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When justice had 20-20 vision

May 20, 2011

Let's face it: Lots of people don't like or trust cops.

It's almost a primal thing. This is why when you're driving a fully registered, inspected, insured car, doing 5 mph under the speed limit and a cop car pulls up behind you, you break into a cold sweat.

Of course there's also good reason for your fear - probably-cause or not, we can get pulled over for no reason if some power-tripping cop wants to go all Dirty Harry on us. It happens; it has happened; it will continue to happen.

Me, I don't dislike or distrust cops. First, I appreciate that they do a job none of us want to do or could do. Second, while among their ranks they've got their share of nutcases, authority abusers and bullies so do all the other professions.

On a less abstract level, I've got my share of cop friends. And beyond that, I've been given breaks by cops - some of them big breaks. And I imagine you have, too.

There was, however, one putative peace officer who remains firmly in my memory for not giving me a break.


Brights and not so bright

He was a trooper who held unique status: I never heard anyone say a good word about him - including other police. Probably the best proof of his fellow troopers' low regard was when he retired, he had to throw his own party.

Anyhow, on a Saturday night in April 1969, I was driving to Falvey's in Lake Clear (now Charlie's Inn) for square dance night. I didn't dance, but I loved to go to the joint just for the fun crowd and the live music (provided by their house band, Falvey's Playboys).

I had my mother's '68 Chevy Nova and just before I reached the hospital, a car approached in the other lane. I hit the dimmer switch, but nothing happened.

Today dimmer switches are on the steering column, but back then they were on the floor, to the left of the clutch pedal. There's a good reason they were moved: On the floor they could - and did - get gummed with the sand, mud and sundry detritus that got tracked in. And that's exactly what'd happened to my dimmer switch.

I hit the switch again, but nothing happened. Then I hit it harder and still nothing happened.

I looked at the approaching car, and wouldn't you know it - it was a trooper car.

He came by me - my brights still on, in spite of my stomping the bejammers out of the switch. So I did the only thing I could: I pulled over and waited.

Sure enough, he turned around and zoomed back, lights a'flashin' but siren silenced (perhaps out of respect to the hospital zone, but probably not).

He got out, swaggered over to my car, did the license and registration thing, and then asked if I knew why he pulled me over.

Since I'd driven onto the shoulder and stopped as soon as he'd passed me, his question was not only moot, but downright stupid. Suffice it to say I did not point out those fine semantic distinctions to him. Instead, I played the game.

"Yes. My brights were on," I said. "But I can explain it. The dimmer switch didn't work. Watch."

I then tapped the switch lightly.

The dims came on.

I tapped again, also lightly.

The brights came on.

And of course with every subsequent tap - even the gentlest possible - the switch worked perfectly.

"Well," I said weakly, "it didn't work before."

He wasn't impressed. He was a man with a mission - and, I'm sure a quota - so he wrote me out a ticket.


Young Clarence Darrow of My Home Town

And here's where it gets interesting.

I'd gotten busted due to a mechanical fluke rather than a personal fault. And even if the trooper wouldn't acknowledge it, I was determined to prove my innocence

This might all seem like a trivial or even non-existent issue to most people, but it was a big deal to me. I'd been driving for six years and hadn't gotten even a parking ticket. And FYI, in the 40-plus years since, I've gotten one ticket for speeding, one for overdue inspection, and maybe three for parking. In my family, getting busted for anything was less a source of amusement than a sign of pure stupidity. And to my mother, stupidity, especially of the public kind, was unforgivable.

I went to several mechanics and asked if they'd ever heard of dimmer switches getting stuck but then working perfectly right afterwards. They all had and they explained it to me in layman's terms as being caused by "all the crap that gets stuck in there."

Thus armed with such expert testimony, I showed up for my court date and stood before the Honorable Lyman Lawrence.

Since he coached kids' sports, I knew who Judge Lawrence was and his rep as a good guy, but didn't know him in any real sense. Nor did it matter - I was seeking justice, not favors.

I explained the whole event to him and told him about the mechanics had said. Then I rested my case.

"All right," he said. "How do you plead?"

I was on the horns of a dilemma.

I'd done everything I could to dim the lights but failed, though through no fault of my own. Nonetheless, when I passed the trooper, the brights were on, which was illegal. So, no matter how you cut it, I'd broken the law.

I gave the only plea I could - guilty.

A long moment passed, as I thought of all the movies I'd seen where the guy pleads guilty and then is sentenced to either 40 years hard labor or the chair.

Finally, Judge Lawrence spoke.

I regret I can't remember what he said; I only remember the result: He dismissed the case.

I walked out of the town hall a free man, delighted that justice had been served.

I also felt I'd learned a valuable lesson, namely that it's far better to be innocent and seek justice than to be guilty and seek mercy.

Over the years, that lesson has changed into another, which has become my One Great Truism of Jurisprudence. It is: In an American court, justice will always be done

- provided you are either rich and innocent or poor and guilty.



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