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Those Are the Brakes

By Jerry Zezima

At the risk of throwing myself under the bus, which isn’t much of a risk because the bus is stopped, I plead guilty to passing a stopped school bus.

I couldn’t believe I had done something so stupid — and I do stupid things all the time — because I don’t text and drive, I stop at red lights and stop signs, and I obey the speed limit. Or at least I don’t drive like a white-knuckled, lead-footed NASCAR wannabe.

I am especially careful in school zones and am always aware, no matter where I am, of school buses.

Except for this time.

The proof came when I got a notice in the mail informing me of my transportation transgression.

On the citation was photographic evidence that I had violated New York Vehicle and Traffic Law Section 1174-a. There also was a link to a video, which I watched. Sure enough, I saw my car pass the red stop sign that extended from the side of the bus.

Amount due: $250.

I had two choices: I could fight this all the way to the Supreme Court (as my own defense attorney, I’d probably end up in Sing Sing). Or I could admit guilt, promise to mend my ways and pay the fine.

I chose the latter.

But first, I drove (very carefully) to the Suffolk County Traffic and Parking Violations Agency to see what creative excuses people use when they go to traffic court.

In the ticket office, where I got number Q689, I spoke with a defense attorney named Lindsay, who remembered one rather offbeat defendant.

“This motorcyclist was going at an excessive rate of speed and wiped out,” Lindsay recalled. “The judge said, ‘Is it true you were doing 125 miles an hour?’ The guy said, ‘No, Your Honor. I was only doing 110.’ He still had to pay a big fine, but at least he lived.”

“Have you ever had a traffic violation?” I asked.

“Not that I’ll admit,” Lindsay replied.

In the conference room, where dozens of defendants waited to see a judge, I met Sean and Natasha, both representing themselves in their respective cases.

“I’m here because I was driving a commercial vehicle on a parkway,” said Sean.

“Was it a big rig?” I asked.

“No, it was a van,” answered Sean, 23. “I also got a ticket for advertising. I work for a wholesale seafood company with its name, address and phone number on the side of the vehicle.”

“I’m sorry to say this,” said Natasha, who sat next to Sean, “but that’s stupid.”

“It sounds fishy,” I added.

Sean, who missed his previous court date because, he explained, “I forgot,” said he hoped to get one of the charges dropped.

“It doesn’t always work,” he said. “My brother is a cop, so I have a PBA card. One time I got stopped for speeding. I handed the cop the PBA card along with my license. He threw the card back at me.”

“At least he was honest,” I noted.

“Unfortunately,” Sean said.

Natasha was there because she backed into another car in the parking lot at work.

“What’s your excuse?” I asked her.

“I’m a teenage girl,” said Natasha, who’s 18.

“I’m not a lawyer, but I don’t think that will stand up in court,” I said.

“Probably not,” Natasha conceded. “The real reason is that it was the end of the day and I was in a hurry to get home.”

Both she and Sean said they have received other citations in their brief driving careers but insisted that older drivers, like yours truly, are worse than young ones, like them.

“You drive too slow,” said Natasha, who admitted that, like me, she had once been fined for driving past a stopped school bus.

“It cost me more than $300,” she remembered.

A few minutes later, Natasha’s name was called. I wished Sean luck and accompanied her to a small courtroom, where she pleaded guilty and was fined $220.

“Thank you, Your Honor,” Natasha said before leaving.

“You’re very welcome. Have a nice day,” replied the Hon. Jeffrey Arlen Spinner, who is so nice that he would put Judge Judy to shame.

Judge Spinner, who practices law in New York and Connecticut, was wearing a necktie with pictures of cars on it.

“That’s perfect for traffic court,” I noted.

“I’m a motor head,” the judge said.

“Have you ever gotten a driving citation?” I wondered.

“Of course,” he answered. “Who hasn’t?”

His last one was in 1989.

“I’ve been careful ever since,” said Judge Spinner, a fellow father and grandfather who treats defendants with dignity and respect. “It’s what every person who comes before me in court is entitled to,” he said. “You never know what their stories are.”

“My story is that I passed a stopped school bus,” I admitted.

“It happens,” Judge Spinner said. “Just make sure to pay the fine. And drive home safely.”

— Jerry Zezima

Jerry Zezima writes a humor column for Tribune News Service, which distributes it to newspapers nationwide and abroad. He is also the author of five books, Leave It to Boomer, The Empty Nest Chronicles, Grandfather Knows BestNini and Poppie’s Excellent Adventures and Every Day Is Saturday, all of which are “crimes against literature.” He has won seven awards from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists for his humorous writing.

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