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Wednesday, September 17, 2014
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Published: Friday, 8/22/2008

Day in court: $60 Standing up to injustice: priceless

I FOUGHT the law and the law won. But I'd still recommend doing it at least once in a lifetime. After the nervous system settles down, taking a stand can be a great adrenaline rush.

My brush with the law involved a traffic citation. Not a speeding ticket, or one for running a red light. Even lead-foots must confess that both moves are pretty indefensible, not to mention reckless and potentially deadly.

My chance get-together with a gendarme from a neighboring municipality came when she pulled me over for turning right-on-red at an intersection, which had been the law there for decades. The officer had been waiting to pounce on somebody in her parked cruiser.

I saw her but stopped on red as usual, then turned. That's when she proceeded to trail me with emergency lights flashing. My kids, traveling in a car behind me (that had also turned right on red) were traumatized, envisioning mom being led to the slammer in handcuffs.

Mom, meanwhile, wracked her brain wondering what she did wrong. The police officer informed me curtly that turning right on red was no longer the law at the intersection. Despite my shameless appeals for understanding, compassion, and flat-out mercy, she handed me an $80 ticket with a court date.

Flabbergasted and furious, I drove away wanting to kick the proverbial cat, punch the proverbial pillow, or just plain explode. I made a feeble attempt to channel my fury into a lesson on self-control for my shell-shocked tykes but I don't think they bought it. They grew tired of mom ranting about the unfairness of her ticket and begged her to change the subject.

Yet the more I commiserated with friends, family, lawyers, and even law enforcement pals I've known for years, the more determined I was to fight the citation.

First step was arraignment.

On long, wooden, church-like benches I sat with a diverse assembly of The Charged. The municipal courtroom was conspicuously silent. The only audible sound came from a clock on the back wall.

I looked around at my fellow accused - young, old, black, white, tattooed, pierced, and suspected. Some were not new to the routine. When the judge appeared, a gruff police officer, eying a few backward baseball caps in the group, ordered hats off.

He also passed out single sheets of paper that explained our rights and what to do when our names were called. We sat in absolute silence. A television monitor was turned on so the incriminated, already in the clink, could communicate.

The judge entered the chamber and made quick work of dispensing the cases before him. For a crazy moment I was confused about whether to plead no contest or not guilty. Not guilty seemed prudent, considering the judge was on a tear with guilty pronouncements and sentences.

A court date was set and I came prepared - a nervous wreck, but prepared. I sat and stewed on the sparse benches with a handful of defendants. The wall clock whirred.

I asked an apparent father-son couple next to me if they knew the judge's name. The older man did, as well as his reputation for being a notorious "hanging judge." I willed myself to breathe normally and ignore a creeping panic that maybe fighting the law on principle wasn't such a good idea.

Trembling, I began to edit some of my notes - a professional reflex, I guess - deleting a description of the officer's demeanor that carried the slightest Gestapo overtone. The city prosecutor briefly questioned the patrolman, whose testimony included recollections of a belligerent defendant disinclined to accept her fate.

My jitters eased with those comments. Armed with a few photos - entered and examined as evidence - I showed how the new traffic sign, hung above the traffic signal at the intersection, could easily be missed by motorists. Another photo of a second traffic sign, posted a city block away and tucked under two other signs, reinforced the point.

Nervously gulping for air, I laid out my claim that there had been inadequate public notice of an abrupt change in a long-standing law. No sign had been posted in advance to alert motorists about the change, no 30-day grace period, and, I concluded, no reason to throw the book at me for adhering to a law so recently altered.

The prosecutor had a couple of clarifying questions and said nothing further. A minute passed before the judge grunted "guilty." He dropped the $80 fine to $10 but $50 in court costs remained. Net gain for me: $20.

But standing up against injustice? Priceless. I fought the law and lost but on the way out of the courtroom a defendant waiting her turn leaned toward me and whispered, "Good for you."

Marilou Johanek is a Blade commentary writer.

Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com



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