Viewpoint: Tales from Traffic Court

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By Bruce Buschel

Judge: Mr. Buschel, you are allowed, though not required, to be accompanied by an attorney and witnesses.

Your honor, I have no attorney and I have no witnesses. I stand before you alone, supported only by the knowledge that, after parking in Sag Harbor thousands of times for more than 40 years, with a deep appreciation of the peculiarities of this town, and acceding to those peculiarities with patience and courtesy, I have received neither a ticket nor a hint of admonition from law enforcement, neighbors or tourists — until the night in question, a beautiful Sunday evening in June, when my wife and I went to see a show at the Bay Street Theater.

We circled Long Wharf until a tall, thin gentleman with two dogs waved to us, indicating that he was about to vacate his parking spot. While his significant other tucked their toddler into a safety seat, the tall gentlemen coaxed his two dogs onto the tailgate of his SUV.

I turned on my right blinker, pulled up behind him, and gave my wife a “Pretty lucky, huh?” look.

HONK! HONK!

I heard a foghorn from a passing boat on the bay.

The adult dog had no trouble negotiating the tailgate, but the puppy delightfully was having a devil of a time making the leap. My wife shot me her “When are we getting a puppy?” look.

HONK! HONK!

The foghorn again.

“I think they’re beeping at us,” said my wife.

A white car with a female driver and male passenger was visible in my rearview. No lights. No markings. Just that strange, hoarse honking again.

“Maybe you should go check,” said my wife.

The white vehicle was a traffic control car. I approached the driver cautiously, curiously. “What seems to be the trouble?” I asked.

“No one told you to get out of your vehicle,” she said.

“But you were honking at me and I didn’t know why.”

“You are double-parked and you’re blocking traffic.”

“Whoa. Cars are flowing by pretty good, and I am about to park in that space, right there.”

“That car has not pulled out yet. You are double-parked.”

“Double-parked? I am just being patient and polite, waiting for that guy with the baby and two dogs to pull out.”

“I told you to move. I am trying to be respectful.”

“You mean you’re not actually respectful?”

“If you don’t want a ticket, move your vehicle. Now.”

“A ticket? For what?”

She glared at me and then glanced to the young man in her shotgun seat. He exited the vehicle and walked directly toward me, brandishing a ticket book like a loaded weapon. “If you don’t want a ticket, you have to move your car.”

“I will,” I said.

“When?” he asked.

“Right now,” I said. “The SUV has just pulled out.”

After watching me park, the white traffic control vehicle drove away, slowly. My wife and I gathered our treats and checked for the theater tickets and walked to the theater. We happened to pass the two traffic control officers giving a ticket to a pickup truck that had parked facing the thoroughfare instead of the water. That’s a no-no. Even I know that.

Once inside the lobby, two women approached excitedly: “Did you get a ticket just now?”

“No,” I said and wiped my brow dramatically.

“That was crazy,” said one woman. “You were just parking.” And her friend added, “We were going to volunteer to be witnesses if you got a ticket and had to go to court. Those two officers were overly aggressive.”

“That’s putting it mildly,” said her friend.

“Well, there was no ticket,” I said. “We were lucky on two counts. First, we found a spot, and then we didn’t get a ticket. I hope the show’s good, too.”

The show was called “The Prompter.”

Two out of three ain’t bad.

After the curtain call (in the theater without a curtain), we returned to our car to find … wait for it … a parking ticket. It said we owed the Village of Sag Harbor $75 because we double-parked and blocked traffic — even though the two officers didn’t have the courage of their convictions, didn’t dare commit the miscarriage of justice in front of the alleged perpetrators or witnesses, and had to sneak back under the cover of darkness to tuck the ticket under a windshield wiper.

I didn’t understand why the ticket was given, Your Honor, or the manner in which it was delivered, but that is why I have no witnesses today, just the confidence that I have caused no harm and created no disturbance. I plead not guilty.

That was the speech I had prepared when I entered traffic court on November 5. It was my second visit.

The first was in September. It was a full house of illegal parkers. Everyone was offered a deal: Pay $25 or $30 on the spot and walk out scot-free, foregoing a trial. Everyone took the deal.

Except me. I felt aggrieved. I wanted my day in court. I wanted Sag Harbor authorities to know that they had changed the rules, that they were no longer defending and protecting but annoying and harassing.

The judge said a fair hearing had to include the officers so that she could hear both sides of the story; to that end, a summons would arrive by mail, and I would return to court.

On November 5, I arrived at the same second-floor court on Main Street. It was full of more illegal parkers. I watched 20-something citizens take the same $25/$30 deal and walk out, happy to be done with the inconvenience. One woman with five tickets paid $130.

Then came the trials, with lawyers and witnesses. I sat through five of them. I rehearsed my defense. That’s what you just read. It was to be my moment, my chance to speak truth to power, to represent the general public’s unhappiness with the mistreatment at the hands of young and intemperate officers who seemed blind to any shades of gray or graciousness.

But the two traffic officers had been strictly summer help and were nowhere to be found — and the case was dismissed. I walked out and wrote down these words.

I guess the court knew it would be dismissed all along. Now you know, too.

Bruce Buschel is a resident of Bridgehampton.

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