Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Traffic court and the rules of grammar

I was a bit curious tonight about a couple of things so I picked up my daughter's school dictionary.

The Scott, Foresman Advanced Dictionary said "and" was a coordinating conjunction that connected "words, phrases and clauses of grammatically equivalent constructions." One of the definitions was "added to." The example given was a math problem.

I think we all understand that when we use the word and we are including both the word or phrase before it and the word or phrase after it. Logically and means that any conditions before or after and are necessary.

The same dictionary said that or is a word that expresses a choice.

And that brings us to today's story.

Yesterday I was in justice court on a traffic ticket for a long-time client. She was charged with speeding in a school zone. She was accused of driving 30 mph in that school zone. It was our contention, however, that the complaint was fatally defective because it also alleged she was driving more than 30 mph - an impossibility.

The complaint alleged that my client

"...did then and there, unlawfully, operate a motor vehicle on a public street or highway in Harris County, Texas, at 30 miles per hour, which speed was greater than was reasonable and prudent under the circumstances then existing, and the speed was more than 30 miles per hour in an urban district, and more than 20 miles per hour which was the lawful maximum prima facie speed limit posted by sign."

I told the prosecutor the complaint was defective months ago. He told me they would amend it. We went back to court and it hadn't been changed. I told the new prosecutor that the complaint was defective because if you're driving 30 mph, then you can't be driving at a speed greater than 30 mph.

He refused to budge, making some argument about alleging in the conjunctive and proving up in the disjunctive. I told him, in legalese, that he was full of it. And means and, not or.

I then decided to approach the judge, Dale Gorczynski whose sole apparent qualification for the bench was that he was term-limited out of his seat on the Houston city council (where he did little or nothing to distinguish himself from so many other anonymous faces who have "served" the city.

The judge looked at the complaint. I made my argument, the prosecutor made an argument that defied logic and redefined the meaning of the word and. I agreed one could plead any number of alternative ways in which someone could violate the law - but you had to plead them in separate paragraphs or you had to use the word or.

The judge seemed quite puzzled by the entire argument. He asked his clerk if this was the same complaint that had been drafted by the city attorney's office. He asked if it were the same complaint that had been approved by the 16 justices of the peace. He asked if it had been altered in any way.

When the clerk answered yes to each question, the judge then case aside any doubt that he was qualified to sit on the bench in justice court. With the understanding that if he ruled in favor of the state my client would give the court some money for her case to be dismissed and that if ruled in our favor she would walk out without paying a dime - the judge denied my motion to quash the complaint.

And once again we can rest easy knowing that the justice courts are the most inaccurately named courts in Texas. There is no justice there - there are only a bevy of grocery store clerks to process pleas and payments.

This unending reverence to the notion of this is how we've always done it has been used to justify every injustice known to man. It is the most insidious form of oppression in our criminal (in)justice system. It is the same bromide used in courtrooms across the country to deny constitutional protections to the accused.

All it takes to end it however, is one person brave enough to challenge it and one person brave enough to ignore it.

1 comment:

Jeff Gamso said...

Come to Ohio where the legislature in its, er, wisdom, concluded that, at least in statutes, "'And' may be read 'or,' and 'or' may be read 'and' if the sense requires it."

Of course, there's also Humpty Dumpty:

When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.''