I did not expect to be stopped – nobody stops bicyclists, at least in this city – but I was. Officer Ramos pulled me over on my block, told me to lock up my bicycle to something, and asked me why I thought he pulled me over. Well, that all depends: How long had he been watching me? I passed by the precinct twenty blocks ago, and I first saw his squad car going the opposite way two blocks prior, where he saw me, made a U-turn and put his lights on. I hedged:
“Probably reckless riding.”
“What makes you think you’re above the law?”
Oh, so he was going to pull out some righteous anger on me. I wasn’t going to rise to the bait.
He then went on to explain to me when he first saw me: Running a red light a mile back. And then another red light. Then failure to keep to the right of traffic and straddling the double yellow line. Failure to signal. Weaving through traffic. I don’t think I’d stopped at a red light the whole time. He’d been following me for a while. He simply couldn’t catch up to me until the traffic eased somewhat. Finally, he asked:
“Where’s the bell?”
“Do you have a bell on your bicycle?”
“Why don’t you have a bell?”
“I shout louder than a bell.”
“You’re supposed to have a bell. Wait there.”
By this time, the six hoods who usually hang out by my local bodega had taken interest in this spectacle and were catcalling the cop, who never exited his squad car. It certainly didn’t help his demeanor, but in the ten minutes he spent writing out a ticket, ripping it from his ledger, writing out another ticket, ripping it from his ledger and so forth, he had calmed down somewhat.
“I could get you for every light, but I’m only going to give you one ticket for that.”
Well, that was nice of him, I thought, until I saw that he made up for it with three additional tickets, bringing me to a grand total of four – including one for not having a bell.
“Do you have anything to say for yourself?”
“Just how much are all these tickets worth?”
“Eh, the judge will probably charge you 50 bucks or so.” And he drove off in a huff.
Six months later, my hearing in traffic court came up. I pulled up all the requisite information about the tickets, about bicycle law, about my decisions and the divide between the law and reality; I wasn’t going to take this sitting down. I noted names and dates from bicyclist deaths in similar situations to the one I was in, where the bicyclist obeyed the law and lost, pulled evidence that would explain my choice in possible routes and my own (up until this point) clean record despite an unorthodox methodology. The combined fines for all the tickets at full freight would be about $760, which would exceed the cost of the bike I was on, to say nothing of how much more I would have to pay than people who actually struck and killed pedestrians.
I was to go to DMV’s Manhattan North, which like most government offices uptown, was within a remarkably blank building on 125th Street. This would be the first time I’d ever had to defend myself in New York: I didn’t know what to expect. There was no information desk or set of instructions; just a wall of names and the courtroom they would be tried in. My name was listed multiple times, but all for the same courtroom. I couldn’t help but to have felt a tinge of morbid pride that, in my first foray into this world, I took up quite a bit of ink.
I looked at the other names and the people sitting around the holding room. This being uptown, it was mostly upwardly mobile Black and Latino men (no women), one portly Sikh in a suit and red turban, and an old Greek man peppering the middle-aged security guard with questions of protocol. The security rebuffed him with a smirk and a string of sardonic put-downs delivered in pure old-school Noo Yawk accent, before looking upon us hapless loiterers with eyes that said “you see this clown over here?” We grunted in assent.
The cops started streaming in and, soon enough, about a dozen of us defendants/petitioners were herded into a courtroom. The clerk, a Latina woman draped in a shawl with Plains Indian motifs, took our information and put them in a stack for the judge, who must have come out of Central Casting for the role, for life imitates art which in turn imitates life: A pot belly under a grey suit and skinny tie, sporting a flat-top haircut and hard eyes, the man was the perfect illustration for ‘wearied bureaucrat.’
He even spoke in Hollywood tones, further solidifying his role, as he explained how things were to play out: The cop would give his deposition, then the defendant would be allowed to address the issue, and then he’d make a decision. I was to be second. The first person never showed: His lawyer, instead, asked for a reschedule, which was granted for mid-September. Apparently everything is done in six month intervals around here. Six minutes after I was ushered in, I was up.
“Are there any witnesses?”
“Not that I know of.”
The judge gave me a look. Not ten seconds out of the gate I slipped up.
“Uh, I didn’t bring any.”
Back on track. “Are you ready to proceed?”
Most of the courtrooms had three or four cops enter them, but in mine there was only one: Officer Ramos. It looked as if every person in this courtroom would be arguing their case against the word of Officer Ramos. Now that I got to see him outside of his squad car, I learned with a little amusement that I was a foot taller than the guy. He never looked in my direction, but instead spent his time either looking at his stack of papers or directly at the judge. In a low tone he rambled through the formalities while the judge waited for the meat of his argument.
“On such and such an intersection, where the signals are on the northeast and southwest corners, I witnessed this man proceed against a solid red light and continue northbound through… [...] I decided to follow him, and witnessed him swerve into the left lane at such and such a street heading northbound… [...] I continued following him and on such and such a street, where the signals are on these corners, I saw him enter the intersection westbound and turn north without signalling… [...] I stopped him at this street and asked for his license. He complied and gave me a Class D license with this name, whereupon I saw that he did not have a bell on his bicycle.”
The judge, who had been drawing layouts of intersections with arrows and street names looked up. “Wait. This was all on a bicycle?”
“This red light ticket is for a car.” The judge summarily stamped the ticket Not Guilty and flung it into a outbox for such tickets. A Black man waiting behind me chuckled, which launched an instant rebuke and an imperious gaze from the judge.
“I was only coughing!”
“That was no cough.” There shall be no tomfoolery in this courtroom! The judge turned back to the cop.
“Also, you describe four incidents. I only see three tickets before me. What happened to the ticket for Failure To Signal? Did you take care of it prior to this hearing?”
“No,” I replied.
“Where is it?”
The cop shrugged. “I don’t know.”
As it turns out, tickets that are mis-written are not entered into the system. On to the next ticket, for Failure to Keep Right. “You say he was on the left lane?” asked the judge.
“Yes,” answered the cop.
“Give me a moment.” The judge pulled out a thick green tome, and the cop and I waited as the judge looked up this bicycle-only law. Once satisfied, the judge turned to me. “You are now able to question the cop and/or give a statement.” I was on.
“I’d like to make a statement about Failure to Keep Right. I was in the right lane when a bus was pulling out of a stop. I moved to the left lane as I expected the bus to occupy the right lane. The bus, to my side, however, instead chose the left lane, so I moved to the double yellow line so as to avoid a collision.”
“And the bell?”
“Well, I didn’t have a bell on my bicycle.”
Stamp Not Guilty for Failure to Keep Right, Guilty for No Bell On Bicycle. “You have two weeks to pay a $40 fine. If you don’t pay in two weeks, a $70 fine is added and your license is suspended. As this is a bicycle violation, no points are taken off your license. Next!”
40 dollars. Hey, the cop was right!