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Selective enforcement is the ability that executors of the law (such as police officers or administrative agencies, in some cases) have to arbitrarily select choice individuals as being outside of the law. The use of enforcement discretion in an arbitrary way is referred to as selective enforcement or selective prosecution.

Historically, selective enforcement is recognized as a sign of tyranny, and an abuse of power, because it violates Rule of Law, allowing men to apply justice only when they choose. Aside from this being inherently unjust, it almost inevitably must lead to favoritism and extortion, with those empowered to choose being able to help their friends, take bribes, and threaten those they desire favors from.

However, the converse can also be true. Police officer discretion is sometimes warranted for minor offenses, for instance where a warning to a teenager could be quite effective without putting the teen through a legal process which also reduces costs of governmental legal resources. Another example is patrol officers parked on the side of a highway for speed enforcement. It may be impractical and cost prohibitive to ticket everyone who is going any amount over the speed limit, so the officer should watch for the more egregious cases and those drivers who are showing signs of driving recklessly. These cases do give the police judicial power to some degree, but it is not possible for an officer not to use judgment at one level or another. Also, the above could be accomplished simply by having the laws work this way officially, with no need for selective enforcement.


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