|In 1987 I was
returning home from work late one night. I turned on
to Interstate 295 at Kuser Road. In those days I-295,
a six-lane highway, had not finished being extended.
It came to an abrupt end at Kuser Road. I was driving
my fairly new 1987 Acura Legend. When the traffic
light switched to green, I turned northbound onto
I-295 and began an exhilarating acceleration. No
sooner had I launched my four-door sports sedan than
I saw the State Trooper pulled beside an abandoned
vehicle on the grassy median. He had the interior
light on and was writing on a clipboard. He turned
and saw me drive by. The speed limit was fifty-five
miles per hour. I continued my rapid acceleration
until I reached a hair over sixty miles per hour. I
figured at that speed he wouldn't ticket me, but then
why should he follow? Surely he knows I saw him.
Over a hill and beyond the sight of the State
Trooper, I maintained my speed, and still I was
coming up on a much slower car. I kept one eye on the
rearview mirror and began to pass the slower vehicle.
I saw a batch of cars come over the hill behind, all
of them gaining on me. Then I saw the State Trooper
come racing over the hill after them.
I finished passing the slowest car, signaling and
checking over my shoulder before changing lanes. The
other cars moved out of the State Trooper's path. He
came right up to me and turned on those revolving
lights of merry colours.
Ticket N683792 was for speeding, a $70 fine. He said
I was doing seventy-one miles per hour. That was
simply not true! But the police have radar and radar
doesn't lie. Was I deluding myself? Ticket N683793
was for unsafe lane change, the amount of the fine to
be $60. He said I didn't use my turn signal and cut
the other driver off. I have ingrained in myself the
practice of using my turn signals consistently,
whereas the vast majority of drivers don't bother
with it. I was especially careful because I was aware
of the State Trooper's approach. Still I didn't
argue, but took out the small notebook I always keep
in the car for rare moments of inspiration and wrote
down every detail of the incident while it was still
My trial was the tenth of April at 8:30 AM. The
black-robed Judge arrived later and took his seat,
his small, bearded head floating behind a massive
desk. It was explained that those pleading guilty
would be attended to first. Those contesting their
guilt, and who had come with their lawyers, would be
attended to next. Finally, those like me, without a
lawyer, would come last. American lawyers have a
saying, "the man who represents himself in court
has a fool for a client." I felt powerless.
After a long, long time, it was my turn to present my
case to the bench. During my wait, I had grown
hopeful. Not seeing the State Trooper, I knew charges
would be dropped if he didn't appear. But at the last
possible moment, a door opened and the State Trooper
was led out from a back room. My situation worsened
when the County Prosecutor announced that he would
represent the Trooper. I was going up against a man
trained in the magical formulas of courtroom
procedures. My only tools were honesty and reason. My
only training had been the studying of the cases that
preceded mine. I was grateful for the chance to see
the court in action and was prepared to believe there
might be a small gain in my education from this
From observing the cases that came before me, I
believed the Judge had been honest. Honesty seemed to
carry weight with legal procedures. I was convinced
by the preceding cases that the guilty were obvious
by their behaviour. Their arguments fell apart in the
strict procedures of the court. Meanwhile those I
viewed as honest seemed protected by those very same
procedures, despite their lack of legal training.
The Judge had us swear oaths. Here I had to interrupt
him and explain that I was an Atheist. A jolt ran
through the Judge, the lawyer, the plaintiff. Eyes
widened. Then the Judge smiled and administered to me
a separate oath that did not call upon god, but on my
honour. I don't think my being an Atheist
disadvantaged me. Instead it was an opportunity to
establish at the start of my trial that I was sincere
and took oaths seriously.
The Trooper gave his testimony first. This was
accomplished by the Prosecutor leading the Trooper
through events by asking specific questions. The
Trooper, out of uniform, stood like a soldier at
parade-rest wearing a sharp blazer and creased pants.
His voice was steady and the answers he gave were
short and precise. I felt inadequate watching the
Prosecutor's professional decorum presenting
questions to the point.
The Prosecutor questioned the Trooper as to the way
he determined my speed. The Trooper claimed he had
followed me, marking my speed, for two tenths of a
mile - which he had not. The Prosecutor asked if the
Trooper's equipment was calibrated. The Trooper
presented a document stating when his speedometer was
last checked and how a fifth wheel was mounted on the
patrol car to calibrate accuracy. I was overjoyed!
From the moment I had received the ticket, I thought
I had been clocked by radar and was self-tormented
that I might have been lying to myself. But the
Trooper did not use radar. There was no impartial
machine printout. He was lying, or at best mistaken.
The Trooper went on to say he was parked on the right
shoulder of Interstate 295 southbound where it ended
at Kuser Road. He was checking an abandoned car when
he saw a small, dark blue car enter I-295 on the
opposite roadway, and, quickly accelerating to what
appeared to be speeds faster than fifty-five. The
Trooper drove to the end of I-295, u-turned in the
intersection of Kuser Road, and proceeded northbound
in pursuit of me. He described seeing me move out of
the right lane to pass a car and back into the right
lane without signaling, cutting off the other car. He
claimed he clocked me for 2/10th of a mile travelling
at 71 miles per hour. Meanwhile, I was feeling
shocked. Much of this was just not true. Why was the
Trooper saying this? I supposed with all the people
he's pulled over and ticketed, he cannot be expected
to remember each accurately.
The Prosecutor asked the Trooper about his
conversation with me at the time and if anything was
out of the ordinary. He remembered that I was writing
in my notebook and that I had questioned him as to
whether he was the officer I first spotted upon
entering I-295, which at the time he acknowledged. I
was extremely happy to hear this admission. It would
help to corroborate my testimony.
The Judge asked if I had any questions for the
Trooper. Yes, I said. I first confirmed my
understanding that the Trooper clocked me with his
speedometer and not radar. When this was verified, it
settled a great personal matter, the restoration of
my faith in myself. It was evident by their reaction
that my joy was not self-contained. The Judge
misunderstood and assured me that the court
recognized the method as reliable as radar. I
explained to the Judge that I just needed reassurance
that I hadn't been checked by radar and human error
wasn't eliminated. This caused murmurs in the
courtroom behind me. I apologized for nervousness,
having never played at being a lawyer before. The
Prosecutor told me to not be nervous. I then
questioned the Trooper further.
"Are you sure you were on the right shoulder of
Interstate 295 southbound?" I asked.
"Yes," he said.
"You don't remember being on the left shoulder
of Interstate 295 northbound?" There were more
murmurs behind me. He choked trying to say no. Saying
no, he paused and said that had been another State
Trooper. Both the Judge and Prosecutor projected
frowns at the Trooper.
"You're saying there were two State Troopers at
the abandoned car in the median?"
"Yes." He was trying to appear firm, but
placing himself anywhere on the median conflicted
with his earlier claim to have been on a shoulder of
"And was the other Trooper also Black?" The
Trooper I had seen was African-American. I had simply
thought the coincidence of there being two
African-American State Troopers at the same scene
unlikely. Had it been the case, surely they were
likely to know and remember one another.
"I don't remember," he said quickly. My
line of questioning disturbed the Judge and
Prosecutor. I suspect they thought I was preparing to
make an argument founded on bigotry. I abandoned it.
"No further questions, your Honour."
It was my turn to give my testimony. I began by
pointing out that my car is neither light blue nor
small. It was, in fact, large and gray.
"Evidently," I declared, "the Officer
had looked out the window this morning and saw me
arrive in my wife's little Toyota Tercel Coupe, for
that is the car he was describing." Again
murmurs behind me, this time louder. An upset
Prosecutor took the now visibly nervous Trooper aside
for a talk. The Judge assured the courtroom that the
colour and size approximated the car I had been
driving closely enough. He instructed me to continue.
I told the rest as it had happened, that the Trooper
never paced me two tenths of a mile, but drove right
up after passing faster cars. I swear the Trooper was
sweating by the time I was finished. When I completed
my testimony, the Prosecutor had only a single
question for me, what speed was I travelling? I
turned to the Judge and asked if I had to answer that
question. He told me yes. I admitted to travelling at
sixty-one miles per hour and with that sunk my case.
If only I had lied!
The Judge was lenient. He merged the two tickets into
one, effectively ignoring the alleged unsafe lane
change that made me appear reckless. My fine was
reduced to a single charge of $60, which meant he
accepted the lesser speed of 61 and not 71, although
there was an additional $15 charge in court costs. No
points were to be assigned to my license, he assured
me. It is my firm belief the Judge compromised, I had
to pay something, in order to preserve the dignity of
This was how the game was played. Today that same
patch of highway now has a speed limit of sixty-five
miles per hour. It has tormented me for fifteen
years: why did that State Trooper single me out? Why
did he want to give me a ticket? Following the trial,
I wanted to invite him to lunch to pester him for the
truth, but I don't think he would have been
forthcoming. As I retell this story again here, I
think I finally know why. It was my fault. When I
first saw him, I should not have continued my rapid
acceleration. He probably saw it as a challenge, an
affront to his authority. In this game, that was
where I made the wrong move.