Lessons from traffic court

It’s kind of funny that an event that has absolutely nothing to do with theatre or TV or writing should give me the impetus to post, but I had a bizarre day yesterday. An uncomfortable day. I don’t often fail spectacularly, or let myself get put in profoundly uncomfortable situations, but that’s what happened yesterday in Downtown LA’s Metropolitan Traffic Court.

A year ago I got a traffic ticket that I believed was both unfair and excessive (who doesn’t), but I was really convinced that it wasn’t my fault. And so I decided to contest it. It took nearly a year to get to trial. And after an agonizing 4 hour wait in court yesterday, I finally got to get up and present my side of the story, in front of the cop who cited me, and the judge could barely stop herself from rolling her eyes before she declared me ‘guilty’. My voice was shaking as I spoke. The cop’s testimony had been incomplete and I believe incorrect- and I wasn’t expecting that. In trying to suss out what he was trying to say, I must have failed in actually explaining myself.

And I don’t know why this was such a shock to me. I was really so convinced that the judge would understand why I did what I did, or at least reduce the fine, or something, because the truth is that’s just how my life works. Stuff usually goes my way. Most of my failures are not quite so public. In front of a bunch of strangers. Making me look like an idiot.

It’s not like I’m George Clooney and the world bends over backwards to give me what I want (or so I’ve heard). I just know my strengths, and I stay within my comfort zone, and I rarely fail because I rarely enter worlds I know nothing about, like, say, traffic court.

So that’s one thing.

The other thing I learned was this- before the long morning of trials began, the cop who cited me met with those of us who were there to contest his tickets (four of us to be exact). And he tried to encourage us to plead No Contest at the top and get guaranteed traffic school. Would traffic school reduce our fine? No. But it would get the citation expunged from our record. Why was that important? Because it was very very likely we’d get another citation in the future. Inevitably.

In this own words-

“There’s no possible way you can know all the rules of the road. Every time you get behind the wheel, you’re probably breaking some law or the other. You just haven’t gotten cited yet.”

This… blew my mind. Basically there are so many rules, that most people don’t follow because we drive instinctively rather than THEORETICALLY, than it is possible for a cop to pull us over at any time under any pretext and cite us for something.

And from the way I observed the court proceedings occur yesterday, the only way you can successfully contest a ticket (without documentary evidence such as photographs or video recordings) is if the police officer screwed up on a technicality in the paperwork. Otherwise, the court will side with the cop’s testimony over yours, if testimony is all that you have.

It is really depressing to think about how screwed up the system is, especially since traffic tickets are issued willy nilly at the end of the year just so that the cops can fulfill their annual quota (I got mine in December of last year). It’s depressing to think of how much time I lost yesterday because I can’t just pay such a huge fine without at least trying to do something about it. (And this was in addition to another four hours I lost in court two months ago simply to declare that I was contesting the ticket. Not to mention $20 in parking.) Several attorneys stood in place of actual offenders yesterday, because people who have money can use it to save time. People who don’t have money, lose a lot of their time instead.

And this is a lesson I never would have viscerally learned in such a way if I were still living in India. In India I would have a driver and any traffic ticket would be paid without a second thought because money was never anything I ever worried about. Over here, money is what I think about all day, all the time, and it’s one of my biggest sources of stress.

And despite being a minority grad student living as frugally as I can, I’m still, even in this country, much better off than most of the people I saw in court yesterday.

What does this have to do with being a writer? Nothing, I suppose. Except that more failures like this will probably make me a better one.