Late on a sunny, summer morning, I was driving down Burlington Blvd. in my Ford Pick-up when my cell phone rang. Instinctively, I reached for it on the dashboard and put it to my ear. Just as quickly the police car behind me flashed its lights and signaled me to pull over.
I immediatly obliged and rolled down my passenger-side window. Before the officer even spoke his first words, he noticed that my safety belt was not in use. Shaking his head, the officer dutifully pointed out that I was in violation of the law on two counts. On the first count, I explained to the officer that normally I would not have picked up my phone in traffic but in this case I was expecting urgent information about my medical appointment. As for the safety belt, I explained that I’d just left my yoga class and was only traveling a few blocks to the drug store to renew a prescription.
The officer took my driver’s license, registration and insurance card and returned to his police car to check them out. Within a few minutes the officer returned. Having read the birthdate on my license, the officer asked incredulously, “are you really ninety years old?” I confessed that I was. “ It’s wonderful that you’re in such good shape”, the officer said. “Let me shake your hand”. He then issued a warning on the first count, reminding me to always pull over before talking on my cell phone. He said there was nothing he could do about the second count. The seat belt has always to be fastened when driving and, therefore, issued a ticket, the fine of $136 payable at the County Clerk’s Office in Mt. Vernon.
Since I was heading to Mt. Vernon anyway, I made my way to the County Clerk’s Office. As I was about to pay the fine, the woman at the counter said “ You know, there is a process for appealing your seat belt penalty. All you have to do is fill out this mitigation form. The judge reads them all”. I picked up a copy of the form she pointed to and studied it, then asked “Does it ever work?” She said, “Once in a while”.
With that little encouragement, I took the blank form and wrote the simple truth: “Your Honor. Normally I fasten my seat belt but in this instance I did not because it was but a few blocks’ distance to my next stop”. I should have known better”. I submitted the form to the clerk with my thanks and was soon on my way to finish my shopping with no expectation that the $136 fine would be reduced or voided.
Imagine my surprise when several weeks later, I received an official yellow form from the County Clerk’s Office notifying me that I was no longer required to pay the fine? Here’s one process that worked! The judge had read my statement and, in this case, made a decision in my favor. But even if the judge had ruled against me and upheld the violation, I would have been okay with it. Why? Because it spoke to the spirit of democracy. Here was a simple, friendly, cost-free procedure in place to give traffic violators like me a chance to be heard, to appeal a police officer’s decision. And I’ve learned my lesson. I’ve been buckling my seat belt ever since. The only exception is when I drive occasionally from my house to the neighborhood grocery store.
There’s no traffic and it’s just a few blocks away and who cares anyway?
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