Perspective: the danger of obeying the law

By Ransom Cozzillio
September 26, 2011

“Shakedown,” “extortive” and “conflict of interest” are not things anyone wants to hear in association with their local police department, much less their entire state’s penal code. Well Garden State natives, I have some bad news for you. Over the summer I experienced all three pejoratives in your fine state at the hands of Jersey’s finest.

During a fairly routine drive down to the shore, I, a Pennsylvania resident, was pulled over in New Jersey and cited for a peculiar moving violation.

I was flagged and ticketed for “careless driving,” which I resent because given the circumstances, my vehicular actions were anything but “careless.”

After hopping off the highway to grab a quick snack at Wawa, I was confronted with police squad cars and tow-trucks blocking not only an entire intersection but most of the lanes approaching it.

I had to turn left at this disastrous intersection or risk getting hopelessly lost in the middle of who-knows-where, N.J.

Naturally, no one was directing traffic. They should have been.

I now had several unappealing options: Go straight in a “right- turn- only” lane, which is illegal; stop my car in the middle of the road and wait for someone to do their job and direct traffic, which is illegal; or, wait for a left turn arrow and slip around the accident, onto the highway and toward my destination.

I chose the latter option, which, like the others is apparently illegal. The next thing I knew, an officer was running up the side of my car screaming, “Are you crazy!?” Apparently I am.

It’s worth noting that said officer, from where he was standing, could not see the green arrow traffic light I was heeding. Nor was he one of the approximately zero people directing traffic around the scene in a safe and orderly manner.

He did, however, find it necessary to write me a ticket for “unsafe driving.” Ok, fine, you caught me. I’ll take my lumps, main you the fine and be done with the mess.

Unfortunately, there was no fine listed on the ticket. Instead, there was a box checked for “mandatory court appearance” with 8:30 a.m. and a date penciled in next to it. Looks like my vehicular Morton’s Fork would cost me another two-hour jaunt into New Jersey. That’s just how I like to spend my mornings.

Perfect, now that I had to waste time and gas attending a court hearing, I could plead my case that I had been few other options around the traffic snafu and that the charge was highly unfair. If only the judicial system worked that way.

Two weeks after the incident I found myself in an unassuming township courtroom waiting two-hours from the “mandatory” arrival time for the rest of my fellow law-breakers to arrive.

I was eventually informed by the prosecutor that my “unsafe driving” charge would be changed to an equivalent 5mph speeding violation (don’t ask why, I couldn’t tell you) and that it would be a $200 fine with a $30 court fee.

“What if I want to plead not-guilty?” I asked. Well, then I’d have to come back at a currently undecided time to plead my case, at which point a verdict would be rendered. And, of course, I would have to again pay a $30 court fee win or lose the prosecutor said.

Wait, court fee? What is that paying for? My presence was mandatory why I am being charged for showing up as ordered?

I was told that the reasons for making a court appearance varied and that generally it was at the discretion of the ticket-writing officer.

That seems fair; a state-employed officer of the law can check a box and force someone to pay the state $30 regardless of circumstance or guilt. I certainly can’t see any conflict of interest there.

Being unhappy as I was about the prospect of being summoned to New Jersey again on a whim to defend my case and be charged another $30 at the door, I chose to plead guilty, pay the fine and be done with it.

Unfortunately, my plea was not the end of this rigmarole, nor the end of my ire at the New Jersey Judicial system.

While waiting in line to pay my fine and court fee, I got to talking to another man with a traffic citation in hand. As it turns out, he had been caught going 27 mph over the speed limit, had been given 4 points on his license as well a very hefty fine. He, however, was not required to appear in court (he had come to try and plea down his penalty).

So, I was essentially docked for going 5 mph over and had to pilgrimage to New Jersey and be nickel-and-dimed while “Jeff Gordon” standing next to me could pay from the comfort of his couch? Sounds fair.

I understand that as college students, youths, even just as normal citizens, the law occasionally crosses into our lives and often not in a pleasant way. I understand that generally it serves the people’s best interest. This time, I don’t see or understand that; I just see a part of the system that failed to do its job and trapped me for it. Sorry, but that doesn’t sound fair.




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Ransom Cozzillio

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