An older man who appeared to be an immigrant had been ticketed for not having his seat belt on (which is illegal in New York). He said, though, that he’d actually been adjusting the belt (which was uncomfortable in the sticky, sweltering heat) when a cop happened by and saw him tugging on it.
The cop who wrote the ticket (younger, African-American) wasn’t buying this. He’d clearly seen the driver pulling on his belt and inferred from this that the man must have, previously, been driving without it. (That’s how they ticket in NYC, by inference.) Here’s how their exchange went in court:
Driver: I was already wearing it! [He explains.] I swear to you, I had the seatbelt on.
Officer: I just wanted you to tell me the truth at the time when I stopped you.
Driver: I did tell you the truth, I swear.
Officer: You didn’t! Why didn’t you tell me the truth?
Driver: I did! You said I made a bad left turn, and I said that this was true. But I was not putting on the seatbelt, I swear on my children, I was already wearing it.
Officer: That seems like too much swearing this and swearing that. That’s a lot of swearing if you didn’t do anything wrong…
So the driver’s repeated refrain (“I swear”), which seemed like a gesture of sincerity on his part, convinced the cop that he was being lied to, which seemed like a sensitivity on his part. I’ll have to defer to my sister the diversity consultant, but doesn’t that sound like a culture clash to you?
Meanwhile, lest you think this is just about culture, let’s not forget the class dimension: One reason I believed that the driver had been wearing his seatbelt was that I was in court for a similar reason. In my case, the ticketing officer saw me driving with my mouth moving and my hand at my ear, and inferred that my hand must be holding a cell phone (which is illegal in New York). This was how our conversation (at the time of the original stop) went:
Officer: Do you know why I’m stopping you? You were holding a cell phone in your hand.
Jezra: No, I was not. I never drive with my cell phone in my hand. You must have seen me adjusting my Bluetooth.
Officer: I saw you holding a cell phone.
Jezra: You couldn’t have seen me holding a cell phone, because there was no cell phone. Why are you doing this? Why are you making up something that you didn’t see? Are you trying to make your quota?
Office: Well, you say you had a Bluetooth, but I don’t see a Bluetooth in your ear.
Jezra: It’s right here (waving it). I took it out of my ear when you pulled me over.
Officer: Why would you do that? That doesn’t seem right to me!
Jezra: Well, we can argue about it in court.
Two things strike me:
- It’s shocking that I actually talked like that to a cop (but not really; see Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack); and
- These two exchanges are essentially the same, with the cops’ shared premise being that’s-not-what-I-would-have-done-so-I-don’t-believe-you-did-it and the civilians pulling out whatever authority they could to support their positions.
Which makes it particularly galling that the immigrant driver receive a hefty fine, while my case was dismissed because the officer who wrote my ticket claimed he had no notes on the episode? (He took notes on the scene.) Call me crazy, but the fact that he wouldn’t meet my eye made me think that, in reality, he just didn’t want to argue with a Bourgeois Girl who had attitude, vocabulary, and a Bluetooth ready to wave at the Judge.
I might have won or lost that case. But we’ve all lost more than we can know when the presumption is that a higher-status person (me) is always right and a lower-status person (an immigrant) is always wrong.