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A $10 Ticket to Reality

July 12, 1987

A young man of our acquaintance recently found himself standing before the bar of justice, charged with committing a moving vehicular violation--to wit, failing to bring his bicycle to a halt when he came to a boulevard stop sign. It was an open-and-shut case, and even with the services of the best mouthpiece in town there would have been no way to beat the rap.

Along with three other 14-year-olds, the young man had indeed pedaled without pause past the stop sign on a residential street. Later, in attempted mitigation but without much conviction, he suggested to his parents that before running the sign he had first looked in all directions to make sure that it was safe. This line of defense collapsed, however, when it was pointed out that his supposed careful scrutiny had somehow failed to detect the police car that was out in plain sight. All four boys were stopped, given a talking-to, ticketed for their recklessness and told when to appear in court.

And on the appointed day all four did indeed appear, though at different times throughout the afternoon. Comparing notes later, they found that each had pleaded guilty as charged, and that each had been properly admonished by the judge for his misbehavior. At this point, though, their stories diverged. Three of the boys, it seems, had their cases heard by the same judge, and on each the judge levied a $10 fine. But the fourth boy had appeared before another judge, who let him go with only a lecture. Like his peers he left the courthouse perhaps richer in wisdom, but unlike them he did not leave poorer in pocket.

Later, recounting this tale to his father, the young man suggested--if not precisely in these words--that on the basis of limited experience it appeared to him that the law was not always equally applied; that the process of justice appeared subject to certain vagaries, and that in the end one's destiny might depend simply on which way the fickle finger of fate happened to point. The boy's father listened, and nodded. Welcome, he said, to the real world.

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