It was a bright sunny day in Princeton, NJ I was traveling back to school following a long line of traffic down a winding concrete road covered in dirt and dust from a recent construction project. All of a sudden, seven cars in front of me, a squirrel runs into the road and the driver slams on their breaks. Every car does likewise, including me, each getting consecutively closer to the next car in front of them. My tires give way to the dirt on the road… and BANG! My car rear-ends the the town car in front of me… My hood buckles in half. Stunned, I’ve been in an automobile accident…
Immediately the driver that I hit gets out of his car and starts yelling at the driver of the car who started the chain reaction. He then turns to me and asks if I am ok. I am. His car doesn’t even suffer a scratch. Come to find out he is on a business trip from New York City. We pull off the road into a park parking lot and along comes a police car – the officer gets out and writes me a citation. “It wasn’t his fault” – the man whose car I hit calls out. “The road is dusty… you… you should be issuing a ticket to the guy who slammed his breaks on up there”. “Sorry sir” she says, “a pedestrian passing by called us from their cell phone. I have to issue a citation anytime we are called to the scene of an accident.” Turning to me she says “You can appeal this in court if you don’t think you were at fault.”
I didn’t have a choice. I couldn’t afford having the added points on my license and the cost of an insurance hike. So a couple of weeks later I showed up to court in a suit reading a theology book. The judge, did not seem to be in a good mood. He had literally been yelling at non-English speaking immigrants all morning… all who had double-digit numbers of violations in multiple states. “You don’t deserve to be able to drive in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey or anywhere for that matter!” He yelled. I was up next… great.
I approached the bench. I explained what had happened. They had subpoenaed the guy I hit to come to the hearing. He had to come all the way back from NY City. He just wanted to get out of there and we had been there for some time now. “Is what this young man says true?” asked the Judge. “It is your honor” replied the man. “I’m reducing the violation to disobeying traffic signs – there will be no points added to your license – you just have to pay court costs.” $95 later, more than the cost of the original ticket I was out of there. On my way home I couldn’t help but notice as I drove by the site of my accident that there were no traffic signs anywhere near that place. Had I just been charged with a false violation? I was thankful for not getting points on my license but the situation didn’t do much for my appreciation of the fairness of the U.S. Justice System.
Recently, a similar situation occurred in Walterboro South Carolina on my way to a Presbytery Meeting. The following is the letter that I sent along with my alleged violation.
To Whom it May Concern,
On May 31, 2011 I was stopped by an officer in the Walterboro, SC for allegedly speeding. I had apparently just entered into a 35 mph speeding zone from a 55 mph one. The officer was traveling the opposite direction as me when I entered the 35 mph zone. I was in the process of decelerating but, given the timing, the officer proceeded to do a U-turn and pull me over. He was very courteous and professional and when he approached my car window he notified me that I was “doing 51 mph in a 35”. I had never been to Walterboro before and while I may indeed have been over the speed limit it surely was not intentional and was not a grievous violation as I was rapidly decelerating. The officer recognized this fact and did not wish to give me whatever the full penalty of the speeding violation would have been. I am thankful to him for this courtesy. I have included the full amount for the ticket that I issued in compliance with my responsibility.
I am writing though because of the ticket that I was issued. Seeking to issue me a lesser violation the officer wrote me a ticket for a seatbelt violation. This of course, I assume, saved me well over a hundred dollars seeing that a seatbelt violation is only thirty dollars. Additionally this officers kindness, spared me from having points added to my license – allowing my insurance rates to stay at their current levels. Again, I am very grateful to the officer in question.
My concern though is that ethically and morally this was not the violation that I committed. I was in fact wearing a seatbelt. I always do. Yet, at the same time, the officer apparently did not believe that I deserved the full weight of the speeding violation given the circumstances. I do not see how a seatbelt violation is a just representation of the law when that was not the infraction. Yet, given my situation it seems as though there may be occasions when the full penalty of the law may not be a proper penalty for a violation. I would ask the tow of Walterboro, or the State of South Carolina, whichever appropriate to consider giving out warning violations that come with a small fine (maybe 30 dollars). This would allow your officers to accurately access a situation – allowing them the grace to ethically evaluate the totality of the situation.
I value our law enforcement officials and our laws – local, state, and national – but in order for us to live in a just society we must constantly be seek their accurate reform, evaluating the fairness of the penalties issued.
Thank you for your consideration of this issue,
Christopher J. Benek
I don’t know if anything will come of this letter but it seems to me that police officers need more options when it comes to issuing violations. Failing to have such options only makes people suspect of our legal system and results in limiting police men/women who seek to be fair in their deliberations. An easy solution to address the nuances and severity of varying legal infractions would be to institute a warning citation that can be issued with different dollar amount options attached to serve as the just that… a warning. Such a warning would serve as a reminder to help people to better follow the laws of government yet, at the same time, feel good that their local officers are working to help them to become better citizens. That, I think, is a better, more just system for everyone.