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A Trial

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The surveillance state is a miracle of convenience.

In the old days, if you ran a red light, you had to go through the rigmarole of being pulled over by a police officer. Today, by contrast, you are more likely to see a flash of light from one of the red-light camera mounted at intersections around the county and a week or so later receive a set of photographs in the mail: one of you behind the wheel of your car with a swear word still crinkling your lips; another of your car entering the intersection illegally; and, finally, a close-up of your licence plate. Just think: all the incriminating evidence sent directly to your home, and you didn’t even have to ask for it. It’s almost as clever as those gadgets for dicing radishes they hawk on TV at three a.m.

The downside is a red light violation will cost you $426.   When I got my "courtesy notice" last November telling me I had to pay this sum for allegedly running a red light on Madison Avenue, I started screaming, "A boot is stamping on my face–forever!" George Orwell said something similar about the threat of totalitarianism, but for me it was just about the money.

Anyway, I vowed to fight the $426 injustice. I showed up at the Carol Miller Justice Center on the day of my court appearance, where I met a swarm of people who were there for the same reason.  A comforting thought: the world is full of dummies just like you.

I entered the courtroom, and the bailiff, a giant Sheriff’s deputy, began barking orders at everyone: take a seat, don’t talk, line up when the judge calls your name. Maybe I’ve been watching too much Slavoj Žižek on YouTube lately, but the bailiff seemed refreshingly free of  what Žižek might call "the chocolate laxitive of liberal, democratic ideology."   He was there to enforce the iron will of the state, and he wasn’t going to pretend otherwise. He wasn’t even going to be nice about it.  Whenever he caught someone whispering, he pointed a finger and said, "One more time, you’re out."

The court reminded me of the Pentecostal church of my childhood. The rows of pews were the same. The preacher was at his pulpit, flanked by his deacons. I was called up to the altar, but instead of accepting Jesus into my heart or speaking in tongues I gave my plea.

"Not guilty," I said.

The judge told me to take a seat and wait for the DA to come talk to me. I got a little excited at this point. They were sending in the DA to rattle my cage.  Did they really think they were going to break me?

Actually, I meet with an assistant DA.  One always holds out the hope, in the back of one’s mind, that the people one meets in real life will be like the people you see on TV.  But the ADA I met was nothing like the flinty DAs that you see on TV cop shows.  He wasn’t a moral beacon in the murk of an evil world.  He was more like a car salesman — one who already knows he is going to sell you the shabby Honda on lot four. 

"So have you seen your video?" the ADA said blandly.

There is a video. They don’t tell you that. I followed the ADA into a tiny room, where another guy was already viewing his video.  Clearly, he hadn’t heard anything about a video, either.

"All I know is that I saw a car about to hit me," he said. "That’s why I ran the red."

"Hm, I don’t really see a car behind you," said the ADA working his case.

The went on jabbering about the car he’d supposedly seen behind him.  He could have sworn it was there (though it was good he hadn’t swore under oath that he had).  I wanted to tell the guy give it up. His fib had been exposed. But I had my own video to attend to. In traffic court, everybody has to work out his own salvation.

It was a close call, but they had me. My car entered the intersection a half a second before the light turned red. The ADA played back the video four times for me.  I asked to see the time stamp of the video.  He was happy to oblige.   Again, I had to marvel at such technology. Imagine a world where you could always go back play back the video: a world without uncertainty. 

The ADA wanted to close the deal. He had the paperwork all filled out. I just had to sign on the dotted line. I hesitated.  There was the issue of a small mistake.  I had been charged with running a red arrow, not a red light.  I hadn’t even noticed the mistake until the ADA pointed it out to me.

"Looks like they gave you the wrong violation," he said.  "You weren’t turning left."

He scribbled out the mistaken charge with a ball point pen and wrote in the correct one.  

Was there legal hay to be made from this mistake?  Maybe or maybe not.  The sensible thing would be to take the case to court and test the theory.  But I wasn’t feeling sensible.  Not after seeing my video.  Technicalities aside, I had run the red light.  I had seen the proof with my own eyes.  Was I going to be like the other guy who insisted that there had been a car behind him when everybody could see that there wasn’t?

No, I couldn’t do it.  I signed, then I went before the judge and changed my plea no contest.  

It appeared that the surveillance state, as it presently exists in Sacramento, at least, is not quite ready to abolish uncertainty and confusion from the world.   It was a nice dream to have, though, even if it was short-lived and cost me $426. 

Photos  by Jeff McCrory

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