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Justice, Fashion and Really Fast Cars

hangin' at court
Wait Loss Program: Lingering time outside the courtroom gives some traffic violators a long while to give that hard-to-believe story that led to their appearance before the judge one more run-through.

Traffic Court offers an absurd ride through the judicial looking glass, where everyone is guilty--but with special circumstances

By Douglas McWhirter

IT IS AN ARENA WHERE LAW AND anarchy collide, where normally dignified, intelligent human beings stammer and grovel like submissive toads before the frowning face of American jurisprudence. The Supreme Court, you ask? Hardly. It's traffic court--the burger joint of law--where delicious constitutional dishes are never served, just legal fast food that costs more than it should and is guaranteed to give you indigestion.

"This really stinks," announces Rayette, a loquacious 17-year-old automotive menace to society who, because of her age, is required to appear with her mother in tow. "Like it's my fault the speed limit is so low. This is, like, totally stupid," she states in a tone of utter disgust. (Lorraine, her mother, furtively tells me later that Rayette has always been "a little high-strung.")

Those who enter the hallowed halls of traffic court thought--like Rayette--that they could actually get away with going 85 mph through Soquel Valley, or were so sure that no one would see that little U-turn on Mission Street. Oh, how wrong they were. Big Brother was watching--as always--with radar guns, hidden squad cars, helicopters and beady authoritarian eyes. The rest is money, shame, paperwork, aggravation and more money.

The courtroom is full at 8:30am for the morning traffic court session. "If you are going to come here this afternoon and try to talk me out of this, please don't," announces the judge in an Orwellian attempt to explain to this hapless herd of approximately 40 people what was actually about to happen. "If you plead guilty, you give up your rights," the voice continues.

Though he politely states all rights and obligations, the inference is clear: You have the right to a trial, but you are guilty and we both know it, so don't waste the court's time. If you had half a brain you would have followed the instructions, paid your fines and gone to traffic school. Make it easy on everybody. Pay your money, and get out!

The judge's message offers a kernel of truth. Most of the people appearing in court on this day do not have to be here. Sure, the minors, like Rayette, have to show, but the majority of this crew didn't pay the appropriate fines, or didn't show up in court on the right day, or just "didn't understand"--an explanation used so frequently it seems like an echo.

Moose and the Commish

THE BAILIFF (who, for our purposes, will be called "Moose") begins roll call. Moose carries himself with all the Freudian authority afforded by the .38 pistol strapped to his hip. He is the triumph of control over chaos, of superego over id, of Washington Week in Review over Soul Train. Feel like whispering in court? Forget it. Moose will be in your face, shushing with an almost demonic ferocity. Think you'll wear a baseball cap? Not in Moose's courtroom, mister!

"All rise!" he bellows.

And here comes the judge (or, in traffic court, the "commissioner"). He is a middle-aged man with a pleasant, if underused, smile and ears that have undoubtedly heard every possible lame excuse for breaking traffic laws. The behind that today's traffic criminals have to kiss is obscured beneath a black judicial robe.

"Let's get down to business," states the judge before calling the first up to bat. She is a rather sheepish young woman who, because of her inability to pay the required fines and her refusal to show up for court dates throughout 1994 and 1995, has been locked up for three days.

"Do you need an interpreter?" asks the judge.

"I guess so," she responds in perfect English.

"Do you need an interpreter?" the judge asks a second time.

"I guess so. How long are you going to keep me locked up?" she answers with crisp, almost British enunciation.

"Why should I release you?" asks the judge.

"I don't know," responds the young woman.

This exchange pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the session. With the exception of those few who obviously understand the system, their rights and how to contest a ticket, most of this herd seems intimidated and slightly dazed by the labyrinthine complexities of the legal system. Some, however, know they have the right to speak and, unfortunately, exercise that right.

"I wrote down the eighth instead of the third, and I'm really sorry for missing my first appearance in court," explains one contrite young man. Had he left it at that, perhaps the judge would have shown mercy, but the young man just keeps on talking. "Also, I didn't know that the speed limit on Broadway was 25 mph until I did that U-turn and actually saw the sign. And, I didn't understand that I actually had to pay the fine, I thought it was just a warning. And, you know, I have trouble seeing sometimes," etc., etc., etc. This unconvincing oration fails to relieve him of his $265 obligation.

Fashion Disasters and Coiffure Conflicts

SURPRISINGLY, traffic court is not simply about moving violations, but about fashion felonies and hairdo heresies as well. If the judge disapproves of your garb, he will let you know it in no uncertain terms.

Consider Juan, a minor appearing in court with his father, who spoke little, if any English. Juan is dressed in a knit shirt, baggy black pants and hairnet cap.

"It says here that when you were arrested you were wearing gang clothing. Are you in a gang?" asks the judge.

"No, sir," replies Juan.

"You're not a gang member? How come you are wearing gang clothing?" demands the now-censorious judge. "The next time you appear in front of me wearing gang clothing, you're going with him [pointing to a grimacing Moose] instead of home with your father!"

Now I am no arbiter of gang couture, but to my eye, Juan's fashion statement does not exactly shout, "I will incite mayhem today." Furthermore, it seems a bit odd that a middle-aged white guy sporting an ankle-length black rayon robe with padded shoulders that looks disturbingly like a maternity dress should be critical of someone else's sense of style.

Over the next two hours, the judge hears every case. Several people set dates to contest their tickets. Some, like the articulate young lady who needed an interpreter, go back to their cells. Most, however, wearily write checks for large amounts of money at the clerk's office down the hall and exit, feeling a bit queasy from their first meal at the judicial Jack-in-the Box.

The judge departs to prepare for subsequent sessions that day. Moose remains vigilant and steely, always ready to thwart any subversive threats to order that may occur.

"Have you learned anything from this experience?" I ask Rayette.

"Yeah," she replies. "Even traffic school must be better than this."


The names in this article have been changed to protect those who insist they are innocent.

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From the January 2-8, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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