By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate
In their chart-topping 1965 hit, “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” the Byrds sang, “To everything, turn, turn, turn.” To which they might have added: “Except if you make an illegal turn, turn, turn.” In which case you’ll end up in traffic court.
That’s where I found myself recently after getting a notice in the mail saying that I had been caught by a red-light camera making an illegal right turn at a traffic light.
Accompanying the notice was a series of three photos I was sure would vindicate me because they showed not only that it was perfectly legal to turn right on red, but that my brake lights were on at the intersection. Since the fine was $80, I decided to fight the charge because I had an otherwise clean driving record. This involved paying strict attention to traffic laws, being respectful of other drivers and, most important, not getting caught rolling through right turns at red lights.
I showed up at the Nassau County Traffic and Parking Violations Agency in Hempstead, N.Y., and beheld scores of other alleged scofflaws who sought justice because they were, according to the U.S. Constitution and TV shows like “Law & Order,” innocent until proven guilty of running stop signs, speeding and, of course, making illegal right turns.
I temporarily surrendered my driver’s license to a stern security officer and stood in line, where I met a woman named Surbi, who was there because, she said, “I parked in front of my house.”
“Did you get a ticket the day you moved in?” I asked.
“No,” she replied. “I’ve lived there for six years.”
“I hope you don’t have to pay six years’ worth of parking tickets,” I said.
“I couldn’t afford it,” Surbi said. “This one alone is $120. And there’s not even a ‘no parking’ sign on the street.”
After we were ushered into the courtroom, I sat next to a young woman named Lauren, who admitted that she “rolled” through a stop sign. “I was being tailgated and didn’t want the guy to plow into the back of my car,” she explained.
“Tell it to the judge,” I suggested.
“I will,” Lauren promised.
I showed her the photos of my car at the intersection. “This is Exhibit A,” I said.
“They’ll get you anyway,” said a young guy named Jacques, adding that he had six tickets totaling $1,700 but that he could prove he was a victim of identity theft and that the car wasn’t his.
Among the other people in the courtroom was a young man who was holding a toddler. An old lawyer said to him, “Did you rent that kid to get sympathy?”
Just then, my name was called by a court clerk named Laura, who took me to a hallway, sat me at a table with a computer screen and pulled a shocker: “We have a video of you at the intersection,” she said. It showed me braking but not coming to a “full and complete stop.” Laura said I could pay the fine or see a judge, who would either uphold the fine or dismiss the charge.
“I know my rights,” I said, though I guess I didn’t because I had evidently made an illegal right. “I’ll see a judge.”
She was the Hon. Elizabeth Pessala, who was indeed honorable but went by the letter of the law when a smug traffic prosecutor showed her the video.
“It’s a good thing you weren’t stopped by a police officer,” Judge Pessala said. “The fine would have been $218 and three points off your license.”
“Guilty as charged, your honor,” I confessed.
I paid the fine and drove home very carefully. After all, I didn’t want one bad turn to deserve another.