Suburban Soliloquy #54

The Game

In 1987 I was returning home from work late one night. I turned on to Interstate 295 at Kuser Road. In those days I-295, a six-lane highway, had not finished being extended. It came to an abrupt end at Kuser Road. I was driving my fairly new 1987 Acura Legend. When the traffic light switched to green, I turned northbound onto I-295 and began an exhilarating acceleration. No sooner had I launched my four-door sports sedan than I saw the State Trooper pulled beside an abandoned vehicle on the grassy median. He had the interior light on and was writing on a clipboard. He turned and saw me drive by. The speed limit was fifty-five miles per hour. I continued my rapid acceleration until I reached a hair over sixty miles per hour. I figured at that speed he wouldn't ticket me, but then why should he follow? Surely he knows I saw him.

Over a hill and beyond the sight of the State Trooper, I maintained my speed, and still I was coming up on a much slower car. I kept one eye on the rearview mirror and began to pass the slower vehicle. I saw a batch of cars come over the hill behind, all of them gaining on me. Then I saw the State Trooper come racing over the hill after them.

I finished passing the slowest car, signaling and checking over my shoulder before changing lanes. The other cars moved out of the State Trooper's path. He came right up to me and turned on those revolving lights of merry colours.

Ticket N683792 was for speeding, a $70 fine. He said I was doing seventy-one miles per hour. That was simply not true! But the police have radar and radar doesn't lie. Was I deluding myself? Ticket N683793 was for unsafe lane change, the amount of the fine to be $60. He said I didn't use my turn signal and cut the other driver off. I have ingrained in myself the practice of using my turn signals consistently, whereas the vast majority of drivers don't bother with it. I was especially careful because I was aware of the State Trooper's approach. Still I didn't argue, but took out the small notebook I always keep in the car for rare moments of inspiration and wrote down every detail of the incident while it was still fresh.

My trial was the tenth of April at 8:30 AM. The black-robed Judge arrived later and took his seat, his small, bearded head floating behind a massive desk. It was explained that those pleading guilty would be attended to first. Those contesting their guilt, and who had come with their lawyers, would be attended to next. Finally, those like me, without a lawyer, would come last. American lawyers have a saying, "the man who represents himself in court has a fool for a client." I felt powerless.

After a long, long time, it was my turn to present my case to the bench. During my wait, I had grown hopeful. Not seeing the State Trooper, I knew charges would be dropped if he didn't appear. But at the last possible moment, a door opened and the State Trooper was led out from a back room. My situation worsened when the County Prosecutor announced that he would represent the Trooper. I was going up against a man trained in the magical formulas of courtroom procedures. My only tools were honesty and reason. My only training had been the studying of the cases that preceded mine. I was grateful for the chance to see the court in action and was prepared to believe there might be a small gain in my education from this experience.

From observing the cases that came before me, I believed the Judge had been honest. Honesty seemed to carry weight with legal procedures. I was convinced by the preceding cases that the guilty were obvious by their behaviour. Their arguments fell apart in the strict procedures of the court. Meanwhile those I viewed as honest seemed protected by those very same procedures, despite their lack of legal training.

The Judge had us swear oaths. Here I had to interrupt him and explain that I was an Atheist. A jolt ran through the Judge, the lawyer, the plaintiff. Eyes widened. Then the Judge smiled and administered to me a separate oath that did not call upon god, but on my honour. I don't think my being an Atheist disadvantaged me. Instead it was an opportunity to establish at the start of my trial that I was sincere and took oaths seriously.

The Trooper gave his testimony first. This was accomplished by the Prosecutor leading the Trooper through events by asking specific questions. The Trooper, out of uniform, stood like a soldier at parade-rest wearing a sharp blazer and creased pants. His voice was steady and the answers he gave were short and precise. I felt inadequate watching the Prosecutor's professional decorum presenting questions to the point.

The Prosecutor questioned the Trooper as to the way he determined my speed. The Trooper claimed he had followed me, marking my speed, for two tenths of a mile - which he had not. The Prosecutor asked if the Trooper's equipment was calibrated. The Trooper presented a document stating when his speedometer was last checked and how a fifth wheel was mounted on the patrol car to calibrate accuracy. I was overjoyed! From the moment I had received the ticket, I thought I had been clocked by radar and was self-tormented that I might have been lying to myself. But the Trooper did not use radar. There was no impartial machine printout. He was lying, or at best mistaken.

The Trooper went on to say he was parked on the right shoulder of Interstate 295 southbound where it ended at Kuser Road. He was checking an abandoned car when he saw a small, dark blue car enter I-295 on the opposite roadway, and, quickly accelerating to what appeared to be speeds faster than fifty-five. The Trooper drove to the end of I-295, u-turned in the intersection of Kuser Road, and proceeded northbound in pursuit of me. He described seeing me move out of the right lane to pass a car and back into the right lane without signaling, cutting off the other car. He claimed he clocked me for 2/10th of a mile travelling at 71 miles per hour. Meanwhile, I was feeling shocked. Much of this was just not true. Why was the Trooper saying this? I supposed with all the people he's pulled over and ticketed, he cannot be expected to remember each accurately.

The Prosecutor asked the Trooper about his conversation with me at the time and if anything was out of the ordinary. He remembered that I was writing in my notebook and that I had questioned him as to whether he was the officer I first spotted upon entering I-295, which at the time he acknowledged. I was extremely happy to hear this admission. It would help to corroborate my testimony.

The Judge asked if I had any questions for the Trooper. Yes, I said. I first confirmed my understanding that the Trooper clocked me with his speedometer and not radar. When this was verified, it settled a great personal matter, the restoration of my faith in myself. It was evident by their reaction that my joy was not self-contained. The Judge misunderstood and assured me that the court recognized the method as reliable as radar. I explained to the Judge that I just needed reassurance that I hadn't been checked by radar and human error wasn't eliminated. This caused murmurs in the courtroom behind me. I apologized for nervousness, having never played at being a lawyer before. The Prosecutor told me to not be nervous. I then questioned the Trooper further.

"Are you sure you were on the right shoulder of Interstate 295 southbound?" I asked.

"Yes," he said.

"You don't remember being on the left shoulder of Interstate 295 northbound?" There were more murmurs behind me. He choked trying to say no. Saying no, he paused and said that had been another State Trooper. Both the Judge and Prosecutor projected frowns at the Trooper.

"You're saying there were two State Troopers at the abandoned car in the median?"

"Yes." He was trying to appear firm, but placing himself anywhere on the median conflicted with his earlier claim to have been on a shoulder of the roadway.

"And was the other Trooper also Black?" The Trooper I had seen was African-American. I had simply thought the coincidence of there being two African-American State Troopers at the same scene unlikely. Had it been the case, surely they were likely to know and remember one another.

"I don't remember," he said quickly. My line of questioning disturbed the Judge and Prosecutor. I suspect they thought I was preparing to make an argument founded on bigotry. I abandoned it.

"No further questions, your Honour."

It was my turn to give my testimony. I began by pointing out that my car is neither light blue nor small. It was, in fact, large and gray. "Evidently," I declared, "the Officer had looked out the window this morning and saw me arrive in my wife's little Toyota Tercel Coupe, for that is the car he was describing." Again murmurs behind me, this time louder. An upset Prosecutor took the now visibly nervous Trooper aside for a talk. The Judge assured the courtroom that the colour and size approximated the car I had been driving closely enough. He instructed me to continue. I told the rest as it had happened, that the Trooper never paced me two tenths of a mile, but drove right up after passing faster cars. I swear the Trooper was sweating by the time I was finished. When I completed my testimony, the Prosecutor had only a single question for me, what speed was I travelling? I turned to the Judge and asked if I had to answer that question. He told me yes. I admitted to travelling at sixty-one miles per hour and with that sunk my case. If only I had lied!

The Judge was lenient. He merged the two tickets into one, effectively ignoring the alleged unsafe lane change that made me appear reckless. My fine was reduced to a single charge of $60, which meant he accepted the lesser speed of 61 and not 71, although there was an additional $15 charge in court costs. No points were to be assigned to my license, he assured me. It is my firm belief the Judge compromised, I had to pay something, in order to preserve the dignity of the Trooper.

This was how the game was played. Today that same patch of highway now has a speed limit of sixty-five miles per hour. It has tormented me for fifteen years: why did that State Trooper single me out? Why did he want to give me a ticket? Following the trial, I wanted to invite him to lunch to pester him for the truth, but I don't think he would have been forthcoming. As I retell this story again here, I think I finally know why. It was my fault. When I first saw him, I should not have continued my rapid acceleration. He probably saw it as a challenge, an affront to his authority. In this game, that was where I made the wrong move.

Bruce Bentzman

This is the fifty-fourth in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is now available from Amazon, as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"