Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Score one against corporations being people.

Taking a break from our platinum coin coverage, let's see what's the latest in the fight over corporate personhood. The San Francisco Chronicle has a story about a case that decided whether corporations are people for purposes of counting the number of occupants in a car. 

Like a lot of large metropolitan areas, San Francisco has carpool (or high occupancy vehicle) lanes. Jonathan Frieman was pulled over by the California Highway Patrol for driving alone in the carpool lane. In response, Mr. Frieman gave the officer who pulled him over the papers of incorporation for his family's charity foundation and said that he was not alone.

However, this was not a lame attempt to get out of ticket. Mr. Frieman has apparently been driving in the carpool lanes with only his corporate papers for "the last decade." His reason for doing so is that he wishes to revisit the issue of whether corporations are people. The Chronicle says that it was "first established" that corporations are people "in the 1886 Supreme Court Case Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Co." However, some say that the case does not actually say that. You can read the case here if you want to decide for yourself.

Anyway, the traffic court judge hearing the case rejected the argument by looking beyond the statutory language ton the intent of the statue. The judge felt that the point of a carpool lane is to ease traffic congestion. The Chronicle reports the judge as saying "[c]ommon sense says carrying a sheath of papers in the front seat does not relieve traffic congestion." Consequently Mr. Frieman was found guilty.  Given his desire to revisit the issue of corporate personhood, Mr. Frieman intends to appeal.

As an initial matter I am somewhat surprised that it took a decade for Mr. Frieman to get pulled over for occupying the carpool lane without another passenger. However, in defense of the California Highway Patrol, it is not clear how often in the last ten years Mr. Frieman drove solo in the lane.

Moreover, I am not sure I understand the point of appealing. Mr. Frieman's goal is for corporations to be found not persons under the law. Currently, corporations are not persons under the law for purposes of the carpool statute. Mr. Frieman, then, will be arguing for an expansion of the concept of corporate personhood. The prosecution, I presume, will not argue that corporations are never people.  Instead they will argue that corporations are not people when counting carpool members. So, neither side will be arguing that corporations are never people. Maybe there will be amicus briefs on that issue but it seems to me like an appeals court can decide the narrow issue of whether corporations count as people in carpools and ignore whether corporations are people generally.


  1. Good point on the stupidity of the appeal.

  2. In thinking about it some more, I guess the guy is really just after publicity and doesn't care whether he wins or loses the case, so in that sense the appeal obviously makes sense.