Friday, April 22, 2011

Law and Disorder

I am not a lawyer.

Nor am I a judge, paralegal, court clerk, or courtroom artist. I have never even been a juror, although I was once called for jury duty. Their mistake.

Despite having no direct professional connection whatsoever to the criminal justice system, I get a surprisingly large volume of mail from the court. The Superior Court of California, County of Los Angeles, Traffic Division, to be specific.

The reason for the constant stream of missives from the judicial branch of my county government? The official reasons cited by the court vary with each letter, and are worded so convolutedly that even someone like me who enjoys convoluted wording can't make heads or tails of the actual charges. But after more than a decade of meeting the esteemed members of our highway patrol and receiving very civil letters on their behalf, via the court, I have figured out why I am so lucky to garner so much attention: I Am A Boston Driver.

I owned my first car--a vintage BMW 2002 I named "Mardou," after a character in a Jack Kerouac novel (doesn't everyone name their cars?)--while living in the even more vintage neighborhood of Beacon Hill in Boston. The streets were barely paved former cow paths, usually further narrowed by snowbanks or recycling bins. Driving in a congested, centuries-old city requires a sense of adventure, artistry and particularly good insurance coverage. Traffic lights, while very pretty with their flashing colors, are a mere suggestion, and parallel parking requires using bumpers for what they were named: bumping other cars. We do not bother with car washing, vanity license plates, or cars with multisyllabic names. Count Bostonians as the only people outside of Scandinavia who have ever seen an actual Saab.

I provide this brief overview to give the non-New Englander an understanding of the etiology of my apparently criminal behavior. I will note that in the several decades before I moved to Los Angeles, I don't recall ever receiving a traffic ticket. Sure, I had to slip the service station manager an extra $20 so Mardou would pass inspection. And, yes, I may have gone extended periods of time unknowingly driving on an expired license. But for the most part my driving record east of the Mississippi was untarnished.

Los Angeles has a reputation for being a laid-back, accepting bastion of diversity. In my experience, this has not been the case, at least when it comes to drivers. Though the L.A. justice system may be lenient to the wrongdoings of many of its flashiest citizens, I have found the LAPD and its brethren to be far less accepting of the personal and stylistic differences of some of its more humble folk.  It is the hard-working, well-meaning of us who suffer every time a man or woman in blue takes issue with an expertly executed U-turn on a one-way street, or an efficient left turn on an arrow that turned red with little warning, or an inability to immediately locate registration documents when opening the glove compartment yields a torrent of Pepperidge Farm Goldfish bags. Just because you have a gun and a shiny badge doesn't give you the right to interrupt my journey. Well, maybe it does in the letter of the law, but not so much in the spirit. I have places to go. Can't we all just get along?

The sum of my involuntary donations to the "Superior Court of Los Angeles County, Traffic Division" might make a hefty downpayment on a new car, and the number of "Certificates of Completion" I have earned from the court's online "Home Study"program would surely be at least a master's degree. However, I have to say that my all-time record for traffic citations actually occurred 3,000 miles away from Los Angeles--in Staten Island, NY, of all places. This was during the year we lived in New York. What I was doing on a highway in Staten Island has mercifully been blotted from my memory, but I was stopped for some infraction that was not articulated to me in a way that I could understand. Did I mention that I had the misfortune of being a female driving like a Boston driver in Staten Island with California license plates and a Boston Red Sox bumper sticker? That must have confused the hell out of the SIPD. He wrote me two tickets. For the same traffic stop. Is that even allowed? Luckily, I was moving out of state shortly after that anyway.

Lest you think that all my encounters with traffic law enforcement personnel have been negative, let me end with a heart-warming story. Not this most recent ticket, but the one before came just moments after a stare-down with the crossing guard at my son's school. It appeared to me as if he was allowing an entire busload of dependent-free elderly people to cross while we parents semi-patiently waited to make a left turn. I was so busy giving the guard (who I imagine is named Clyde or Gus) the evil eye that I did not notice that our town's PD was out in full force, ready to ticket hapless homeowners to increase the town's cashflow. I finally made my turn, wedged the car next to a parked one, and opened the driver's side backdoor for my son. Of course, being the neurotically safety conscious mom that I am, I wildly flailed my arms and did my best NBA pick defense to protect my son from any pedestrian or automotive activity. No sooner had I yelled "I love you" and revved up the engine than I heard a tap on my window. My preschool daughter was still in the car, so I had to be on good behavior. No, officer, I had not realized the crossing guard's orange flag was still up. No, officer, I didn't know I was impeding traffic. No, officer, I had no idea that was a moving violation. But, officer, I was protecting my son's safety with a mom-body-block. He remained unconvinced. Oh well, another triplicate to file in the glove compartment.

The good news is that this all went down on the very last day of "Community Helpers Week" at my daughter's preschool. Yay! In case you, like me, assume a "community helper" is either an urban planner or a municipal attorney, I recently learned the term includes any professional, paraprofessional or volunteer who does virtually anything identifiable in a community. You, too, may be a community helper and not even know it! Anyway, when I dropped my daughter off at school she was very excited to report to her teacher how mommy was stopped by a community helper on the way to school. What a happy coincidence!


  1. "Traffic lights, while very pretty with their flashing colors, are a mere suggestion"...I just loved that line!

    I averted a ticket the last 4 or 5 times I was stopped by playing my trump card:
    Officer: where do you work maam?
    Me: at the hospital...I am a nurse
    Officer:do you work in the ER?
    Me: no but if you ever have mental health issues or pneumonia, I'll probably see you
    Officer: you can go maam, just slow down a little bit...
    Me: thank you officer :D

    Worked every time...the only time my karma doesn't screw me... :D

    Loved the post Karen!

  2. Hi, Cath! I have never--not even once--been successful in talking my way out of a ticket.I blame it on an affliction I have: Impulsive Eye-Rolling Disorder, Expletive-Laden type :( Once I am done dramatically sighing and making sarcastic comments about how they should be seeking "real" criminals, I have no chance but to take that ticket and and drive away..... Take care! Best, Karen