Traffic court

Every citizen ought to spend a day in traffic court, whether or not they have violated one of the numerous laws on the books regulating motor vehicles. Traffic court is your democratic system at work. Ever wonder why Dame Justice wears a blindfold? Spend a day in traffic court.

The first thing you ought to realize about traffic court is that nothing is as it seems. For instance, the notice you receive might tell you that there are Saturday hours, but this is traffic court we’re dealing with here. Show up on Saturday morning and more than likely you will find a small crowd of bewildered people — bewildered because traffic court isn’t open on Saturday. No one knows why the notice says that traffic court is open on Saturdays, but reality says it isn’t. Ask the portly bailiff (I’m assuming that’s his title) and he’ll likely just smile and say, "You really ought to complain about that because they make it awfully tough on the people."

But that’s what traffic court is really good at — making it tough on the people.

So if you showed up on Saturday and found it closed, what it means is that you will now have to take Monday off from work to find traffic court open. What you notice about traffic court is that the offenders appear to be mostly young minorities. Having lived in South Philadelphia, the land of traffic law anarchy, I know that it isn’t just young people and minorities that sometimes transgress our traffic laws. So middle-aged white people must know a secret on how to avoid traffic court. I was happy, if only to provide some age and racial diversity on a recent Monday morning.

At the special window for impounded and towed vehicles, the guy took my name, Xeroxed some stuff, pulled folders and stapled forms, and then handed me a 1 p.m. appointment slip and pointed me toward impoundment court. Since it was only about 10 a.m., I wondered about the time of my appointment, but I settled into a seat in the courtroom with a 1,000-page biography of Lyndon Johnson (and that was just his Senate years). The courtroom was half empty so I assumed I might get called before 1 p.m., but I assumed wrong.

There was a blond lady in uniform whose job, it seemed, was to tabulate the amount of the fines owed by the defendant. The portly bailiff’s job, it seemed, was to hand the yellow slips to the blonde, who would then hand the slip and a folder to the judge. The judge seemed to be in good humor — the kind of humor you see judges display on daytime TV. The blonde seemed to get offended when I turned in my yellow appointment slip to the portly bailiff. She turned to me and shouted that my appointment was not until 1 p.m., whereby the portly bailiff got surly and yelled that I would have to leave the courtroom until 1 p.m.

I tried to make them understand that I wasn’t trying to jump ahead of anyone, but I really only wanted a seat where I could read my LBJ book until I was called. But even the judge turned a deaf ear to my pleas and out the door I went.

I soon found out that there are no seats outside the courtroom. A guard told me they had been removed recently. (Was there really a problem with people loitering in traffic court?) Two hours later, I returned to the courtroom with my LBJ book that by now felt as if it weighed at least 500 pounds. The judge didn’t come back in until he was announced, and we all stood as if Caesar had just decided to drop in and see us.

The portly bailiff was humming snatches of a song, but then every once in a while he’d advise us that we should put everything away except our driver’s license and our credit card. He seemed to think this was an extremely witty thing to say. One by one, young Hispanics or African Americans were called to the front of the court and told they would have to pay immense sums to get their cars returned. Most times they didn’t have the money, and the judge would bargain with them for half of the amount. If they still couldn’t pay, he’d suggest they see the court-appointed attorney. This turned out to be a short, eager, graying man, who whispered a lot either in the defendant’s ear or conspiratorially in the ear of the portly bailiff.

I finally had my moment before the bar of justice, which consisted of me agreeing to pay for various charges for God knows what. (I would have paid much more at that point just to get out of there.) I was then directed to another window, where someone else Xeroxed papers, looked in a folder, stapled some forms and took my credit card. I was then directed to yet another window where, after the appropriate amount of Xeroxing and stapling, I was again assessed some charges, this time for use of the city lot.

At the impoundment lot, I was made to wait in the rain while the lady attendant asked me if I knew where my car was. At this point, I didn’t know if such a car even existed, let alone where it was in that vast parking lot.

I finally got home, wet and tired but satisfied that the scales of justice do prevail in their own way in Philadelphia — although next time, I’m going to claim my exemption as a middle-class, middle-aged white male.

Oh, by the way, did I tell you that I don’t drive?