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Pedestrian's Ticket to Adventure: Jaywalking : Steps Taken at Los Angeles Intersection Lead to Long Path Through Municipal Court System

September 04, 1985|DICK RORABACK | Times Staff Writer

Birds do it; bees do it.

Presidents and guys like

Edwin Meese do it. . . .

Not everyone, of course, jaywalks. The incidence is said to be very low among Eskimos, Bedouin, Finnish forest rangers, incarcerated felons and anyone who lives in Chicago.

A lot of people do, though, deliberately or inadvertently (maybe tens of thousands in Los Angeles this year).

Calvin Coolidge, for one, was said to be a notorious jaywalker. His motivation for strolling across busy intersections (absent-mindedness? hauteur?) is not recorded, though one can well imagine his rationale: "I do not choose to run."

Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese did it, too, in Los Angeles in 1980. Meese, even as you and I, was fined $10. He did not choose to pay (absent-mindedness? hauteur?).

Five years later, in July of 1985, the long arm of the law reached cross-country to smite the offender. Meese's penalty, meanwhile, had escalated from a rather pedestrian $10 to the far more interesting, even curious, sum of $130.50.

At about the same time a red-faced Meese was groping in his jeans for $130.50, an ordinary, workaday pedestrian was poised on the edge of a dilemma.

His assignment, if he chose to accept it: to cross a busy intersection, northeast corner to southwest, on the way to work. His alternatives: southwest to southeast, then southeast to northeast, against two red lights--or southwest to northwest, then northwest to northeast, aided by the mute but benevolent assistance of a pair of greens. Intrinsically chicken, he chose the latter.

Several yards farther along, the pedestrian's attention was arrested by the spectacle of two policemen surrounding a fair-haired young bicyclist. The cyclist was attempting to explain something to the police. The police weren't buying.

The pedestrian slowed his pace. In a flash, one of the policemen was blocking his path.

"What're you," asked the officer, "colorblind?"

"No, sir," the pedestrian riposted cleverly.

"Yeah? Well that's how people get killed."

"How's that, sir?" asked the pedestrian, genuinely perplexed.

The officer whipped out a ticket pad and began writing.

The pedestrian, sensing a delay, reached for a cigarette.

The policeman's partner, busy ticketing the bicyclist, snapped to attention as if Calvin Coolidge had just appeared as a blip on his radar and advanced on the pedestrian, body language spelling "Menace."

"Don't do it!" shouted the partner. "Don't you ever put your hand in your pocket while talking to a cop!"

"Learn and live," said the pedestrian, a former prisoner of war not particularly anxious to repeat.

The first officer handed over the jaywalking ticket, with the admonition, ' 'You must appear in court on the date specified. You may not mail the fine in."

"Thanks," the pedestrian said. "You have a nice day, too."

The pedestrian moved on but couldn't resist a backward glance at the beleaguered cyclist--a jaybiker? " 'Alone and palely loitering,' " thought the pedestrian. "For God's sake, kid, don't put your hand in your pocket!"

"Yes," officer Sergio Diaz said diplomatically, "there would appear to have been several deviations from normal procedure."

"Like, 'What're you, colorblind?' "

"It's not the normal salutation," said Diaz, a patient, articulate spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Department. "As for his saying, 'You can't pay it by mail,' well, that was incorrect too.

"Our officers are instructed to fend off any questions on court procedure with the response 'I don't know.' It's not because we're trying to stonewall anyone. On the contrary, we try to be helpful. It's just that there are a lot of court policies an officer may not be letter-perfect on, and it's best not to make a mistake."

Diaz and the pedestrian, who had telephoned him, agreed that the policemen in question simply might have been having a bad day, like a mechanic who had dropped a DeSoto on his favorite toe, or a journalist who had reached for a cigarette. "Inexcusable," Diaz said, "but maybe understandable."

What did Diaz think, though, of the escalating incidence of jaywalking tickets in Los Angeles? Inexcusable but understandable?

An article in The Times last year pithily pointed out that Los Angeles police had issued 40,747 such tickets in 1973. Detroit, its closest competitor among major cities, had cited 4,428 jaywalkers.

New York City, where crossing against the light has long since surpassed stickball (even stickups) as the most popular outdoor pastime, peeled off only 517 jaywalk tickets. The police of Chicago, population 3 million, have failed to cite a single jaywalker in the last 20 years!

Did Los Angeles, then, ease up in 1984, that superhospitable Olympic year?

"Not exactly," Diaz said. "In 1984, we cited 58,554 jaywalkers"--a 41% increase.

"L.A. is not like New York," Diaz said. "There, they blatantly disregard the (jaywalking) law. Here, people have a different attitude about these things. They tend to obey the regulations."

All but 60,000 of them. . . .

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