If there were no bad people, there would be no good lawyers.
I get traffic tickets. Correction: I get a lot of traffic tickets. Probably more than you. Now, I don’t know what it’s like to be a motorcyclist where you ride, but ’round these parts motorcyclists tend to break the law. If you own a motorcycle capable of law-breaking speeds, at some point, you are going to go law-breaking speeds. And so we get tickets.
Now, once you have a speeding ticket, you can go two ways with it. You can just man (or woman) up and pay the thing, or you can, as they say in Silicon Valley, lawyer up and fight. The first option is the respectable, laudable and honorable way to go, a way that shows you were raised properly and that you are a responsible, fully functioning and adult member of society. The second, well, it’s complicated.
Some of us have jobs that sort of require us to break the law from time to time, or at least sort of push the boundaries of what’s legal. I have to test motorcycles to something like their performance limit – and almost anything bigger than a 50cc scooter will go fast enough to break the law, and that means extra attention from Mr. Law.
So I fight. I probably get more tickets than most folks, but fortunately, thanks to one of my past lives, I know my way around a courtroom, so I always fight ’em. Once you know how to do it, it ’s fun. Okay, maybe not fun, but more fun and simpler than adjusting valves on an FZR600.
Here in California, we have an interesting approach to criminal justice when it comes to traffic enforcement. In the late ’60s, too many folks were demanding their right to a jury trial for minor traffic offenses (damn hippies!), so the legislature created a new neither-fish-nor-fowl thing, the infraction. If you’re charged with an infraction – most of the Vehicle Code’s provisions are infractions now – you don’t have a right to a jury trial or to a court-appointed attorney. In return, you can’t go to jail, violate parole or have your license suspended from violating an infraction statute, and also you’re not supposed to pay more than a $250 fine, although there are exceptions. It’s all nice and Constitutional, and it keeps courtrooms free so start-ups can sue each other more.
I don’t hang out at the courthouse, but when I go for my own ticket (which is frequent), I do enjoy watching my fellow citizens botch their own defenses. When the old sage said, “a man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client,” he had no idea how goofy folks could get. It seems to me that most people think that as soon as the judge hears your side of the story, and understands that you just had to roll through that intersection, the kindly old man in the black robe will get all teary eyed, and since you so carefully explained your side of things, will just dismiss your case. It may have for worked for OJ, but even if Johnnie Cochran was still alive (RIP), you couldn’t afford him.
But it won’t work for you. As Abbie Hoffman preached, to beat the Man, you have to learn his system and use it against him. If you have the dosh, pay an attorney to represent you – most of the time, you don’t even have to go to court, and traffic attorneys can be surprisingly affordable. If you want to get all pro per, then you need to stop blowing up photos of stop signs (“how am I expected to stop at an intersection if those willow trees obscure the stop sign, your honor? I couldn’t see a thing!”) and order a copy of Fight Your Ticket & Win or Beat Your Ticket if you’re outside California. I don’t know if the outside California book is as effective, but Fight Your Ticket has saved my bacon many times. It walks you through each procedure and goes a long way towards demystifying the law.
When I read internet discussions about fighting traffic or parking tickets, the commenters are split into two camps. One freely offers advice or solicits information about the process. The second group is judgmental, and suggests “manning up” or even “taking it like a man,” which leads to even more unsavory metaphors. I find this attitude odd and puzzling, and reminds me of JB’s column about the Authoritarian Personality. After all, “obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues children should learn,” as one of the questions psychologist Theodor Adorno asks in his “F-Scale” questionnaire. Reporting to Traffic School for re-education as ordered, Comrade Traffic Commissioner!
If Oliver North doesn’t have to incriminate himself for selling weapons to Iran, I don’t have to say anything about whatever law it is I allegedly violated. And it doesn’t matter if I think I’m guilty. I have the right to a fair trial. The “people” shouldn’t be able to make me shell out 500 bucks and FUBAR my DMV printout just because they say so. I should be able to meet their representative in a court of law and make them prove I did indeed violate every element of the law, using evidence that meets the requisite standard. Traffic court is probably the only place most of us will encounter the pointy end of the government, so why not exercise your rights?
But what if everybody fought their ticket, say the high F-scalers? How would we enforce the law? Gosh, I don’t know, by applying it fairly? By setting realistic speed limits for modern vehicles? By timing traffic signals and engineering roadways for efficient traffic flow? By having traffic enforcement focus on actual dangerous drivers – drunks, roadragers, teen texters and other murderous scum? Look around you as you ride to work and see if you can find more than 10 drivers obeying the traffic code. (If so, I will spare humanity from my wrath.)
But you got caught, says the F-Scalers, and I say so what. It doesn’t prove my moral hazard, it just proves I was unlucky. When more than 10% of a population breaks the law, that law is unenforceable, turning our police into revenue collectors and just about every driver into a criminal. Will fighting every ticket change things? Probably not, but I’ll keep my record clean and keep on riding.
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