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TRAFFIC COURT : Beating the Rap : Armed with Latin phrases and the knowledge of innocence, a trip to Traffic Court becomes a legal adventure.

April 04, 1991|* This week's Reluctant Novice is free-lance writer Philip Brandes.

Your fascination with the law was already in place by the time you saw your first "Perry Mason" episode. Ah, the tension and drama of the well-varnished courtroom where questions of guilt, morality, life and death hang in the balance. And behind it all, a summons to forge a more just and equitable social order.

Of course, the legal system is all too often an ugly snarl of paper pushing, deal making and greed with the moral context of the La Brea tar pits. Still, your emotional fervor for the underlying principle of justice has remained intact.

Until now. Suddenly you are both attorney and defendant, combating a miscarriage of justice so heinous it brings a spasmodic throb to your temples just thinking about it.

You are driving along a dark road. You have an unblemished driving record. Spotting some flares in the center of the road ahead, you slow to a crawl, peering cautiously around the deserted intersection for signs of an accident. Nothing appears amiss, but as soon as you pass the flares, the cyclopean red eye of a motorcycle cop descends from the darkness behind you.

He tells you with a smirk that you have failed to stop at a traffic signal that wasn't working because of a power failure. How could you know the light was out, you ask, when it was dark and you couldn't see it? That's why the flares were there, the officer replies, because of this hazardous condition.

You wonder how flares in the center of the street could possibly alert anyone to a disabled traffic light. If anything, they draw attention away from the corner. And if the situation is so dangerous, why isn't the officer directing traffic instead of citing cars?

Outraged, you vow to fight this case all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary.

First, the legal research. You head straight for the video store. After a review of courtroom demeanor, you must choose between Spencer Tracy's air of aggrieved humanism in "Inherit the Wind" or Charles Laughton's acerbic curmudgeon in "Witness for the Prosecution." In the end, you decide Tracy's Clarence Darrow is better suited to the moral complexities of your case.

Next, the wardrobe. You scrutinize the outfits on "L.A. Law," but eventually decide that an Armani charcoal suit with teal and fuchsia pin stripes is probably overkill in Traffic Court. You opt for a navy blazer, gray slacks and white shirt--a red paisley power tie your only concession to McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney, Kuzak & Becker.

As the fateful day dawns, your spine tingles as you scan your list of legal phrases one last time: habeas corpus, caveat emptor, dies irae.

The courtroom at the Municipal Courthouse has all the components--the judge's bench, the jury box, even a snug cubicle for the court recorder. Yet it all seems muted and, well, small. The two rows alloted for the spectators are filled by your fellow defendants.

The arresting officers roost in the jury box, and you spot your officer among them. Daylight doesn't help his appearance: blunt features, sloping forehead, short blond hair moussed into spikes, and a "Death Before Dishonor" tattoo peeking from the hem of his short-sleeve shirt. He catches your gaze in a basilisk stare and shakes his head slowly from side to side as he toys with his nightstick.

The florid, middle-aged judge quickly runs through the ground rules. The entire courtroom is sworn in en masse and the drama begins. The first case is a truck driver from Oxnard who blames his overzealous speed on a nagging bladder. He's an amiable guy, but he certainly isn't getting anywhere in that plaid shirt, even if it is viyella. Sure enough, the judge upholds the citation, but lets him off the second charge of failure to show insurance.

A woman in jeans, an architect from Los Angeles, lucks out. Her officer hasn't shown up, so her case is dismissed.

And now it's The State vs . Novice. You and your officer take your seats at a single table before the bench. He describes the incident in the flat cadences of a driver's training film.

You begin your rebuttal addressing key errors and omissions in the officer's account, most importantly his claim that you had known there was a stoplight at the intersection. You reiterate that it was dark and the light was completely out, gaining confidence and momentum as the state's arguments topple like dominoes.

The judge interjects a few pointed questions. The officer tries to bolster his case with comments, which you deftly parry. Then the judge signals the end of arguments. He says that your guilt depends on your having known that there was a broken signal at the intersection, and that the prosecution had failed to prove such a priori knowledge.

"Therefore," he concludes, "it is the finding of this court that you are exonerated of the charge against you. Your bail will be remitted to you in due course."

Exonerated! You start to turn to your officer and say, "And may God have mercy on your miserable soul," but you remember the tattoo and threatening stare.

You thank the Solomon in judge's robes and leave with dignity. Spencer Tracy couldn't have done better.

You ride the wave of elation down the stairs, out of the courthouse and all the way to your car, where you find the new citation tucked beneath your windshield wiper. Looking around, you finally spot the "15 Minute Parking" sign all but overgrown by ivy.

But your dismay is only momentary. After all, you're an experienced trial lawyer now. Your legal research is still in the trunk. As you drive away, you're already making mental notes for your next brief.

* THE PREMISE

There are plenty of things you have never tried. Fun things, dangerous things, character building things. The Reluctant Novice tries them for you and reports the results. After all, the Novice gets paid to do them--and has no choice in the matter. If you want to tell the Novice where to go, please call us at 658-5547. If we use your idea, we'll send you a present.

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