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The Ethicist and the Speeding Ticket

Learning a bit more about Randy Cohen I found that he is a humorist and was a writer for David Letterman. So does he really want to be taken seriously as our guide to right and wrong? In addition to writing his column for The New York Times Magazine he has written a book, “The Good, the Bad & the Difference: How to Tell Right From Wrong in Everyday Situations.” I have not read the book, but skimmed some reader reviews (thanks to Amazon) and Cohen is held up as a sort of ethical mentor for the common man. Giving him his due, consider this puzzler sent to “The Ethicist”…

A friend was caught by police radar going 51 in a 35-miles-per-hour zone. In front of his children, he admitted that he was speeding but asked if I knew a lawyer to help him fight the ticket. I think he should accept the consequences, learn from the experience and give his children a lesson in ethics. He looked at me as if I were from Mars. Shouldn’t he just pay the ticket? BRUCE PELLEGRINO, FAR HILLS, N.J.

I thought this one was simple, but maybe that’s because I am also from Mars. You know that you were speeding and admitted it to the police officer who stopped you and to your own kids in the car with you. Since the validity of the ticket is not in question, you should just take  responsibility for it and pay the fine. It is the right thing to do and you have an opportunity, however humbling, to model submission to lawful authority for your kids.

But, here is the way The Ethicist sees it…

Even those who think themselves guilty are entitled to their day in court, and there is civic virtue in their exercising this right. A trial is a way to hold officials accountable for their conduct. Was the radar gun accurate? Was the speed zone clearly marked? Did the police officer behave properly? And what, given all the circumstances, is an appropriate punishment? Little of this could be scrutinized if everyone simply paid the ticket. It would be a court-clogging nightmare if every self-confessed speeder demanded a trial, but it is a fine thing if, now and then, some people do.

The question “Should he just pay the ticket?” did not get answered, but other than the ‘court clogging nightmare’ problem it sounds like this ‘self-confessed speeder’ is being encouraged to demand a trial. Again I find myself 180° apart from the guru of ethics. Exercising your right to trial and holding officials accountable are good and necessary things, but in this case you would have to recant your admission and deny what you know to be true (you were speeding) in order to question the conduct of the police officer, the radar gun or the proper posting of the speed limit. To what end?

  1. The police officer is taken off the street to appear in court.
  2. The judge and prosecutor spend tax funded time away from cases that actually have facts in dispute.
  3. If you prevail, you teach your kids that with a good lawyer you can dodge accountability and speeding is OK, as long as you can get away with it.

But the quote that ends The Ethicist’s answer is his coup de grâce…

James Boswell, himself a lawyer, once asked his great mentor about the propriety of a lawyer’s “supporting a cause which you know to be bad.” Dr. Johnson replied: “Sir, you do not know it to be good or bad till the Judge determines it. . . . An argument which does not convince yourself, may convince the Judge to whom you urge it: and if it does convince him, why, then, Sir, you are wrong, and he is right.”

This statement may be handy for a writer judging good and bad in a newspaper column, but it denies the fact that guilt and innocence are based in knowable truth, not in the most influencial argument in front of a judge. So, this idea may work for a lawyer trying to get comfortable defending a client he knows is guilty, but it is ridiculous to apply that rationale to the client himself.  In this case we are talking about a speeding ticket where you already know you are guilty and so do your kids,  it does not take a judge to tell you that. The greater good is the impression you will make on your children; their respect for the law and their future driving habits will be influenced by decisions like this one.

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