New Missouri bill would soften gasoline price increases

December 1, 2011 was the kickoff for pre-filing bills in the Missouri legislature for the 2012 regular session. I was browsing the list of House bills filed (click here to see it), and one bill really left me scratching my head: It’s HOUSE BILL NO. 1044, sponsored by Representative Ray Weter of Nixa, Missouri.

The new law requires that gas stations “shall notify the general public” 24 hours in advance of any price increase of 3 or more cents per gallon. The notification must be visible from the adjacent roadway and the notifying signs must be provided free of charge to each gas station by its wholesale supplier.

Sometimes the purpose of a new law is obvious, but unless Representative Weter explains this bill, we can only guess. Signmakers–at least–will appreciate this little stimulus (although the reason the wholesaler has to pay for the signs is a mystery).

Perhaps Representative Weter was thinking how nice it would be if he knew that gas prices were going up tomorrow. He could fill his tank today and save money. I can appreciate the sentiment.

We are all annoyed to pull into a gas station and find that prices have just been raised. This new law would end that annoyance for all of us, but why stop with price increases? After all, it may be even more annoying to fill up today, only to find the price dropping tomorrow. I’m really just guessing who this bill is supposed to benefit.

Thinking ahead–to a time when this bill has become law–one can imagine Rep. Weter leaving Jefferson City after a hard week of lawmaking, when he notices he needs to fill the tank to get home to Nixa, Missouri. Oddly enough, the first gas station he passes has a long line of cars. He also notices a sign is flashing the message that gas will go up a dime tomorrow. (These signs, by then, have affectionately become known as “Weter” signs).

He drives on to find a line at every gas station, finally stopping at the last quick store at the edge of  town. He gets in the line and a half hour later reaches the pump as the manager walks out and apologizes that the station is fresh out of gas.

This well-intentioned legislation may turn out to be far more annoying than a rise in gas prices. Who can doubt it would periodically disrupt the sale of gasoline? Sure, it would be nice to know when gas is going up, but the same is equally true of tomorrow’s stock market index or the score of Monday night’s football game. It just doesn’t work if everbody else also knows.

Perhaps the public would be better served if this bill were amended to simply require all the gas stations to notify Rep. Weter of any price increases and leave the rest of us out of it.

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UPDATE: Rep Weter has now explained the bill and how long lines at gas stations could be valuable. From LandLineMag.com:

Weter said he was spurred to act after witnessing significant price increases in his district.

“People are short on cash in this day and age. And if I can save some money buying fuel one day to the next, I would like to know about it ahead of time,” Weter told Land Line.

Critics say the price postings would result in long lines at the fuel pump. That notion does not deter Weter.

“Long lines aren’t necessarily a bad thing. If that is the case, I think it sends a message. I think it would send a message that people like the idea of having advance notice,” he said.

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Missouri Special Session to stop TSA groping?

Most have seen the news that the Texas House unanimously passed a bill declaring that any government (read “TSA”) employee who “touches the anus, sexual organ, buttocks, or breast of another person including through the clothing, or touches the other person in a manner that would be offensive to a reasonable person,” shall be guilty of a crime if such search is conducted without probable cause to believe the other person had committed a crime.

After the Texas house scored with that popular vote, the Senate stepped up to the plate ready to turn the bill into law. At this point, U.S. Attorney John Murphy sent a letter to the Texas Senate threatening to ground all Texas flights. “If HR 1937 were enacted, the federal government would likely seek an emergency stay of the statute,” Murphy wrote. “Unless or until such a stay were granted, TSA would likely be required to cancel any flight or series of flights for which it could not ensure the safety of passengers or crew.”

TSA messes with Texas privates

The Texans quickly backed down.

Feds 1, Lone Star State 0

Now the State of Utah may step up to protect the honor of their mothers & daughters, babies & grandmothers: Utah lawmaker’s proposal to ban TSA pat downs in Utah

Now Missouri Gov. Nixon is being urged to consider asking for a special legislative session to deal with Missouri’s spring disasters:

Disasters could be special session topic


Others have called for a session to consider the nuclear plant site permit. If this happens, might we see the legislature also take up an anti-TSA molestation bill? Might something be done about this ongoing assault?

If you’ve missed all the fuss, the gallery of abuses below will bring you up to speed (real photos should be distinguishable from the satirical ones):

Hard at work. Can’t you just hear this next guy grunting, even without sound?





Most people are unaware of the dangers of allowing un-inspected breasts onto an airplane, but apparently it’s the real deal!



 

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Price gouging is a service, not a crime

I went to the hardware store after the snowstorm hoping to score some ice melt, only to discover that it’s all sold out.  I only needed one bag and I’d have gladly paid more to get what I needed.

The thing that really frosts me is that the reason I could not get ice melt was because politicians know they can win votes by creating the crime of price gouging.

The anti-Price Gouging law

I can’t explain it any better than does our Missouri attorney general at his website:

It’s against Missouri law to take advantage of a desperate situation by drastically increasing prices on merchandise, whether it’s gasoline, kerosene after winter storm, hotel rooms, ice, gas-powered generators and other necessities.”

He is referring to Missouri’s Unlawful practices statute, which reads:

407.020. 1. The act, use or employment by any person of any  . . . deception, fraud, false pretense, false promise, misrepresentation, unfair practice or the concealment, suppression, or omission of any material fact in connection with the sale or advertisement of any merchandise . . . . is declared to be an unlawful practice.

Violation of this statute is a class D felony.

One may rightly wonder how this law prohibits “price gouging.” It’s because the legislature gave the Missouri attorney general permission to make regulations needed to enforce the law (apparently intending that the attorney general would designate sizes and styles of typefaces acceptable for use in consumer advertising).

Years went by before the attorney general created regulations which would transform this anti-fraud law into what should be called the “Lets-run-out-of-everything-as-fast-as-we-can-when-we-need-it-most” law. The regulation became law and created the crime of price gouging:

15 CSR 60-8.030 Price Gouging

PURPOSE:  . . . this rule enumerates specific practices which are unfair and are violative of section 407.020, RSMo.
(1) It is an unfair practice for any person in connection with the advertisement or sale of merchandise to—
(A) Take advantage of a person’s physical or mental impairment or hardship caused by extreme temporary conditions, and charge a price substantially above the previous market price of the merchandise in seller’s trade area;
(B) Charge within a disaster area an excessive price for any necessity; or
(C) Charge any person an excessive price for any necessity which the seller has reason to know is likely to be provided to consumers within a disaster area.

The law seems to have no purpose except: 1) to soothe the feelings of angry citizens who feel they have been taken advantage of; and 2) to provide the Missouri Attorney General a platform from which he can pose as champion of the consumer.

Harmful effects:

When it comes to helping the rest of us, the law does nothing to insure that we can buy essential goods when we need them most. On the contrary, such price controls guarantee that we will NOT have enough of what we need.

If a disaster strikes, and water, gasoline and food cannot be sold for significantly higher prices, then stores will sell out early as everyone buys more than they need. Then none is left to buy AT ANY PRICE. In addition, it is unlikely anyone will rush to bring in essential supplies when the government has removed the profit incentive.

In an emergency, a hotel manager who doubles his room price on 100 rooms, may force a big family to rent one room instead of two. Or cause two poor families to double up. If such “price gouging” were allowed, the hotel could provide shelter for twice as many people in an emergency. True enough, the hotel owner gets a big payoff, but should that be a crime when it was only his self-interest that put everybody under a roof?

The repeal of price gouging laws would in itself decrease the severity of shortages when they do occur. If merchants knew they could raise prices during shortages, more would take risks and stock up on ice melt and snow shovels. But with no prospect of a payoff, they play it safe and stock just what they are sure they can sell in a typical winter. And if people knew prices could rise greatly during emergencies they might be better prepared, further decreasing the demand in times of shortage.

Some say that the merchant’s sin is greed, but at least the merchant’s self-interest serves the public by keeping goods available. The flip side of the merchant’s greed is the consumer’s envy, which does no one any good, neither housing nor feeding anyone. Is it harsh to say that anti-price gouging laws are motivated by hate? That supporters are people who would rather have NO GAS available at $3.00 a gallon, than have all the gas they want at $5.00? Under this law, half of us can get our gas tanks filled, whether we need it or not, and the other half goes without. This has to be one of the more foolish laws we have, yet most people probably think it’s good.

Missouri’s Attorney General has been aggressive in threatening Missouri merchants with prosecution if they violate these price controls. See Attorney General Koster warns consumers about storm-related price gouging. Koster makes it easy for “victims” to complain at his website:

Click here to rat out greedy businessmen.


For more information about the “wisdom” of price gouging laws:

The Role of Prices- Walter Williams

Price Gouging Saves Lives

The Non-Crime of Price Gouging

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Missouri teen texting ban is a failure

Jefferson City Criminal LawyerIn August 2009, reading, sending or writing text messages while driving became illegal for anyone under age 21. Section 304.820, RSMo

It’s easy to understand why messaging is dangerous while driving, but it’s hard to see why it’s more dangerous than sorting your CD collection or putting on lipstick in the rear-view mirror.

My thought at the time was that the only way to get convicted of this offense would be to confess to it. Otherwise, it’s difficult to prove you were texting (as opposed to starting a phone call or looking for an address or surfing the internet).

[Teenager tip: Don’t text and drive, but if you get stopped for texting, do not confess. DO NOT CONFESS.]

A recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch article noted that in the first five months the law was in effect, the Missouri Highway Patrol has issued just 13 tickets for the offense statewide, resulting in eight convictions. That might as well be ZERO.

The fact that the law has proven useless is not likely to stop another 20 states from joining the dozen states that already have the ban in place. Lawmakers–recognizing that the law is unenforceable–note that it raises awareness of the danger. It’s sort of like the Missouri seat belt law: basically unenforceable, but lawmakers get to be seen on the side of the angels.

Lest the bosses at the Capitol building give themselves too much credit for “raising awareness,” they should recognize that most of us wear seat belts because it’s safer, not because it’s illegal.

This may all be moot, however, since Congress is considering making the bans universal. If Missouri’s $200 fine does not stop this behavior, perhaps time in federal prison would scare us all straight. For our own good.


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Missouri bill would criminalize refusal to take breath test

People often hear that they should refuse to take the breath test if they are arrested for a DWI. Unfortunately–in the case of a simple first offense DWI–that belief will frequently result in worse results than if a person is convicted of the DWI. Refusal to blow will probably result in a one year revocation of that person’s Missouri drivers license.

A bill in the Missouri legislature takes a “refusal” to blow to a new level. SB 780, sponsored by Sen Matt Bartle, makes refusing to submit to chemical testing a separate crime, equivalent to a first-time DWI

In view of the heavy administrative penalty (one year revocation) already on the books, I am not certain how useful this provision will be. It creates a bizarre situation with regard to other statutes that still remain in effect. Section 577.041 requires the arresting officer to allow a DWI suspect twenty minutes in which to contact an attorney about whether to take the breath test.

It seems odd to specifically provide extra time for a suspect to call a lawyer to ask if he should commit a crime. This places the attorney in a situation of having to violate ethical rules if he makes any specific recommendation. I can imagine getting a phone call at 3:00 am:

Me: What can I do for you?

Suspect: I’m at the police station and I want to know if I should take the breath test? I got arrested for DWI.

Me: You are asking me if you should commit another crime?

Suspect: The cop said I could call a lawyer to see if I should blow.

Me: OK, here’s the deal. I can’t advise you to commit a crime. I could advise you to obey the law and take the test, but I can’t do do that either, because it could make your situation worse. However–wink, wink–If you do take the test, X will happen. If you don’t, Y will happen. Good luck.

This bill is hardly necessary, and–as the above shows–creates difficulties within the existing law.  It needs to fail.


New DWI laws could have “unintended consequences”

After the governor’s November DWI summit, we can expect new laws that promise to crack down on repeat DWI offenders. Oddly, the news reports seem to suggest a need–not for a crackdown on drunk drivers–but rather a crackdown on courts and prosecutors.

One of the biggest problems cited relates to the many arrested drivers who refuse to give a breath sample to determine their blood alcohol content. The law already requires a one year license revocation for such a refusal, but apparently prosecutors are being blamed for allowing DWI offenders to keep their licenses in exchange for guilty pleas on the underlying criminal offense.

Reports also cite prosecutors and judges giving probation to DWI offenders, thereby avoiding any conviction from appearing on a person’s record. This seemingly ignores recommendations of the federal goverment not to permit such practices.

Changes in the law may make it a crime to refuse to give a breath sample. Other changes could prevent prosecutors from plea deals which would keep a DWI from appearing in state and national databases. Another possible change is to make it a more serious crime to drive with a blood alcohol higher than .15% (the current level is .08%).

It turns out that some prosecutors are not enthusiastic about changing the law, citing unintended consequences of the new laws.

Prosecutors know that if their hands are tied by uncompromising rules, it will change the way they do business. This is because criminal cases do not always appear in black and white. Shades of grey are the norm.

When the prosecutors are prohibited from making reasonable compromises, fewer DWI charges will be filed. Either that or many cases will end up dismissed or lost at trial.

Look for a get-tough bill to be filed soon in the Missouri legislature.


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DWI: Giant fines and jail time, but no need for an attorney.

Spring in the Missouri legislature always sees the introduction of bills designed to prevent drunk driving.

In addition to the Drunk Driver Victims memorial signs discussed in an earlier post, here are a couple more:

Senator Wes Shoemyer’s Senate Bill 861, attempts to close what some consider a “loophole” in the DWI laws. Currently, some DWI-related convictions do not count toward “enhanced” punishment for persons accused of subsequent alcohol offenses, unless the defendant is represented by counsel or has waived the right to an attorney in writing.

This bill simply snips away the requirement that the defendant must have been “represented by or waived the right to an attorney in writing.”

This is one of those bills that tries to crackdown on DWI offenders, but in the end may backfire by permitting the courts to get sloppy about the constitutional right to an attorney. This would result in overturned convictions and would foul up repeat offender charges.

A written waiver of an attorney is a simple method to protect defendant’s rights (and the prosecutor’s conviction record). A written waiver in the file usually ends any controversy. By doing away with this requirement, Senate Bill 861 will create more problems than it solves.

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Senator Tom Dempsey’s Senate Bill 1053 doesn’t beat around the bush. In addition to jail, fines and license suspensions (click here for a complete list), this bill tacks on an additional–and mandatory–$1,000 fine on a first offense; $2,500 on any later offense.

I guess it follows that since poor people cannot possibly pay such fines, only rich folks will be able to afford DWI’s anymore!

As a practical matter, the courts will be helpless to deal with such mandatory fines, except to sentence everyone to jail and put them on probation with orders to pay the fine in 30 – 90 days. Then when half of them can’t pay, just throw them in jail.