa Mesa
and run a well-kept country store that sells quilts and gifts and also sandwiches
and soups in an adjacent tea room. The county demanded the right to inspect
the tea room, and inspectors were met by group members who barred their entrance
to the kitchen. The county insists that the group has the right only to sell
prepackaged food, and has successfully gone to court to stop the Piecemakers
from running an unauthorized restaurant.
Piecemakers Country Store customers have not complained about
the quality of food they have received there. Most restaurants provide decent
and safe food to customers because it's in their best interest to do so:
Nitpicking inspections from government bureaucrats are not the reason for
safe food preparation and storage at most places. No one was hurt, no one
was complaining here. The obvious reason for the legal action is that the
Piecemakers defied the government authorities, and those authorities were
not about to let it go.
This simmering dispute between the admittedly quirky and occasionally
foul-mouthed elderly Piecemakers and the government has gone back years.
Some of the disputes take on a Monty Python quality. The Register reports
that in 1997 the city of Costa Mesa filed a criminal charge against one Piecemaker
for – get this – performing a musical without a permit, and a dozen Piecemakers
sang "When the Saints Go Marching In" at her arraignment. At another point,
the city demanded that the Piecemakers revamp their broom closet.
This matter shows that even well-intentioned health and safety
laws ultimately rest on police-state force. A person can do as the authorities
say or face armed agents of the government who will force them to do so.
That's why free societies should have fewer laws and regulations, no matter
the goals of those who propose them.
You've got to wonder about the sense of proportion when the
county district attorney puts forth this much effort to jail elderly religious
people for the crime of illegally baking muffins and selling sandwiches to
happy customers. Or when cities prosecute people for having illegal musicals
and improperly maintaining their broom closets.
Yes, yes, the law is the law. But sometimes the law is asinine.
And sometimes it takes an act of civil disobedience to remind us of that