Has anyone ever justified their actions by telling you what they had to do was, “not personal, it was just business?” The silly thing about such a statement is the idea the something affecting you isn’t personal. If it is part of your life – it is personal.
All that said, there are times when we simply have an unpleasant job to do and, if we’re lucky we can separate the job from the people it will affect. Whenever I hear someone say, “It’s not personal, it’s just business,” I am reminded of Ralph E. Wolf and Sam Sheepdog from Looney Tunes (see above). If you don’t know what I’m talking about, watch the video at the end of this post.
And now – a story.
Back in the 1990s, I rented a weird, little two-bedroom house in Oakland New Jersey. Oakland is a cute little town in northern New Jersey and best of all, it was only five miles from my job in Paramus.
The primary route in and out of Oakland was via Interstate 287. The highway ran along the north side of the town and it connected to the NY state thruway to the north and Interstate 80 to the south. My neighborhood was right off Skyline Drive, which was an exit off 287. To say the least I had very easy highway access.
Being a hip twenty-something, I would often spend time in New York City, which was only a thirty-minute drive in non-rush hour traffic. One Saturday night I was hanging out with friends in the city, and before I knew it, Saturday night had become Sunday morning, and it was time for me to head home.
With little traffic on the road at 1:00am, I made the trip home in record time. Coming off the highway, I was more than ready to crash into my bed and sleep as late as my dogs would allow me on a Sunday morning.
I rolled down the off-ramp and right up to the stop sign where one needed to look both ways before turning left onto Skyline Drive. The way the ramp is laid out, you can see several hundred yards to the right as you come off the highway and as the road curves to the left, you can see almost as far in the other direction.
Since it was very late and very dark, it was easy to see that Skyline Drive was completely empty, so as I approached the stop sign, I made the executive decision that slowing down a little was going to be more than enough – no need to actually stop.
After making my left turn across Skyline Drive, I rolled under the highway overpass covering the last half-mile that stood between my heavy eyelids and my cozy bed.
It was then that I saw the flashing lights.
What I had failed to see as I looked to the left into the darkness was the New Jersey State Police car that was hiding beneath the underpass specifically for the purpose of catching drivers executing the “California Roll” through the stop sign at the end of the off ramp.
The officer took my license, registration and insurance card. He went back to his cruiser and ten minutes later returned with my ticket – “failure to observe a traffic signal.” I had the option of pleading guilty and paying a $150 fine, or fighting the ticket in Oakland Town Court.
The next day I did a little research and I learned that in New Jersey, a motorist is required to stop within thirteen feet of a stop sign. I put on my running shoes and jogged up to where the cop had been hiding beneath the bridge. From where he sat, he could definitely see the stop sign, but the angle was such that he could not see the full thirteen feet before it.
It was time to try my luck in the courtroom.
The fact of the matter was that I was guilty as hell, but in our country the accused is innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. As far as I could tell, I had a pretty good shot at reasonable doubt. I sent my ticket in with a plea of NOT GUILTY. About a week later I received my court date – the Tuesday before Thanksgiving at 6:30pm.
I did my homework. I drew diagrams. I researched case law.
I ironed a shirt.
When the court date came I was ready. I showed up at the court at 6:25, but what I didn’t realize is that they call the cases in the order that you sign in, and by the looks of it I was going to be there a good long time. When they called the roll, several of the defendants ahead of me on the list asked for a continuance. Since I had taken the next day off for Thanksgiving, I really wanted to get out of there and make the six hour drive home to my parent’s house.
When they got to me on the list I respectfully requested a continuance. “On what grounds?” asked the Judge. I forcefully replied, “Still gathering evidence for my defense sir.” To my utter surprise the judge said, “two week continuance – granted.”
I stood up, walked out and headed home for Thanksgiving.
Two weeks later I had gathered no further evidence, but all the homework I had done already, was neatly organized in a 3-ring binder with copies of everything to be entered into evidence as the proceedings might require. I fully intended to get to the court early and be first on the list, but my workday conspired against me and I just made it to the courtroom at 6:28.
This time when they called the roll, I indicated that I was ready to proceed, but the docket was very long. There were drunk driving cases. There were domestic abuse cases. There were public nuisance cases. There were a crap-ton of cases; and after the first hour I did a little math and it looked like I was going to be lucky to get out of there before midnight.
I had settled into a seat in the back of the courtroom near the far corner, which, as it turns out, is where the cops sit.
I used to love the TV show Night Court, and this was no less than a real live version of the same. The cases were fascinating, the people were crazy and the lawyers were like real live cartoon characters. I ended up sitting next to this young cop who as amused with the whole thing as I was. Every few cases he would go up and testify about this or that, but each time he came back we had a hell of a time snickering and throwing elbows over the absurdity of it all.
It was so entertaining that I didn’t even realize more that six hours had gone by.
At 12:30, there were only two cases left – mine and that of Mr. Rajesh Patel. They called Mr. Patel’s case and like a scene straight out of a bad stand-up routine about a New York Cabbie with a horrible Indian accent, the defendant began an indiscernible diatribe about his innocence in the traffic matter before the court.
Mr. Patel had no knowledge of, or respect for, the rules or procedures of the court. He interrupted the judge, spoke out of turn, and referred to exhibits not entered into evidence. We were more than six hours into the evening and the judge was tired, I was tired, we were all tired.
After listening to Mr. Patel for more than ten minutes, the judge banged his gavel and said, “Mr. Patel! You do not appear to understand at all how this court works. I find your statements illogical and erroneous. Since it appears we are at an impasse, I would like to offer you a deal. You plead guilty to the offense in question and I will cut the fine in half and reduce the points to zero. Can you live with that?”
By this time, my cop buddy and me were laughing so hard we were barely breathing. This whole thing between the Judge and Rajesh Patel was funnier than anything in a TV sitcom. Mr. Patel considered the offer and in his thick, almost comical Indian accent said, “Yes your honor, that is a deal I can live with.” Mr. Patel’s case was closed and the bailiff called my case.
Much to my surprise, as I rose to walk to the front of the courtroom, so too did my cop buddy. Unbeknownst to me, for the past six plus hours, I had been sitting right next to the guy I was about to go up against.
I’m not sure if I was the wolf or the sheepdog, but the game was on!
I sat down in the chair for defendants and the judge asked the cop to tell his recollection of the events in question.
He told it pretty much how it had happened, and when he was done the judge turned to me and said, “Mr. Nazarian, what say you?”
I pulled out my 3-ring notebook and opened it to the first of the many pages it contained. I began to quote the NJ traffic statutes that clearly state the thirteen-foot rule, and that I intended to prove that the officer could not possibly state with certainty, that I had not stopped thirteen feet from the stop sign and then proceeded through.
I began to say, “I would like to offer exhibit one into evidence…” when the judge cut me off.
“Mr. Nazarian” he said, “It is a quarter to one in the morning. I am not at all likely to be swayed by anything in the neat little binder you have there, but you are clearly a well-organized and patient fellow since you have been here since six thirty and you have a fancy binder of (insert mocking voice) evidence.”
The judge looked around the nearly empty courtroom and continued, “would you be willing to take the same deal I just gave to Mr. Patel so we can all go the hell home and go to bed?”
I sat quietly for a moment and replied, “So long as you go to yours and I go to mine, I will take that deal.” The judge cracked a wry smile and said, “oh, and you’re funny too. What a guy!”
He instructed me to see the clerk on my way out. The clerk told me I owed the Town of Oakland $75, plus $15 in court fees.” I told her that I would have to pay it the next day since I did not have my checkbook with me.
With a confused look on her face she asked, “Why didn’t you bring your checkbook with you?” Without missing a beat I replied, “I didn’t expect to lose.” She smiled and me and said, “Oh, I like you. You can come by the town office tomorrow and pay it then.”
Two weeks later I was standing in the checkout line at the grocery store, and right behind me was the judge with a cart full of cat food. I looked at the cart then looked at the judge and said, “Hey judge, I guess you like cats?”
He looked right at me and said, “my ex wife liked cats and somehow I got stuck with them.” I leaned in closer to him and said… “you should have given them to Mr. Patel.”
The judge smiled and said, “that’s a pretty good idea. I better not see you in my courtroom any time soon or YOU might go home with them.” Without hesitation I said, “I hate cats.”
He immediately replied, “even better.”
From time to time, others are going to use the “it’s not personal” excuse on you. Don’t let them off that easy. If you do find yourself in such a sticky situation, ask if you can have the same deal as Mr. Patel. From what I hear, it is a deal worth taking.
Copyright © 2015 – Stephen S. Nazarian – All rights reserved.