Fifty years of keeping daily logs can draw up a wealth of stories. This particular remembrance occurred during the early seventies, in Mt. Morris, N.Y. It is a small town, near the SUNY Geneseo in Western New York, where Mary and I had gone to school and were later married.
I was driving south, on Rte., #63 in the township of Mt. Morris. My attention must have been diverted, because I was travelling over the posted speed limit. A sharp-eyed town constable turned on his rack lights and bade me to pull over. I did so. After the exchange of information required, the officer wrote me up as speeding over the limit. In that I had never received a ticket before, I was a bit taken aback. Still, the man was pleasant enough and the incident passed quickly.
Back at our apartment, I reread the ticket issued and discovered that the officer had written it improperly. The ticket clearly stated that I was travelling at 35 mph in a zone posted for 50 mph. “Huh?” I thought. That doesn’t seem right. On all of the television shows, this was a no brainer that would be tossed out of court.
On the appointed day of my appearance, in Mt. Morris Town Court, I appeared on time. I was dressed in a three-piece tweed suit, in fact my only suit. When you want to challenge the legal system, I thought, you have to wear the proper uniform. I was prepared to give a Perry Mason style appeal, as to the invalidity of the ticket, because it had been written up improperly. When my case was called, I stood up and informed the town justice that I thought the ticket was invalid because it had been written improperly. I thought that would end the matter. I wasn’t prepared for the vagaries of “local town justice.”
The elderly justice listened politely to my appeal and then calmly said “yes, we know that son. We changed the ticket before you got here.” The gavel slammed down and the verdict was guilty, with a twenty dollar fine. Even at my young an age I knew when to shut up and go with the flow. Sometimes, you are wrong even though you might be right.
“Yes, your honor,” I said. I walked over to the town clerk and paid the $20 fine. I then “got out of dodge” quickly before they changed something else on me. Arguing with small town justices, who are an absolute power in their own realm, is not a good idea. Over the years, I have looked back on this incident with humor, thinking of all of the caricatures of small-town justices that have appeared on t.v. shows. Sometimes you just have to roll with the punches.
In a later job, as Erie County Commissioner of Parks, I had three town justices in my employ. I shared my story with them. They nodded in understanding and then related to me an entire complicated panoply, of the vast array of cases that came before them. They did their best to apply common sense and good humor to render “country justice” and keep the peace to the good citizens in their towns. They may have occasionally strayed from the strict letter of the law, but they did so with the intent of keeping a community of rural folks on an even keel in a tough environment.
And as for me, I still smile at my last attempt at staging a “Perry Mason Moment.” And I learned the most valuable lesson ever. Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes he takes a chomp out of you. Either way, you make do and rock on.
Joseph Xavier Martin