My adventures in traffic court.

Department of complaints.
Nov. 6 2003 5:35 PM

I Fought the Law

My adventures in traffic court.

Staying inside the lines won't save you
Staying inside the lines won't save you

My friends tell me never to go to traffic court. "Just mail in your fine," they say. "It isn't worth your time." But every so often, when I get a ticket, I like to go and see what it's like. Today I went and came back with one of my three favorite stories from the legal system's version of Alice in Wonderland.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Years ago, I was pulling out of a parking spot near the U.S. Capitol. A car was waiting for my space, blocking all traffic in the sole driving lane going in my direction. Or so I thought. As I pulled out, a cab went around the car and hit me. I took the cabbie to court and lost because the District of Columbia has a rule called contributory negligence, which means that no matter how bad the other party was, you lose if you were the least bit negligent. I paid for an appellate hearing so I could ask the judge how I was negligent. "You didn't look carefully enough before pulling out," he said. "I did look," I said. "The defendant must have been going too fast." The judge stared at me blankly and replied, "Well, if you had looked carefully enough, the defendant wouldn't have hit you."

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I was incredulous. "Your Honor," I asked, as politely as I could, "If the standard of negligence is that I got hit, how could any plaintiff ever win?"

An awkward silenced followed. To my relief, the cabbie punctured it by leaning into his microphone and exclaiming, "Your Honor, I find the plaintiff very argumentative!" The judge laughed and told him, "Of course he's being argumentative! He's making an argument." Then, with a gentle smile, the judge concluded, "However, I reject his argument and find for the defendant." Case closed.

A few years later, I got ticketed for parking within 5 feet of an alley. This upset me because, in fact, I was parked 7 feet from the alley. I know this because I went and got a tape measure to check it. I snapped a picture of the car and the alley, and just to be on the safe side, I convinced a friend, who had been in the car with me when I parked it, to come and vouch for my story in traffic court. My friend, an evangelical Christian, wore a suit. Alas, to no avail. The judge found me guilty, explaining that I could have moved the car before taking the picture. I never got a chance to ask how anyone could prove their innocence in such a case without round-the-clock video surveillance.

Today I went to see what traffic court is like in my new jurisdiction: Montgomery County, Md. I had been ticketed for parking in an illegal space. To prove that the space was legal, I brought pictures showing the meter next to it and the lines on the pavement marking it as legal. I was determined to inform the judge that the county was running a scam by making the space appear legal and then ticketing suckers who fell for it. A car had pulled out of the space as I arrived, another had pulled in as I left, and God knows how many others were falling for the trap every day.

The judge looked at the pictures and the address. To my delight, he recognized the place instantly. "Is this the Bethesda lot, across from the Barnes & Noble?" he asked. The ticketing officer nodded. A wave of moral satisfaction surged through me as I realized that the judge knew about the scam. Without glancing up, he announced, "Guilty."

Dumbfounded, I asked, "Your Honor, if it's not a legal space, why did the county paint the lines there?" To which he replied: "I don't paint the lines, sir."

Judgment: $35.

Court costs: $20.

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