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November|December 2002
Dude, Where's my Lada? By Jon Fasman
Traffic Court By Kim Lemon
Inside Job By David Taylor
Beverage Control By Marisa Matarazzo
Lost Savings By Daniel Kurtz-Phelan

Traffic Court

By Kim Lemon

Heading out to the tip of Long Island from Manhattan, I was clocked at 78 miles per hour on the Long Island Expressway. A patrol officer stopped me a New York minute later. He was kind and considerate and did not demand that I strip or find my way home on foot. For this I vowed to adopt a highway of my own and to plead guilty to breaking the 55-m.p.h. speed limit. Later, I checked the appropriate box on the ticket the officer gave me and made out a check to Nassau County, where I'd been busted, to cover the $95 fine. Then, with a lick of the envelope, I got on with things.

So I thought.

Months later, my check came back with a note from the Nassau County Traffic & Parking Violations Agency. Exceeding 74 m.p.h., I was informed, had cast me into a special class of offenders. I would have known this if I'd read the fine print on the guidelines that came with the ticket—the ones headed "Save Time and Effort—Mail Your Plea." As a special offender, I had to go to traffic court.

Things didn't look good, so I called Stan, my friend and attorney. Stan handled the domestic-partnership agreement between my partner, Mike, and me, which is sort of a pre-nup for gay guys that divides our common property just in case—the George Foreman Grill, the 900-square-foot co-op, and a pair of leather club chairs that should always remain together, even if we don't.

Sensing my apprehension, Stan offered to go with me to court. He thought we might be able to plea bargain to a lesser offense.

"I just want to pay the ticket," I insisted, "be done with it, and do only good for the rest of my life."

"Do you want the maximum number of points to hit your driving record?" Stan said.

I'd always thought points were good things. Things you earned by complimenting your boss when you didn't really mean it.

"How about your insurance rates doubling? Think about it, Kim. No Gucci loafers. Ever."

Stan is sometimes all about tough love.

"So what should I wear?" I said.

"Something indicating respect for the court."

My office in the city had long since shed its respectability by going business-casual five days a week. I pulled an Italian three-button-very-1999 suit from the back of my closet.

To get to the Nassau County traffic court, Stan and I traveled miles off some mid-island exit on the L.I.E., an exit that I'd previously experienced as a blur in my rearview mirror. We entered an obscurely marked, squat building nestled in a maze of similar ones. Stan flashed official credentials and waited on the other side of the metal detector through which I, as "the accused," was required to walk.

A pool of my peers, all blank-faced, milled around a list posted on the wall outside the courtroom. Stan and I nosed our way to the front and found my name next to Number 111. That's it, I thought. No yoga class for me this afternoon.

The courtroom itself felt less like a hall of justice than like one of the potholes I'd assumed my fine would go toward filling. Four cinderblock walls were topped by a low-slung ceiling. They were painted a pale blue, which I suspected covered a sheet of pale green and pale tan under that. The lighting was the fluorescent kind that does no one's complexion any favors.

"Stan," I whispered. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but next time, I think any one of my Banana Republic outfits would signal more than adequate respect."

Making a good guess about next steps, Stan went to the front of the room. Although a few well-pressed people like me had companions like Stan, most of them were on their own. Students. Businesswomen. Construction workers. Housewives. Gardeners.

"I checked you in and let them know you were represented by counsel," Stan said.

I felt coddled, slightly guilty, and relieved.

With no judge in sight, prosecutors started summoning each person on the docket to a desk at the front of the room for a brief conference. A woman wearing a pair of Golden Girls eyeglasses had been nabbed in a 25-m.p.h. zone. In Nassau County, you don't have to show up in traffic court for speeding unless you're 25 miles per hour over a 25-m.p.h. limit (or unless you've done something really stupid like fly through a school zone). So the woman's appearance in court suggested that she had been going at least 50, and that she and I were accused of breaking the same law, New York State Article 30, Section 1180(a): "No person shall drive a vehicle at a speed greater than is reasonable and prudent under the conditions and having regard to the actual and potential hazards then existing."

I nudged Stan, wondering how Golden Girl and I could be charged with the same offense. Doing 50 in a 25 zone is a lot worse than going 78 in a 55. Kids play in 25s. I hardly ever see kids on the Long Island Expressway.

"Well, you could do this...," said the prosecutor to the woman. He was a gregarious, game-show-host type, talking in a voice loud enough for half the room to hear, "... or, you could do that. Now, I can't tell you what to do and I can't tell you how the judge will rule." He laid options on the table and then seemed to shuffle them in a legal shell game.

The woman stood, expressionless. After the ten seconds she was "encouraged" to take for making her decision, she mumbled something inaudible, wandered back to her seat, and sank into the pale blue surroundings. She was clearly going to pay.

I grabbed Stan's arm. "Plead away," I told him. "And if you need to bring up the time I parked in that handicapped spot at the video store, go ahead."

The action slowed. As I began to inventory the incidence of male-pattern baldness on the heads in front of me, my name was called. Stan grabbed his notes and we approached the desk.

"Here's what we're offering attorneys today," the prosecutor announced as if he were talking about the Catch of the Day at Red Lobster. Stan and the prosecutor slid into legalese and I tuned out.

Returning to our seats, Stan informed me that he had cut a deal by which I could plead guilty to a "1110(a)"—which covers no-nos like making an illegal right turn on red. I shot him a dot-dot-dot look ("I don't get it"). "I know, I know," he said, shaking his head. "It's a big mystery to me, too."

"Well," I said, letting go of my willingness to be punished to the max, "I think that sounds more than reasonable."

I'd get a $105 fine and two points on my license—not the bad kind either. No mind-numbing class in driver safety to clear my record for the insurance company. Things were looking up.

When I was called to a smaller, more intimate courtroom down the hall a few minutes later, I had two things in common with the five plea-bargaining defendants who came with me: attorneys and all-natural fiber. The judge glanced at each of our files, quipped with the lawyers, and rubber-stamped the agreed-upon pleas. His kid had soccer practice in half an hour, he let us know.

I was grateful, but also confused. I had been willing to pay a $95 fine, take my lumps with the insurance company, and accept the label of "speeder" for the next two years. Instead, the judge was ordering me to pay a $105 fine and, in exchange for the extra ten bucks, relieving me of any punitive points. For the cause of good government, that seemed like a bad deal. Gone forever were five hours of Stan's time (he refused to bill me because that's the kind of guy Stan is), a sizeable chunk of the morning for several bureaucrats, and an opportunity to improve my tree pose at yoga class.

"I'm not ungrateful," I explained to Stan in the car on the way back to Manhattan, "just curious about the logic."

"I'll make a call," Stan said.

It turns out that I had landed in a honey pot for Nassau County. Had I been snagged going 74 miles per hour, instead of 78, the county couldn't have summoned me to court, and would have been obliged to pass my fine along to New York State. But that extra bit of speed gave the county an excuse to haul me in. Once it had me in court, the county opted to reduce the charges from speeding to a mere moving violation—and pocketed almost all of the fine for itself.

"I think I feel used," I said to Stan when he explained this.

On the other hand, maybe used isn't such a bad thing to be. If I'd been a habitual offender—the kind of driver for whom traffic court was designed—I probably wouldn't have gotten to plea-bargain. Or I could have been like Golden Girl, someone who missed the prosecutor's wink and insisted on being found innocent. Instead, I lucked into a slap on the wrist.

How hard is it to dream up a different scheme that would waste fewer people's time? Not very. The county and state could agree to divvy up fines for speeders, particularly first-timers who would happily plead guilty if they could skip their day in court.

On the other hand, when I'm tempted to step on the gas these days, I don't. It's not the threat to my checking account that stops me. It's those pale blue walls.


Kim Lemon is a writer living in New York.

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