Lawyers say the darnedest things.
"Isn't taking the license a presumption of guilt?" asked Jason Jenkins, the attorney for a woman charged with drunken driving, as quoted in The Morning Call on Sunday.
Northampton County Judge Leonard Zito was correct when, on Jan. 11, he yanked the woman's driver's license as a condition of bail, pending a trial set for next week.
More than a half dozen other lawyers, the story said, privately voiced similar concerns, and the story said Zito's action raised "constitutional questions about whether the judge is truly treating defendants as innocent until proven otherwise."
Jenkins said the loss of a driver's license, no matter how temporary, "reeks of injustice" because it was punishing his client for seeking a trial.
In criminal cases, a defendant's rights are indeed sacred and the "innocent until proven guilty" concept is supported by the enumerated provisions of the Bill of Rights, covering due process, double jeopardy, self-incrimination, public trials by juries, confronting witness, bail and so forth.
Ordinarily, I am a fanatic about preserving such rights, and authorities who deliberately violate them should be promptly hanged. Well, maybe that's a bit too fanatic, but you get the idea. In this case, however, I'm with Judge Zito 100 percent.
The key to understanding why he was justified is in understanding the crucial difference between rights and privileges.
Free speech is a right. A public trial is a right. Rights are universal; they apply to all. Privileges are special, licensed by government only for qualified people who display the ability to exercise them responsibly.
Performing brain surgery requires a license. It is not a right. The same thing applies to flying an airliner, preparing taxes, operating a 15-ton crane, or driving a motor vehicle on a public road.
If a surgeon goes haywire and poses a threat to patients, a trial by jury is not necessary. His or her license can get pulled, no matter how inconvenient that may be. But before the surgeon can be convicted of a crime, those enumerated rights kick in.
In the case at hand, Jessica Trump, 25, of Salisbury Township, was charged with drunken driving in Freemansburg on July 10. It was her second such offense and police said her blood-alcohol level was 0.18 percent, more than twice the legal limit.
Jenkins, however, said Trump had not been driving when police caught her getting out of a car that was double-parked. He said someone else had been driving and she got in the driver's seat after he got out.
That may be plausible, sort of, but judges are fully entitled to set bail conditions.
After Zito snatched her driver's license as a condition of bail, it was reported, Trump was observed getting in a car and driving away, which led to another bail hearing, where Zito ordered her to post $500 bail.
That, to me, seemed to be more than generous on the part of the judge.
The stickiest part of this case is the probability that Zito got tough with Trump and others in similar circumstances for the sake of expediency — pressuring guilty pleas as a way of easing a heavy court docket involving drunken driving cases.
Philosophically, people should not be punished for insisting on the right to a trial, and it is a corruption of the judicial process if their penalties are harsher than for those who cop a plea, all other considerations being equal. But that's the way the system works and the system would be paralyzed if every defendant had to get a trial by jury.
The fundamental issue in the Trump case is whether driving a car is a right or a privilege that requires a special license.
While actions to curtail licensed privileges deserve some level of due process, the protection of the public trumps, excuse the expression, the interests of those licensed to drive a car, perform brain surgery, or whatever — and the problem of drunken driving is particularly acute.
There is an enumerated right, especially in Pennsylvania, to bear arms for individual self-defense, but there always are intense crusades to subvert that right.
Several years ago, at the peak of hysteria over gun violence in schools following the Columbine High School massacre, I pointed out that drunk drivers kill more than 1,000 times as many people as guns in schools.
People who want to gut the Bill of Rights over guns and those who get in a lather over the regulation of a licensed privilege, which is truly murderous in the wrong hands (drunks), ought to put their heads together and come up with a rational approach.
Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.