I'm one of those people who really doesn't get traffic tickets. I rarely speed, and have one of those heartfelt desires to do right, tempered only by a laziness about getting things like inspections done. My wife rarely gets tickets, but she also always gets things like inspections done.
In the past year, though, I have gotten two tickets.
One "robot camera" ticket issued in Arizona accused me of speeding--this one caused a bit of flap with me because I was not given proper notice of the violation in one of those "in a rental car" deals. On New Year's Day, when my wife and I were driving her car to meet our friend for hiking in the east Texas woods, I got a ticket because one of her headlights was out. The officer who stopped us at 7:25 a.m., when things were still dark, assured me it was only a warning, not a charge. But then he proceeded to fill it out as a violation anyway. I didn't notice in the darkness that he had done so; I still don't believe he meant to do so. He had been so nice. I have a mild fear of policemen stemming from an incident in which I once saw a policeman be way too rough with a fellow I saw him arrest. This policeman was instead charming and quiet. But the long and the short of it is that I got summoned to Princeton Municipal Court for the heinous offense of driving with a burned-out headlight.
My wife called for me to see if it really was a charge, and what we might do. She had been shocked when I got the ticket, because she had just changed that lamp out. She had the lamp assembly rebuilt to fix the problem, which cost more than the usual small change for a bulb replacement. So we had proof of a "fix".
The ticket was 101 dollars, but I could not believe it was a ticket at all. I have a conceit, spawned through years of experience. My conceit is that if I just talk to the right person at the right time in the right way, I can accomplish almost anything.
I determined prior to my court date to call the Clerk and explain it was only a warning, and somehow obviate the appearance. Sadly, though, whatever silver is in my tongue must have turned into quicksilver and flowed away, because the clerk advised me I would have to make an appearance, and perhaps the judge would dismiss my case because I got the problem fixed.
Princeton is roughly forty five minutes north of Garland, up Highway 78 by muddy, rain-soaked-heron Lake Lavon. It's a town of a few thousand people with a dead little downtown and not a huge amount of richesse. That's preferable, from my point of view, than going to a court appearance in a pneumatic, hyper-modern, "we built this on corporate dollars" town. I always feel more at home in places that could be Gurdon, Arkansas, when I have mitigation of offenses in mind.
The clerk gave me great directions to the courthouse, which was in Princeton City Hall, a little brick structure. What do you see when you enter Princeton City Hall? On the left, a booth to pay tickets. On the right, a booth to pay other charges. The Clerk ushered me to the courtroom, a small room in back with a judge and jury podium (apparently the jurors sit beside the judge rather than in a separate box) and tons of people sitting in chairs, also waiting for their hearings.
The hearing was scheduled to start at 3, but the judge did not appear until 3:30. Still, she was a very good judge. She began running through the list bilingually with aplomb, courtesy, compassion, and, yes, justice. Speeders explained how there was a really good reason their speed exceeded the legal limits.
One teen and his mother were there for a public drinking charge. The boy acknowledged his folly, although I suspected, somehow, that he was not caught with his first illicit beer, and that he has not drunk his last illicit beer. The court put him on probation and sent him to alcohol awareness and made him pay a fine. The judge was so courteous. She had a pleasant interchange with each defendant.
I sat thinking about my trial strategy, which is hard to spend too much time upon when you don't really have any, when a case was called before mine which had just my factual pattern. The fellow had a headlamp out. He thought it was only a warning. He was shocked to find it was a violation. He had had it fixed.
As a litigator, he was neither the devil nor Daniel Webster, and, sadly, he did not win dismissal of his charge. He only got a reduction in fine from 101 dollars to 75 dollars. I could see doom written on my personal wall--"Many, many dollars when you ticket 'em", it said.
My turn soon came. I told my story, in the context of a staunch "no contest" plea, but the court again declined to consider the "should be a warning" argument. The only relief I got was a reduction of the fine an additional five dollars to seventy dollars. I do not believe it was my litigation skill that got the extra five off, but instead the high cost of the headlamp assembly repair. I suppose viewed another way my lawyering was worth all of five dollars to me.
I never would have driven to Princeton for a thirty one dollar discount, as I have trains to catch and bills to pay. But I was impressed with the place.
Never mind that the courtroom has wood panelling that looks like it dates from 1976.
I drove home through the rain, defeated but unbowed. We watched Law and Order, and then Stalag 17. I had forgotten how Stalag 17 is so surreal.
But Princeton Municipal Court was also surreal, in its way. Reality seems surreal to me, but that sounds so obvious, I'll just reflect instead on getting some contracts reviewed at work in an hour or two. Contracts are real--pieces of paper representing spidery legal relationships that lawyers sometimes have to go to court to intrerpet.
I understand that kind of reality, more than I do novels or movies or even conversation, sometimes.