Friday, June 16, 2006

Injustice on the Metro

8 June 2006
Several years ago I took an ethics class in college where I had the opportunity to debate about the hypothetical fines for drunk driving. I took the stand that first offense drunk drivers should all face steep fines in order to deter them from repeating the mistake. If they were unable to meet the fee obligation, then they would be required to do an equivalent amount of community service. I figured that if someone was going to break the law and put other people’s lives in danger, then they deserved a steep fine to prevent a repeat offense. I took a lot of heat for that argument, but I felt justice had been served. I’m not sure that argument really holds true because I have gotten several speeding tickets, none of which have deterred me from driving faster than the law says I can. However, if I was slapped with a $500 ticket, I might be more conscious of my speed.

Today, six years and a different situation later, I do not feel that the justice system is always fair or works the way I think it should. I suppose that when it comes to my own situation, I feel I am generally being dealt with unfairly and unjudiciously. I will admit when I have done something wrong and accept the consequences. I have no one to blame but myself when I get pulled over while speeding. I always know I am going faster than the speed limit, but I justify it by saying that I am only going as fast as everyone else around me. And I can’t really get upset when my arguing, smiles or pleas do not get me anywhere. When it comes to getting tickets and fines, it is often easier to just pay for them rather than dispute it, which is what the legal system and the municipalities are banking on. Most of us don’t have the time or the patience to deal with contesting tickets that we probably deserved, even if only a little. I am one who would rather just pay it and accept my guilt than contest it even if I think that I was unfairly targeted.

A month ago, Cameron and I were getting on the subway at the 110th street station on our way to work. The north end where we entered has one of those annoyingly inconvenient and often dysfunctional vertical turnstiles that are also a fire and safety hazard because there is no way around them. This particular turnstile is notorious for being consistently finicky, and this particular morning was no different. I swiped my metrocard seven or so time with no luck… each time the reader said, “Please swipe again at this turnstile.” I tried everything to get it to work to no avail. Cameron came up behind me, swiped his card two or three times and finally got the go ahead so he pushed me in front of him and we doubled up through the turnstile. Immediately on the other side, a plain clothed officer stopped us and gave us both citations for entering without paying. Totally ridiculous. We both have unlimited month passes, so it doesn’t benefit us to not pay. I was resigned to my inevitable guilt and sort of found the whole incident rather humorous. I thought that by riding the subway I was saving myself from all the speeding tickets I could potentially get while driving, and here I was standing on the platform with a ticket in my hand. So ironic.

As in most cases, I was ready to just pay the darn thing and wash my hands of it, but Cameron felt that we were unfairly targeted and should dispute it. So the two of us went to the courthouse in Brooklyn this morning for our informal hearing to plead our case. I explained myself and the situation and instinctively thought that the man sitting across from me couldn’t care less about me or the subway fine I was disputing. I was just another middle class American trying to avoid the consequences of my actions. I knew I was going to have to pay that cursed fine regardless but I felt somewhat better knowing that I had at least tried. I was right. He didn’t care and I ended up paying the fine. While we waited to hear the outcome for Cameron, a gentleman in front of us learned he was excused from his fine of public drunkenness. I thought that was a huge injustice. I had doubled up in the turnstile, even though I had already paid for a months worth of subway rides and gotten a fine while this man gets away with having open liquor bottles and public drunkenness. Not cool. If you weigh the two scenarios… I think public drunkenness is a bigger nuisance and menace than doubling up in the turnstile. However, as I have learned over the years, it is not about what is fair compared to something else. What that man did was wrong. What I did was wrong despite the finicky turnstile and the unfortunate sting operation we stumbled upon.

I can at least be grateful for the opportunity to defend myself and contest the ticket. That is one of the great benefits of living in a free society. However, the judicial system is not perfect. It is moments like this when I wonder where the cops are when people are urinating on the tree in front of the building down my street, or when people are getting in fistfights on the subway or stealing people’s things out on the street. Now, I know.

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