The Grace of Traffic Court

I knew there was a speed trap ahead, but I wasn’t paying close enough attention. On my way to the health club early one morning, I was listening intently to an interesting story on National Public Radio when I was pulled over. The police officer was cordial and explained that I was in a school zone with a 25 mile per hour speed limit.

20131104 - 1I knew I was traveling above the speed limit and had no quarrel with the ticket. The officer said, “You have a perfect driving record, so if you don’t want any points to go on your record, you can ask for an informal hearing in the district traffic court. You’ll still have to pay the fine, but I’ll recommend to the magistrate that no points go on your record.  Have a great day!” Unexpected grace. 

I decide to call the district court and am given a date to appear before the magistrate. Actually, I’m looking forward to it because I am always eager for new experiences. On the appointed day, Gary and I go together to traffic court because we have meetings afterward. Cell phone cameras are not permitted, so we take them back to the car. We go through security then head to the traffic court on the lower level. Take no chances grace.

I am fascinated by what happens in the next thirty minutes. Fifteen of us sit in folding chairs in three rows, waiting to see the magistrate. As soon as one person is done, more people enter the room, and we keep sliding into the next chair until it’s our turn. The traffic court allows an advocate (but no attorney) to accompany those seeking an informal hearing. Teenagers and the elderly often have a parent or child with them. Relational grace.

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The line moves fast. The process is well thought-out and efficient, sensitive to the fact that most people have to take off from work to appear in traffic court. Thoughtful grace. We give our last names, and the arbitrator finds our folder, quickly scans it, and announces her decision. Many people receive leniency, which means no points go on the record. There is no privacy. Everyone can hear the conversations. The magistrate treats each person with courtesy and respect.

  • Amy steps forward. She was speeding. “You’re a good, safe driver,” the magistrate says. “I am waiving the points on your record. Yes, the fine is expensive, but I have no control over it.” Ordinary grace.
  • Andrew has an attitude. He wants the arbitrator to waive not only the points, but the fine itself. The arbitrator reminds Andrew that the police officer already graciously recommended that there be no points, but she has no authority to eliminate the fine. The man still protests strongly, and she reminds him that he can ask for a formal hearing and sends him on his way. Undeserved grace. 
  • The next person is a teenager accompanied by his mother. He made a rookie mistake in a construction zone and was ticketed. The arbitrator says jokingly, “Are you going to fight me, too? I’ll keep the points off your record, but if this were a speeding ticket it would be different. By the way, I like your cufflinks. You know, there’s a wonderful store nearby that sells unique cufflinks. You should check it out.” Sweet grace.
  • Joe advocates for his friend, Tim, who has a disability. The arbitrator waives the points, but the advocate also asks to have a reduced fine because of the person’s financial status and level of stress that he is experiencing. The arbitrator demonstrates a generous spirit. Compassionate grace. 
  • Another young man comes forward. “Seth, you were stopped six times in four years. I will not reward you by waiving your points.”
    “But I have nothing on my record since 2011.”
    “I can ask a lieutenant, but I am not of a mind to change my mind. You can request a formal hearing.” Tough Grace.
  • Nancy is charged with disobeying a traffic control device. “You haven’t had a violation in a while, so I won’t give you any points.”
    “You’re not going to put on my record that I was driving barefoot, are you? I walked into a sinkhole and had to take off my shoes and socks. Will that be on my record?” “No. Take care.” Precious grace.
  • Somehow Andrew is back, asking for leniency. The magistrate says, “You fought me and challenged my integrity. I am not changing my mind. You have a right to a formal hearing.”
    “But I can’t take off work again.”
    “I did not create this. My job is to enforce the law.” Uncompromising grace.
  • Now it’s my turn. “Haller?”
    “You have a fine driving record. No points. Just pay the fine.”
    I am compelled to say, “I want to thank you for showing unfailing respect to everyone who appears before you, even those who are difficult.”
    (Big smile) “Thank you. Take care.” Extraordinary grace.

My day in traffic court taught me a few lessons that we in the church could learn from.

1.  Grace does not discriminate. 

I have great admiration for the magistrate. Day in and day out she has to mete out “punishment” in a way that honors and respects others. She often gets grief and stoically bears the brunt of other people’s misplaced anger. In my book she is a saint. In fact, my hearing before her is on All Saints Day.

Regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, economic status, or political party, the magistrate’s responsibly is to treat each person with dignity. I wonder why we in the church can’t always be as courteous and gracious to one another.

2.  Grace does not judge.

Even though the magistrate is empowered to make judgments about actions, she never once berated those who appeared before her. We were not typecast as “bad” people. We simply made a mistake by committing a traffic violation, which, the magistrate said, happens once every ten years for the average driver.

I wonder what it will take for those of us who seek to follow Christ to unfailingly view every person in this world as a child of God rather than critically assess the worth of others when they don’t act, think, talk, look, or practice religion like us. Dare we bless rather than judge?

3.  Grace does not dismiss accountability.

None of us in traffic court were completely let off the hook. The magistrate had the authority to mitigate the consequences of our driving violations, but we still had to pay up. If we are not held accountable, we will never learn the importance of obeying driving laws.

I wonder how we in the church can hold ourselves accountable as we graciously live out who we claim to be in Our Doctrinal Heritage (¶102, The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 2012). “Support without accountability promotes moral weakness. Accountability without support is a form of cruelty. A church that rushes to punishment is not open to God’s mercy, but a church lacking the courage to act decisively on personal and social issues loses its claim to moral authority. The church exercises its discipline as a community through which God continues to reconcile the world to Godself.”

Grace is God’s heartbeat in our world. I go upstairs and wait in another line to pay my fine: $175. Most of the fines are the same. I hear from others, “what a rip-off,” “a cash cow for the state,” and “this is a racket.” I learn later that traffic tickets are big business in Michigan, complete with traffic ticket websites, traffic ticket FAQ’s, and even traffic ticket attorneys.

Walking out I say, “Oh well. If my fine will take care of a pothole somewhere in Michigan, I’ll be content.” “Wishful thinking, scofflaw!” Gary retorts. We get in the car. I’m driving, and we head out slowly.


9 thoughts on “The Grace of Traffic Court

  1. Beautiful, Laurie. There is more teaching about grace in this essay than I learned in systematic theology. The church can indeed benefit from the teaching of this saintly magistrate.

  2. Perhaps you should have stayed on the West Side of the State. You were a “good girl” here. We miss you. Jim and Bernie Hynes

  3. Thanks, Laurie, for making everything a teaching moment for us. You have the gift of seeing ordinary life through God’s eyes. Remind me to tell you my story of the illegal right turn on red.


  4. I’ve been there too and had the same gracious experience. If only we could be as gracious to each other. Too often I encounter situations in church where cultural and religious experiences are not graciously accepted. Perhaps someday?

  5. Your post could not have come at a better time. I served on a jury this week involving a personal injury suit and we were deliberating damages to be awarded. I read your post and reread it a couple of times through the process of deliberation, praying for compassion and guidance to help reach a fair verdict. Through much discussion and compromise, we did reach a verdict which, after it was announced, the judge told us she thought we got it right. Compassionate grace, tough grace, support, accountability, fairness all worked their way through my mind. Everyday lessons .. thanks.

    • Ellen, I am so glad that the blog helped you be able to see more clearly the fine balance between grace, which includes both support and accountability. Kudos to your jury!

  6. Laurie, amazing way to look at things! such good lessons you are helping me to see – thanks! I just bet your thoughtful comment to the magistrate made her day!

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