I was quick to find injustice in those days, and a ticket for an unsafe vehicle because my car did not have a bumper struck me as a major injustice. No one else of Chicago’s Finest apparently saw a dangerous car when I drove past them. What was it with this one cop who viewed my beloved transportation differently? I was not wimpishly going to pay the fine. No! I was going to fight. I sent the ticket in with an angry slash across the not-guilty box, knowing it would mean a trip to traffic court.
I was a law student after all, and I knew how to do legal research. In these pre-computer-research-days, this required hitting the books and took some time. I could not find any case that said a car without a front bumper was unsafe. On the other hand, I did not find a case that said such a car was kosher. I started to look for legal definitions of “unsafe vehicle” in cases and statutes. I read all legal decisions that had any mention of a bumper. Using what legal writing skill I had obtained, I wrote a memorandum explaining why I had not violated the law. A car was unsafe, I said, if some condition made it unreasonably dangerous for the driver or passengers of the car or for other drivers, passengers, cars, or pedestrians and cited cases to that effect. The absence of the front bumper did not increase the risk to anyone or any other vehicle. Mine did not meet the definition of an unsafe vehicle. The point to a bumper, an insurance case suggested, was to protect the car from excessive damage, not to protect others. Q.E.D.
Taking public transportation, I went off to traffic court on the appointed day. I found a huge, packed room with a judge upfront, a court officer hovering near him, and a prosecuting attorney off to the side. Cases were called. People moved forward. Things were said at the front of the room that I could not hear. Stuff was happening, but I had no idea what it was.
I heard something like a reasonable facsimile of my name announced. I went forward and stood in front of the bench. The judge asked me how I was pleading. I said that I was not guilty. I continued that I was charged with driving an unsafe vehicle because my car did not have a front bumper and that, after research, it was clear that a car sans fender was not legally unsafe. I started to hand up to him my legal argument that I had worked on for a couple days. He looked not so much bemused as condescending and told me to hand my only copy of the papers to the prosecutor and that we would discuss my argument after the prosecutor had a chance to read what I had written.
After a recess, my case was called again. The prosecutor said he had read my pages, which he held, and continued, “I think this young man has a good point.” I tried not to smile, but I am sure that I beamed. Being a lawyer was going to be great! Visions of future, momentous victories flashed before me. Then the judge, without lifting his eyes from whatever was occupying him on the bench and without asking either the prosecutor or me anything, said, “I don’t. Guilty. That will be a $75 fine and court costs.” And my first episode of legal advocacy ended.
Shortly after this day of ignominy, I drove three hours to the ancestral home. The father, although clearly not pleased with my car purchase, came up with a solution. He got a 2 x 6 piece of lumber, cut it to the width of the car, and bolted it to the front of my beloved VW. Before doing so, he even lovingly put on a coat of varnish that gave the wood an orange tint that almost made it blend in with the many rust spots on the car.
I never again got stopped for driving an unsafe vehicle, but when I looked at that bolted-on hunk of solid wood, I would think that if I ever nudged a pedestrian with it, he or she would more likely need an ACL repair than if it were not there. Without it, the pedestrian would have come in contact with the sloping “trunk”—the engine was in the rear and storage went up front (although it could not have held more than a half-filled duffle bag). The trunk’s lid was made of such thin sheet metal that it looked as if it would crumple if sneezed on and that hypothetical pedestrian would have had the impact cushioned. The car was more unsafe with that board.
I had that car for another six months. On a trip to visit a friend in Madison, thick black smoke started billowing out of the engine in some godforsaken part of Wisconsin—the first of a succession of cars that went kaput in highly inconvenient places. I limped into a garage/service station and sold it on the spot for $25 and called my friend to pick me up.
But that first day in court did teach me a lesson that I was to carry forward to the time when I was an actual attorney: Never trust a judge.