Cop: You were going 70 miles an hour.
Chico: Ah, you make a mistake, officer. We haven't been out an hour. We stole dis car 15 minutes ago.
Cop: Do you guys know that you were driving on the wrong side of the street, that you crashed through a fence, knocked down a lamppost, smashed a wagon and damaged the car in front of you?
Groucho: See here, officer. I paid three dollars for my driver's license. Doesn't that entitle me to any privileges?
Cop: Pipe down and take this ticket.
Chico: Hey, officer, how about giving me a ticket? Make it a Wednesday matinee.
-- from Five Star Theater, the Marx Brothers, Dec. 12, 1932
Instead of the Wednesday matinee, we attended the Friday morning performance of "Traffic Court, Baltimore City," where frequently there are scenes so comical you'd swear Groucho himself wrote the material. Why we have not attended more often -- as observer, not defendant -- is a mystery. Human comedy seldom found a better theater than Traffic Court.
The motor vehicle laws of Maryland, combined with the curmudgeonly seen-it-all of District Court judges, the wit of cops and the defendant class's absolute denial of any wrongdoing -- this is the perfect recipe for comical theater.
Take the time the novice defense attorney was bearing down on a traffic cop who had arrested the attorney's client on a drunk-driving charge. The cop had just testified that the defendant fumbled around in his glove compartment for several minutes and was unsuccessful in producing either his driver's license or car registration.
L "It was dark, was it not officer?" asked the young attorney.
"Was the glove compartment cluttered?"
"Well, then tell me, officer. Do you find it unusual that a man would have difficulty locating two small pieces of paper in a cluttered glove compartment in the darkness of the middle of the night?"
"Yes, sir, I do."
"He was sitting in my patrol car at the time."
At that moment, the cop could have bounced his eyebrows and stuck a cigar in his mouth, and I doubt that even the defense attorney would have objected.
Most of the time, of course, the cases in Traffic Court are mundane and routine, or so straddled in petty argument that an observer finds himself yawning and getting anxious for intermission. Still, there are golden moments.
Just last Friday, for instance, we attended a morning performance in Courtroom No. 3, at the District Court building on Wabash Avenue. Among the numerous traffic cases was one in which the defendant attempted to make a distinction between a U-turn and a left-hand turn. Perhaps the veteran judges of the District Courts have heard this one before. I found it novel.
A man was accused of making a left-hand turn at an intersection where lefts are prohibited at certain times of the day. The intersection was Greenmount Avenue and 33rd Street.
The defendant claimed to have been unjustly accused.
"A U-turn is not a left-hand turn," the man said.
The police officer who wrote the ticket countered with some logic of his own. "A U-turn is two left-hand turns," he told the judge.
(At this point in the proceedings, I imagined Groucho and Chico; this time, Groucho was the judge, Chico the defendant. Groucho: "If a U-turn is equal to two left-hand turns, and the fine for one left-hand turn is $50, then the fine for a U-turn is $100." Chicho: "Ah, you turna' my stomach." Groucho: "That'll cost you jail. I'll give you a choice: 10 years in Leavenworth, or 11 years in Twelveworth.")
Our Friday morning defendant was insistent.
"I didn't do anything wrong," he said, and produced photographs of the intersection showing that, while there was a sign prohibiting lefts, there was no sign prohibiting U's.
The judge didn't buy any of this, but to soften the blow he offered the defendant probation before judgment and reduced his fine. (Groucho: "Instead of 11 years in Twelveworth, or 10 years in Leavenworth, I'll make it five-and-10 in Woolworth.)