Pedestrian’s Ticket to Adventure: Jaywalking : Steps Taken at Los Angeles Intersection Lead to Long Path Through Municipal Court System

Times Staff Writer

Birds do it; bees do it.

Presidents and guys like

Edwin Meese do it. . . .

Not everyone, of course, jaywalks. The incidence is said to be very low among Eskimos, Bedouin, Finnish forest rangers, incarcerated felons and anyone who lives in Chicago.

A lot of people do, though, deliberately or inadvertently (maybe tens of thousands in Los Angeles this year).


Calvin Coolidge, for one, was said to be a notorious jaywalker. His motivation for strolling across busy intersections (absent-mindedness? hauteur?) is not recorded, though one can well imagine his rationale: “I do not choose to run.”

Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese did it, too, in Los Angeles in 1980. Meese, even as you and I, was fined $10. He did not choose to pay (absent-mindedness? hauteur?).

Five years later, in July of 1985, the long arm of the law reached cross-country to smite the offender. Meese’s penalty, meanwhile, had escalated from a rather pedestrian $10 to the far more interesting, even curious, sum of $130.50.

At about the same time a red-faced Meese was groping in his jeans for $130.50, an ordinary, workaday pedestrian was poised on the edge of a dilemma.

His assignment, if he chose to accept it: to cross a busy intersection, northeast corner to southwest, on the way to work. His alternatives: southwest to southeast, then southeast to northeast, against two red lights--or southwest to northwest, then northwest to northeast, aided by the mute but benevolent assistance of a pair of greens. Intrinsically chicken, he chose the latter.

Several yards farther along, the pedestrian’s attention was arrested by the spectacle of two policemen surrounding a fair-haired young bicyclist. The cyclist was attempting to explain something to the police. The police weren’t buying.

The pedestrian slowed his pace. In a flash, one of the policemen was blocking his path.

“What’re you,” asked the officer, “colorblind?”

“No, sir,” the pedestrian riposted cleverly.

“Yeah? Well that’s how people get killed.”

“How’s that, sir?” asked the pedestrian, genuinely perplexed.

The officer whipped out a ticket pad and began writing.

The pedestrian, sensing a delay, reached for a cigarette.

The policeman’s partner, busy ticketing the bicyclist, snapped to attention as if Calvin Coolidge had just appeared as a blip on his radar and advanced on the pedestrian, body language spelling “Menace.”

“Don’t do it!” shouted the partner. “Don’t you ever put your hand in your pocket while talking to a cop!”

“Learn and live,” said the pedestrian, a former prisoner of war not particularly anxious to repeat.

The first officer handed over the jaywalking ticket, with the admonition, ' ‘You must appear in court on the date specified. You may not mail the fine in.”

“Thanks,” the pedestrian said. “You have a nice day, too.”

The pedestrian moved on but couldn’t resist a backward glance at the beleaguered cyclist--a jaybiker? “ ‘Alone and palely loitering,’ ” thought the pedestrian. “For God’s sake, kid, don’t put your hand in your pocket!”

“Yes,” officer Sergio Diaz said diplomatically, “there would appear to have been several deviations from normal procedure.”

“Like, ‘What’re you, colorblind?’ ”

“It’s not the normal salutation,” said Diaz, a patient, articulate spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Department. “As for his saying, ‘You can’t pay it by mail,’ well, that was incorrect too.

“Our officers are instructed to fend off any questions on court procedure with the response ‘I don’t know.’ It’s not because we’re trying to stonewall anyone. On the contrary, we try to be helpful. It’s just that there are a lot of court policies an officer may not be letter-perfect on, and it’s best not to make a mistake.”

Diaz and the pedestrian, who had telephoned him, agreed that the policemen in question simply might have been having a bad day, like a mechanic who had dropped a DeSoto on his favorite toe, or a journalist who had reached for a cigarette. “Inexcusable,” Diaz said, “but maybe understandable.”

What did Diaz think, though, of the escalating incidence of jaywalking tickets in Los Angeles? Inexcusable but understandable?

An article in The Times last year pithily pointed out that Los Angeles police had issued 40,747 such tickets in 1973. Detroit, its closest competitor among major cities, had cited 4,428 jaywalkers.

New York City, where crossing against the light has long since surpassed stickball (even stickups) as the most popular outdoor pastime, peeled off only 517 jaywalk tickets. The police of Chicago, population 3 million, have failed to cite a single jaywalker in the last 20 years!

Did Los Angeles, then, ease up in 1984, that superhospitable Olympic year?

“Not exactly,” Diaz said. “In 1984, we cited 58,554 jaywalkers"--a 41% increase.

“L.A. is not like New York,” Diaz said. “There, they blatantly disregard the (jaywalking) law. Here, people have a different attitude about these things. They tend to obey the regulations.”

All but 60,000 of them. . . .

“It does seem a little contradictory, a chicken-or-egg sort of thing. If there’s enforcement, people tend to obey it.

“However the number grew, the law, of course, is designed for your own safety. The bottom line is this: In our accident file, pedestrian violations account for only 4.5% of all injuries and fatalities.”

An impressive bottom line indeed, and well worth the odd sawbuck.

“What, though, about a pedestrian unjustly cited?”

“You can always take it to court,” Diaz said.

The notice informing the pedestrian he could indeed pay his $10 by mail arrived by mail about a week before his court date.

By then, however, he had crossed the moral Rubicon and was prepared to face his accuser. It was, he reasoned, the American way. Stupid, maybe, but American.

Chagrin began to gnaw away at Justice from the outset:

A long, hot drive through Hill Street traffic to the Los Angeles Municipal Court’s Traffic Division, stopping at each red light and even a couple of greenies (to give the jaywalkers a fighting chance).

A $2 fee to park in the court’s public facilities--maybe not the grungiest parking garage in the city, but not exactly a place you’d like to rent for your daughter’s wedding. Fifteen grimy minutes spent tweaking shards of glass out of the right front radial.

A long wait at Court 60 on the fourth floor. Too long. Down to the first-floor snack bar where all they served was “new” Coke (ptui!).

Snatches of conversation on the snack-bar bench:

“Hey, man, I don’t wanna do no time.”

“How come? You get a good night’s sleep.”

“Sleep, (bleep). They’re 10,000 overcrowded down there. You wanna sleep on toppa a guy who’s sleepin’ on toppa another guy who’s sleepin’ on the concrete? (Bleep!)”

In court at last, along with 250 other alleged miscreants of all sizes, shapes, degree of difficulty.

Judge appears. Young guy. Rolls up sleeves of robe a la “Night Court.” Fine sense of humor. Needs it.

Quick, efficient, compassionate. “I’ll get you a bargain: $33. Next.”

Alleged miscreants instructed to say simply, “Guilty, not guilty or traffic school.” Most ticketees long on explanations. Judge long on patience.

Pedestrian pleads not guilty. “Window 1 for court date.”

“Not Guilty” line much shorter than “Guilty” queue. Only a 40-minute wait to pay $20 bail and get new court date.

Pedestrian feels American but sheepish. In the Bronx, they call ‘em suckers. In the Bronx, they don’t jaywalk.

Jaywalking. An eccentric word for an eccentric offense.

Dictionary says it has nothing to do with the erratic pattern the practitioner traces as he twines through traffic. Rather, it’s something a “jay” would do. A jay in olden times was a foolish person, perhaps a bumpkin. In days even more olden, a jay was a “wanton” (see “Othello”). Wanton now more a streetwalker than a jaywalker.

Further research. The more recent “jay,” or “fool,” derived from one Juggins, who, in 1887, made a jerk of himself “by losses on the turf.” Crossed on green, but bet his money on the bobtail nag.

“Most people think traffic officers work on a quota system,” Officer Diaz said. “They don’t. It’s against the law.

“Tickets are only part of the officer’s duty. The other parts, more important, are ‘education and advice.’ If all he’s doing is writing up tickets, he’s not necessarily doing his job.

“I mean, it’s not set up so that if you give out X number of tickets you win a toaster. They’re not working for points; they’re working a beat.

“Another misconception is that tickets are a big revenue-producer for the city. OK, $10 times 58,000 jaywalkers comes to more than half a million, but a lot of time is put into that $10 ticket. There’s the officer’s time on the beat, then the sergeant reviewing the ticket, checking for correct street address, procedure, etc. Then somebody has to fill out the notices, mail them. In terms of time and money, we’re already over $10, I think.

“Then of course, if somebody pleads not guilty, the ticketing officer is subpoenaed and has to appear in court. . . .”

Six weeks after his first appearance, the pedestrian shows up in court again to contest his ticket.

A dozen police officers mill about the courtroom, three or four of them drawing diagrams of alleged traffic violations on blackboards.

These are big men, uniformly mustachioed, uniformly burly. One is almost subliminally conscious of raw power: a roomful of huge arms with men attached.

The judge--a moonlighting attorney, really--materializes, cut from the same cloth as the previous judge, given to the same bons mots (“It is well known that whoever sees an officer automatically becomes a perfect driver”).

The pedestrian’s adrenaline begins to flow. Mentally, he rehearses his plea, the nearly noble rhetoric with which he will confound his accusers. . . .

The case is called. The ticketing officer has failed to appear. The case is dismissed. The $20 will be returned. . . .

And if the ticketee fails to appear, or fails to send in his $10? Not to put too fine a point on it, but what if one pulls a Meese?

“The $120.50 tacked on to Mr. Meese’s bail of $10 is not interest,” said Marion Scritchfield, deputy court administrator for metro operations. “What that was was a charge for a separate violation.

“When you sign a ticket issued to you, your signature says, ‘Without admitting guilt, I promise to appear in court. . . .’

“When you do not appear, you have violated your promise. That’s when we get into the heavy-duty money. Not for jaywalking but for reneging on your promise to the city.”

But $120.50? How does the city arrive at such a seemingly arbitrary figure?

“It’s a formula, carefully worked out,” said Christopher Crawford, chief of court services, “and incidentally, it’s up to $171 now. You don’t appear, even after notice and a grace period, your cost automatically goes up to $100. The--in Los Angeles County--the law tacks on a penalty assessment of $7 for every $10 of fine.

“Where does it go? It goes to fund an arm-long list of services: victims’ indemnity, police-officer training, the law library, construction of jails and courthouses, crime labs. . . .”

Fair enough--more than fair--but $100 plus $70 equals $170. The extra buck?

“That,” Crawford said, “like Meese’s 50 cents, is the cherry on the top. On every single case, we add a dollar for night court.” Ah!

And if you still don’t pay?

“It goes into the records an an ‘outstanding warrant,’ ” said Diaz, “and if you are stopped by the police--or apply for a press card or something--you face the distinct possibility of being ‘run through the computer.’ ”

If an outstanding warrant appears by your name, you are taken by police car to a police station and given “some hours” to pay--by cash, period.

“You have to have those greenbacks,” Diaz said, “or you stay in jail until somebody comes up with the money for you.

“We provide a safe place, but for people who have never been arrested, it can be a little scary.”

Even if not stopped, one way or another they’re going to get you. An outstanding traffic violation will put a hold on your driver license at renewal time. Outstanding parking tickets will show up on the bill (including penalties) the next time you register your car.

Even “little” violations can get not only expensive, but messy. Provided, of course, that you’re guilty. . . .

Cleansed white as wash, albeit on a fluke, the pedestrian was somehow deflated. Something was missing in the Grand Design of Life. The ticketing officer, sure, but that wasn’t quite it.

Antsy, he hung around the courtroom, listening to cases.

One in particular struck his fancy, the case of a woman who’d made a left turn into a parking lot and was defending her honor, not to mention her purse, on the grounds of sexism.

The woman was young and blond. The policeman, her nemesis, was young and blond. So, for that matter, was the judge.

The young blond officer, the young blond woman told the young blond judge, kept calling her by her first name. It wasn’t until she insisted he call her “Miss,” she testified, that he began writing out the ticket.

The young blond officer looked at his shoes, the young blond woman looked daggers and in the end, the young blond judge looked the other way and dismissed the case.

And then it struck the pedestrian. Where was the young blond bicyclist, the one who was ticketed by the pedestrian’s own enforcers?

His absence nagged the pedestrian. Still does.

Did he pay, like a normal person, or contest the case, like a real American?

Was he fined--$170 plus $1 cherry on the top?

Will he grow up to be President? Will he settle for attorney general?