Wednesday, April 08, 2009

In which two old men attempt to explain the world without losing their values

(Yesterday, I was twice reminded of this column that I wrote back around 1996 or '97. First, I had a conversation about the officer involved, and then I found a video by the young woman. He was eventually kicked off the force. She has flourished.)

“I grow old. I grow old.”

I thought of T.S. Eliot’s poem, the other day, as I sat in an attorney’s office, myself, the attorney, and a young woman who trusted us, who trusted the system, who believed, still, that, if you follow the rules and tell the truth, all will be well.

And we told her to lie. We explained to her, carefully, patiently, lovingly, that she should admit to having done a very small, wrong thing, so that she not be found guilty of having done a somewhat larger, wrong thing.

“But I didn’t do anything wrong,” she protested, looking from one of us to the other. “Why should I plead guilty to anything when I’m innocent?”

And the attorney and I looked at each other, and remembered when we had believed, and wondered when we had stopped believing, and had begun to hand out such practical, adult advice.

And we explained again this traffic ticket she had received, for a wrong turn she hadn’t made, and explained how the attorney could talk to the officer, and she could then admit to having done something with fewer points for her license, maybe even something that wouldn’t show up on her driving record at all.

And she kept asking why she should say she had done something she hadn’t done, when she hadn’t done anything wrong at all.

Let me pause here, and explain that I have respect for the law. I once ordered one of my sons not only to plead guilty to speeding, but to go into the court personally, and apologize to the judge for driving through his town at such an unreasonable, unsafe speed.

And let me explain that I want young drivers to be careful. I lost my little brother to the bad judgment of a young driver. I do not laugh away the mistakes of young drivers.

Let me explain, too, that I know many very good law officers, and I do not envy them the pressures of their jobs. But I also do not envy them having to work alongside some others. The one who wrote this ticket had nearly been the star of a news story, back when I was a reporter, about his pulling a gun on a kid. As it was, the hothead served a month-long suspension without pay over the incident.

And now the bully had written a ticket that didn’t have to be written, that, even if the turn had really been so abrupt, should probably have been a roadside lecture and a warning.

“You pissed him off,” the attorney explained. “That’s why you got a ticket.”

“But he was speeding! He told me he was going 60 miles per hour; that’s a 40 zone,” she said. “Anyway, I went back and measured. Even if I did turn too soon, he wouldn’t have had to brake to avoid hitting me, even at 60. My physics teacher helped me work it out. There’s no way.”

“That’s not the point,” we said.

“But I didn’t fail to yield. He had plenty of time!” she protested.

“It’s a judgment call,” we said. “He’s considered an expert.”

“So he can say anything,” she suggested. “He could say I made the turn wrong, even if I didn’t turn at all. He could say anything he wanted to about me, and the judge would believe him?”

I looked over at the attorney, and he looked over at me, and then he spoke. “Listen: The judge sees this guy all the time. He has to deal with him again and again and again. He only has to deal with you once.”

And she looked at me. And I grew very old and cynical and wretched. “Here’s the deal,” I explained. “You can go to court and fight this, but you’re going to lose. The judge isn’t going to rule against him.”

“I thought I was innocent until proven guilty,” she said.

And we looked at each other again, and we sank a little lower, inside. “It’s not that simple,” we told her.

“I have witnesses,” she said. “People called my mother afterwards, and told her how he was screaming and everything, how totally out of control he was ... ”

“That’s not going to be relevant,” we explained. “He can say he was upset because you created such a dangerous situation ... ”

“But I didn’t.”

“We know.” And there was a silence.

“You can go to court,” the attorney said, at last, “but you don’t need me. It would be too expensive and it wouldn’t make any difference. But, if you need to do this, you should.”

“Just know that the judge will rule against you and you’ll have to pay the ticket,” I said. “Look, we don’t want you to plead guilty and then go around thinking that you did the wrong thing, that you should have stood up and fought it. If you feel that you need to go to court and see this through, then you should do that. But you need to be realistic about your chances.”

And she looked at me, and she looked at him, and a few days later, she agreed to plead guilty to a lesser charge.

“I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.”


Uncle Jed said...

The "serenity to accept the things I cannot change" is easy to take for granted until you are really confronted with the situation.

Cops, referees, judges, bosses...

Yeah, none of them has truly absolute power, but you do have to really know you are right before you throw the challenge flag.

It does tend to be one of life's more memorable moments when you learn that...

Dann said...

Some day when we're sitting down over a couple of adult beverages...have I got a tale to tell you....


Brian Fies said...

Given a choice, I'll take the Pyrrhic victory every time, going down in flames on principle. It's a character flaw.

Mike said...

Jed, the trick to throwing the challenge flag is not just being sure you're right, but knowing that the replay will show uncontestable proof that the decision should be overturned. Not so easy.

Dann, there will be time for you and time for me, and time yet for a hundred indecisions, and for a hundred visions and revisions, before the taking of a toast and tea, or even a couple of adult beverages.

And, Brian, we were rooting for her to take the Pyrrhic victory, but we wanted her to go into court knowing that the truth was not going to be her ally this time around. And that she would end up with points on her license. And that she was old enough to choose, even if it broke the hearts of two old unreconstructed hippies.