Saturday, March 04, 2006

Letter of Law v Spirit of Law

I had a conversation with a campus police officer last week that left me thinking about the concept of “letter of the law” versus “spirit of the law. “

This concept often confuses police officers. I feel at liberty to say this since I was a police officer for several years and observed this confusion first hand. I’m going to spend a few words here on this concept because I believe it has application to our everyday lives.

Let me explain what happened last week to illustrate the concept. I was doing a track workout with a fellow athlete and our coach at a local university. The coach is an Olympic level athlete that attended this particular university and is in the schools athletic Hall of Fame, meaning he is well known around the campus. The coach brought his 6 year old son with him. The coach and son also brought their 2 month old beagle puppy to the workout.

Let me set the physical scene for you. Picture a university athletic track, completely enclosed by 6 foot chain link fence and gates. All the gates are closed. There are 3 adults, 1 child and 1 puppy inside the fenced area. The young boy is playing with a baseball and baseball glove while dad works with my friend and me. The puppy, weighing about 5 pounds and approximately 12 inches long is running about and rolling in the grass, sometimes chasing after the little boy. By the way, it’s a remarkably beautiful sunny afternoon. There is no one else present.

Now enters our young campus police officer. He waved me over to the fence and asked “Who does the dog belong to?” I told him it belonged to the little boy. He said “Tell the boy’s father that the dog has to be on a leash.” I asked him “Is that really necessary?” He said “Yes it’s necessary, because it’s the law on the campus.”

Having a bit of experience in law enforcement (which I did not tell this young officer) I decided to debate him on the fine points of “spirit of law” versus “letter of the law.” To my dismay it quickly became apparent that this vital concept was missing from his tool pouch. I won’t bore you with the details of the conversation.

The leash law he was referencing is in place to protect the public from a dog that is unruly, poorly behaved and so forth. The university is well within reason to not want dogs jumping on people, biting people, turning over garbage cans, running into traffic and I could continue on of course about the obvious need for the leash law. This law is a good law as written. To enforce it on a puppy inside a fence with no public present might be asking for a challenge. This puppy was not large enough to knock anyone down, not large enough to knock over anything, completely controlled by the fence that was even keeping the officer out, and to top it all off there was not a soul inside the fence except for 4 individuals that had no quarrel with the dog.

Therefore the “spirit of the law” was not being violated in any manner. The officer had no room for this concept in his mind it appeared to me. He understood only the “letter of the law.” For the record we said OK, and then simply disobeyed his instruction.

This left me thinking about how this concept is involved in our everyday lives. There is an instance in my life, which I offer as an example.

My track workouts are extremely demanding. Often I disobey the messages from my body and force my way through the workout; then the following day I am too tired for a productive workout and the spiral continues until I become injured or simply have to skip an entire day or two of workouts.

However, the “spirit of the training” is that I will train myself to compete and be in the best racing shape I can reach during race season, uninjured and certainly not exhausted. The “letter of the training” is what is written on the workout sheet, no matter how I might actually feel. By pursuing the “letter of the training” I dismiss the common sense of “the spirit of the training.” In this way my efforts are sabotaged by my own dogged and unyielding enforcement of the letter of the training.

We all do this don’t we? Can you identify your “spirit of life” versus “letter of life “confusions?

Now I Get It.......maybe


Anne said...

Hmm..I dont finish reading many post and say Hmmm..

Very interesting post. Im going to probebaly have to spend a few min. with this one.

Oh..and I like the George one too..something tells me he is a big fan of the whopee cushion. :)

Robert Shapiro said...

My friend, it is difficult is it not as we grow older to have patience with ourselves and also with people who represent that part of ourselves that challenges our patience.
I can recall doing workouts myself some years ago feeling disappointed when I could no longer do them because of a condition in my legs. At first I was terribly upset because I enjoyed them so much and then I was impatient to try something else and took up the bicycle - riding great distances to work and back but after a while a funny thing happened and that's that as I was coming down a hill - showing off a bit to be perfectly honest and getting ready to get off my bicycle at the bottom of the hill for a stoplight I got off a little before the bottom and was sort of riding along the side of the bicycle.
When I got to the stoplight there was a police car there and one of the guys leaned out of the window - this was a two man car - and said, "Come on now, just ride it regular okay" and with a smile after the signal light changed drove off. Well I rode it home regular as the man suggested and it was okay but it wasn't quite as much fun.
It's true isn't it that fun can be something that when impinged even by the most innocuous and in my case well intentioned advice done with good humor at that, sort of put a cramp on my style. It sounds to me like you've been experiencing different versions of having your style cramped as well.

Jenn said...

I'm dealing with this with my custody battle.

The letter of the law is that a child deserves to spend a certain amount of time with both parents.

The spirit of the law is that a child shouldn't be deprived of a healthy relationship with both parents.

I absolutely agree with the spirit of the law. But the letter of the law doesn't take into account a situation in which one parent causes emotional and mental pain to the child.

A parent has to basically physically or sexually abuse a child before the courts focus on the spirit of the law as opposed to the letter of the law.

I've witnessed the emotional pain caused by The Idiot to his other daughters and it just shakes me to the core that I know the letter of the law will be followed.

Great post.

Seven said...

Hi Anne,
I'm glad to see you visited again. I don't think George would do that, but you know; you really can't be sure...

Yes you are so right. I'm being coached by an athlete that holds american and world track records and I KNOW he is having me do what will work. Still it requires great patience on my part. I want to burn up the track even in Febrauary; but his wisdom in training requires a very patient high work volume approach to peaking at a major meet. That goal seeking can dampen some of the joy, but I'm hoping to trade the small joys for a larger one. Maybe Hawaii will stay away from silly bicycle laws that will hamper your style! I hope so.

Believe me I know all about the courts and the 'letter' problems. My own opinion (worth more than one blog)is that the American court system is quite simply stated 'broken'. My whole family's prayers are with you; we've been through what you describe. Hang in there, it gets better!

LC Scotty said...

We're running into this letter vs spirit thing in Buffalo. Local police, angered by contract issues that are out of reach of both the citizens and politicians (we have an appointed, unaccountable "control board" to stem the red ink) have decided to begin a parking ticket blitz, and some folks are really bent about it.

Denny Shane said...

This takes me back so many years reading about a "new gung-ho cop".

I got a guy on the police force when I was in politics. He came from a good family... I knew his dad... we always played the numbers with the same bookie in the neighborhood bar.

Make a long story short... he gets on the force and asked if I could get him stationed in a particular district... which I did.

A few month go by and I hear nothing... then the phone started ringing that the new guy on the beat was pinching all the bookies and number writers left and right.

His own father even complained! I got ahold of him on a Saturday afternoon and explained the 'facts of life' in Philly... the point of this is not to brag about illegal numbers games, etc... but this new cop learned some lessons apparently... he started leaving the numbers guys go and went after the rapist, muggers and dope pushers.... people that hurt other people... not the little corner guy taking numbers. And no I don't wanna hear about how numbers money goes to the big drug pushers either. laugh

Seven said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Seven said...

I typed too fast above and had to delete.
What I said is:

Wanna bet on it......hehehehe

Grant said...

I generally prefer the spirit of the law vs. the letter. Unfortunately, the letter is a necessary evil since too many people (including cops and judges) show poor personal judgment and need to be restricted. I think the authorities should have to obey the letter of the law and I should be given a license to kill.

Great post. You've inspired one in me now (look for it in a couple of days).

Reach said...

I am very pleased with your topic, this day, and hope I am “tracking with you.”
Two things; and I would like to say first, only as to not forget about covering it- I do not think any campus has a “Law”. I think they have rules and regulations and can not over-ride any local Laws. The leash law was not an issue, as you stated, only because of the fencing and no public access. – I think?
Second, California (land of the “Over-Controlling and Under-Knowing”) has the assault weapons ban, as everybody is aware. The “Letter” of the law, removes the opportunity for a citizens, residents, tourists, or criminals to have access to an assault weapon.
I will not get into the “Bill of Rights” issue.
Recently, a loop-hole in the ban was discovered and populace was again, allowed to purchase an AR-15, legally! The Politicians have become enraged over this and blame the Law’s “writing”, or the “letter” of the Law.
And now for the Point, the law makers have an idea for the “spirit” of the law, but not the education on the topic of the law; thereby, forcing further amendments to the “letter” of the law for the sole purpose of redefining the “spirit” of the law.
Following the legislature’s realization of misguided wording, I did purchase this product. I am a simple weapons enthusiast being categorized by Our Good Elected Officials, even though I am neither “Postal” nor a hunter.
Finally, here is, what I consider, the funny part; I have not even fired it, nor do I have the desire.
I do not like the revised “Letter” of the law, from what OUR forefathers decided so many years ago to be the “Spirit” of the Law.


Spider Girl said...

Well, I avoid sugar in my diet, for instance, in the letter of my law.

But every once in a while I will eat, say, some delectable home-made gingerbread or the perfect shortbread cookie, and someone watching will say to me: Spider Girl, I thought you don't eat sugar!

"My friend...(I will reply to them sagely)..I merely obey the spirit of the law...for life without ANY gingerbread would suck."