In light of recent events, this week I decided to write about police reports. For those who do not know me personally, yesterday my car was broken into and the stereo was stolen. To add insult to injury, it was broad daylight, it was parked in front of my house, I was home at the time, and the front door to the house was wide open.
Nonetheless, in dealing with the situation I learned about a valuable and convenient tool offered by the Denver Police Department: Report a Crime Online
I think there are two main reasons why people don’t make police reports when something bad happens. Firstly, it can be a burden to call the police, wait for a patrol car to arrive, and then fill out the paperwork in an interview-like manner. Commonly, this is all done sitting in the hot sun or in a freezing blizzard, while waiting in the parking lot of a closed down Blockbuster or Jack-in-the-Box. Secondly, I think many people underestimate how important a police report is, especially if you later need to make an insurance claim or pursue legal action.
Yesterday, in looking for the Denver Police Department’s non-emergency phone number, I came across the Report a Crime Online program. Generally speaking, instead of calling a police unit to respond in person, you can now go online and fill out a loss or accident report on your own. You submit the report and receive a temporary case number, and, after the report is reviewed and approved, it is officially filed and a formal case number is assigned. Everything is emailed to you almost instantly.
This is a brilliant system. It allows you the time and ability to make the report at your convenience, once you have the knowledge and wherewithal to know the extent of your damages or loss. Additionally, it does not require a police officer, who likely has other duties to perform (and would prefer to be doing those other duties) to make a personal visit to witness a broken car window.
As far as the importance of filing a report, the system makes it so easy to file a report that there is no good reason not to do it. I have spoken to many people who didn’t think they need a police report, because “the damage didn’t look that bad.” But, a few weeks down the line, the quote comes back from the body shop and an insurance claim is the only way to afford the repairs. Without a police report, it makes it much more difficult to make an insurance claim (and there may be additional fees too), and a police report can prove to be invaluable in any legal action.
I am not suggesting that if you get involved in a traffic accident, you should necessarily exchange info, proceed home, and file the report online (even though it is possible). There are still many situations where calling the police and having a patrol car arrive on-scene is the best, if not only, way to proceed and protect your interests. But, in light of the increasing and ever-present instances of petty theft and vandalism, Report a Crime Online is a great and stress-reducing system that takes a little bit of the sting out of the process.
At the end of last week, a federal court struck down a law passed in 2010 that would have required certain online retailers to collect Colorado state sales tax for online purchases.
The court’s decision held that the law was unconstitutional, because it placed an undue burden on interstate commerce. Generally speaking, this is because Colorado cannot pass laws that restrict commerce or business that crosses state lines, because the U.S. Congress has the sole responsibility to regulate that area of the law.
Legalese aside, this means that when you buy things online you still do not have to pay sales tax, unless the online retailer is actually located within Colorado.
Some news stories have spun the issue, saying the decision “vindicated” the Republicans or that the Democrats lost. But, the truth is that the court didn’t care who “won.” Knowing Judge Blackburn, the judge who wrote the decision, I am confident that the decision was neutral and objective, and legally the correct outcome.
However, the real issue is not which party won a fiscal battle, but what affect the decision will have going forward. The law was originally passed with two laudable goals: 1) to generate additional tax revenue to aid an out-of-balance state budget; and 2) an attempt to even the playing field for local retailers (some called it the “Amazon Tax”).
I would be a hypocrite and liar to say that I don’t shop online, or that I don’t love seeing “$0.00” for sales tax when making a purchase. But, as a proponent of small businesses, I think it is critical to support the local economy, as well as continue to search for viable solutions for our unwieldy state budget. Regardless of whether the court was right in making its decision (which it probably was), there still exist two problems in need of solving.
Currently, online retailers have three main advantages over local brick-and-mortar retailers: 1) little or no sales tax encourages online spending; 2) low overhead (no fancy storefronts needed); and 3) a much larger potential customer base. The proposed law would have at least limited one of the three advantages that online retailers have over local stores.
Additionally, as far as the state budget is concerned, the proposed sales tax produced a new source of funding to the government that was based on consumption, rather than taking more from your paycheck every week, before you even cash it. Unless you also receive a paycheck from an online retailer, online shopping is a one-way street that siphons money out of the local economy.
So, while it’s nice to buy things for the advertised price, with no add-ons inflating the bill at check-out, it is equally important to remember where your money is going, whether to New Jersey, China, India, or anywhere else.
Several years ago, I saw a wonderful sign hanging in a leather repair shop that read as follows:
Pick any two.
The simplicity and brilliance of that sign is undeniable.
Recently, that sign came to mind as a friend and new client discussed a situation he was facing. It suffices to say that my friend turned to an online legal service for general business advice and documentation for a project. After chastising him for not picking up the phone and giving me a call ahead of time, we discussed how I could help.
Although I have seen TV commercials, billboards, and other ads for online legal services, I have never known anyone who used them. I am an advocate of affordable legal services and I don’t think legal advice should require a second mortgage or promise to name your first born after your attorney. So, I always considered those services to be a good alternative that filled a need for run-of-the-mill legal issues (if there is such a thing).
However, I was shocked to learn that not only are online legal services not very affordable, but they may end up costing you more than if you had gone to an attorney in the first place, because you may need to fix problems that the services create.
After reviewing my friend’s documents, I identified several issues that needed to be fixed. While all of the documents were technically sound (meaning that they were free of typos and did create legal rights), they were filled with things that could develop into critical issues for him down the road. Some of the major issues included:
1) A waiver of legal notices;
2) Relying on and referring to other entities that my friend had no idea who they were, what they did, or that they even existed; and
3) Creating an opportunity for someone to take an ownership interest in the entity without my friend’s approval.
I won’t identify the online service that was used (to avoid the libel claim against me), but I will say that I am now generally leery of online legal services. My naïveté has faded and, not wanting to sound like a self-promoting attorney, I highly recommend avoiding such online services. While the click of a mouse may make you feel productive and put your mind at ease today, the ripple effect of the quick fix can be disastrous.
If for nothing else, let my friend’s experience serve as an example that taking the time to understand what you need and how to get it done efficiently and affordably will payoff in the long run. As my mother always says, “measure twice, cut once.”
This week, Google introduced new features for its search engine that give priority to Google+ results when someone conducts a search using its site. Google+ is Google’s social network, similar to Facebook, where individuals can maintain social pages.
The new features are being criticized because Google is unabashedly skewing search results in its own favor, highlighting its own search results and pushing others lower on the page (or off the page, as it may be). While this may seem like a minor change, this issue is part of a bigger discussion that has been brewing recently.
As search engines like Google continue to refine and enhance their search algorithms, certain policies are made that change the outcome or results of searches conducted online. The practical effect is that the information available online is now dictated by companies like Google. They decide what is relevant, based on what they feel you want to know, not necessarily what information is available in cyberspace.
A good example of this is the “Home” page of Facebook. Generally, when you look at the “Home” page, what you see are updates and pictures from the people Facebook thinks you want to know about. Not all of your contacts and Facebook friends are included. Long story short, there are various settings that you can change to avoid this, including sorting by time rather than by relevance, but the concept is the same: you only see what they want you to see.
This isn’t to say that Google has evil intentions and should be brought to its knees. Instead, the reason that I think this issue is important (and maybe even legally relevant) is because the policies set by Google, Yahoo, Twitter, Facebook, and others are effectively censoring the public’s access to information. And that is an important recognition.
So, while it may be convenient that your computer or phone recognizes that you live in a particular area of the city, and therefore modifies your search results for Chinese food for that neighborhood, just remember that there may be better information out there that your phone won’t let you find.
For additional information on this issue, please click on the following links: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=bOE1HFEL8XA http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-16511794
There is a new, looming topic of concern spreading throughout cyberspace: relevance and the personalization of information. Although this is not a purely legal issue (maybe it’s not even legal at all), I think the issue is important and worthy of discussion.