Commentary and information about public safety and security, intelligence and counterintelligence, open government and secrecy, and other issues in northern Idaho and eastern Washington.

Location: Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, United States

Raised in Palouse, WA. Graduated from Washington State University. US Army (Counterintelligence). US Secret Service (Technical Security Division) in Fantasyland-on-the-Potomac and Los Angeles. Now living in north Idaho.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

It's Elemental

For those of us who are not lawyers, deciphering laws can be challenging. I've found that reducing a law to its component parts, its elements, contributes to a better and clearer understanding not only of the law but its intent.

For example, first read Idaho Code 50-2017 - Interested Public Officials, Commissioners, or Employees as it appears in the link. I've chosen this law, because it defines when Idaho's public officials, commissioners, and employees have committed misconduct. Misconduct is cause for removal from their official position(s). At first glance, I.C. 50-2017 looks like one huge run-on sentence. It's not. Separate it into its component parts, bite-size chunks, and it's much easier to understand.

I've identified three major divisions in that law. Failure to obey the requirements of any or all those divisions justifies an allegation of misconduct. The three divisions are:

  • Voluntary acquisition of personal interest or contract
  • Involuntary acquisition of personal interest or contract
  • Already owns or controls a property interest

I'll use the first major division, voluntary acquisition of personal interest or contract, to demonstrate how to reduce a law down to its elements. Note that each of the elements below is taken from the law cited, I.C. 50-2017.

1. No public official or

employee of a municipality or

employee of board or

commisson thereof or

commissioner of an urban renewal agency or

employee of an urban renewal agency

2. shall voluntarily acquire

3. any personal interest

direct or

indirect (e.g., corporate vehicles, using family members, etc.)

4. in any urban renewal project or

5. in any property included in any urban renewal project or

6. in any property planned to be included in any urban renewal project

7. in such municipality or

8. in any contract or

9. in any proposed contract

10. in connection with such urban renewal project.

By way of explanation, each numbered element must usually be satisfied if the violation of law is to be alleged. However, the word "or" in the law means just that. Satisfying any one or more of the elements or components connected with or is sufficient proof. If the connective and is used, then each element or component connected with and must be met.

So, let's use a simple hypothetical fact example: Suppose a Commissioner who is already a member of the local urban renewal agency purchases a piece of property inside his municipality's urban renewal district. Has s/he violated the law?

Look at each of the elements identified above. Here's how the facts would be applied to satisfy (or not) the corresponding elements:

Element 1. Satisfied upon showing the Commissioner is a commissioner of an urban renewal agency and was at the time the property was purchased.
Element 2. Satisfied unless shown that Commissioner was coerced into buying the property or otherwise acquired the property involuntarily.
Element 3. Satisfied when Commissioner's ownership of the property is shown.
Element 4. Satisfied by 5 (remember, the connective or is used here).
Element 5. Satisfied when records show property is included in urban renewal project.
Element 6. Satisfied by 5.
Element 7. Satisfied by showing project is included in the municipality.
Element 8. Satisfied by 7.
Element 9. Satisfied by 7
Element 10. Satisfied by 7.

The step-by-step analysis shows that each required element was met. The law concludes, "Any violation of the provisions of this section shall constitute misconduct in office." Thus, with all required elements of the violation having been shown, a citizen would be justified in concluding the Commissioner had committed misconduct in office.

There are some caveats for us laymen, however. One is that online law does not necessarily include relevant annotations and case citations. Another is that the "facts" used to prove violation of or compliance with the law must ultimately be admissible as evidence. Even "obvious" elements must be supported with hard evidence. What "everyone knows" isn't evidence. For example, "everyone knows" that So-and-So is a Commissioner with the URA, but that fact would have to be proven by evidence such as a copy of the URA's minutes identifying that Commissioner S0-and-So was present and voted at URA meetings during the time the alleged misconduct was occurring.

Nevertheless, even for a layman, going through this exercise of understanding the law and applying the facts to them is useful to becoming a better-informed citizen. If we suspect a public official has committed illegal misconduct, using this framework will help identify what we know and what we don't know. Making sure we have solid proof of each element helps us avoid wrongly accusing a public official.

It's not difficult. It's elemental.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

1 - Can you say LCDC?

2 - Can Bill Douglas read?

3 - Who cares? Certainly not the local papers. Not the Prosecuor. So then who?

4:45 PM, March 31, 2007  
Blogger Starr Kelso said...

Okay Bill, just as soon as I can afford it I am going to break down an hire a lawyer to explain to me what it is that you just wrote.

12:07 AM, April 01, 2007  
Blogger Bill McCrory said...


(1) Yes, but I can barely spell it.
(2) Yes, as long as its an E-mail.
(3) Honest people.

Starr Kelso,
You've got to remember, I am but a poor and humble graduate of a cow college. Any sentence longer than four or five words (preferably none with more than two syllables), and my eyes glaze over. While glazed eyes and a dull mind may qualify me for elected office in Coeur d'Alene, I'd prefer to clearly understand the details of how we're getting screwed. It won't help find a solution, but just like Tom Lehrer said in his song New Math after arriving at the wrong answer: "But the idea is the important thing."

If I really want to descend further into babbling idiotdom, I'll elementize the Internal Revenue Code.

7:33 AM, April 01, 2007  
Blogger Dogwalkmusings said...

No, forget the IRS. Keep it up with Idaho law so we regular folk can keep a better watch on our public officials. Thanks, Bill, it's a real public service you provide here!

1:01 PM, April 02, 2007  

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