My First Accident

My first accident + fun day in court


In the spring of 1962, I drove with Walt Niebauer to Bridgeton High School to take the SATs. We had the math and language arts portion in the morning and then a writing sample for the afternoon. At lunch we were driving though town looking for a place to eat when it happened. I was going through an intersection and the light turned yellow just as I entered it. On the other side of the intersection a car was double parked but its brake lights went out and I thought that the car was going to move. Suddenly, the brake lights came on again and I realized that there was a car in front of it that was double parked. I had to apply my brakes hard and managed to stop about 3 feet from the rear of the car. Bang! Something hit me from behind and pushed me into the car in front.

As we got out to study the damage, a policeman standing on the corner took charge. He told us to all follow him to the police station. Since none of the cars had suffered any more than minor damage, we were able to do so. At this point, I need to add that the policeman was white and the driver who hit me and the driver of the car in front of me were black. He treated them with extreme condescension  and didn't treat Walt or I much better. The way he talked I could tell he was an ignorant man with no regard for Negroes. Anyway, he gave the man who hit me and I both tickets for Reckless Driving. Walt and I got no lunch and just made it back in time to take the afternoon session.

After I got home, I discussed with my parents what to do about the ticket which I felt was an invalid citation. Perhaps Careless Driving (a much more minor offense) was warranted, but certainly not Reckless. Mom suggested that I call her Uncle Larry Crispin. Uncle Larry was married to my Grandmother's sister, Ruth, and was a pretty good lawyer.

I explained to him what happened and he told me to plead not guilty since he felt I didn't deserve a ticket at all. He also told me that if I was still found guilty, I should not pay the fine, but indicate that I was going to appeal and that he was my lawyer.

The day of the court appearance, I arrived at the court house and signed in and indicated that I would plead not guilty. In New Jersey, those who indicate they will plead guilty are taken first leaving the rest of us to wait until the docket is cleared of all of them. So I would have to wait quite a while as there were many in court.

After three of four cases, one of the most memorable cases I have ever heard about came up. A poor black man with obvious limited education was brought out in shackles. The charges were read: Theft of an Auto, Failure to change address on license, Driving while intoxicated, driving the wrong way on a one way street, failure to stop at end of street, and causing an accident. The judge asked how he pleaded and he replied "Guilty, I guess". The judge stopped him and told him that he, the judge, would be his lawyer. With some questioning, it was established that the car was his brother-in-law's and they had been driving together (the defendant driving). When they returned home, the brother-in-law did not ask for the keys back. The judge said that he would find him not guilty on the theft charge. The judge then lectured all of us on the importance of changing our license when our address changed, he then found him guilty of that account but waived the fine, He then told him that the one-way sign was not clear and would waive that charge and the failure to stop as well. Then the judge asked him how he pleaded on the DWI, to which he replied "Innocent!". We all laughed since it was obvious he felt that the judge was on his side. As the story unfolded, not only did he drive down the one way and failed to stop, but he had made a wide turn onto the street right in front of the court house and smashed into a police car parked there. The judge then found him guilty on the last three counts and since he couldn't pay, he went back to his cell.

The next case was the Reckless driving charge on the guy who had hit me. We had talked before going in and he had indicated that he knew I wasn't at fault. As he began to tell what had happened, he indicated that he had entered the intersection on the yellow and his son was standing on the seat next to him when he saw that I was stopping quickly. Trying to stop, but also trying to insure that his son didn't get thrown into the windscreen, he didn't brake hard enough and hit me. The  judge said, is the person you hit here in court? I replied, "I'm here your honor" to which I was invited before the bench and sworn in. I related that I had indeed stopped hard because the car in front was stopped due to a car in front of her that was double parked. I also told the judge that I also had received a ticket for Reckless Driving and intended to plead not guilty. The judge asked is the lady you hit here in court (now I didn't know since I hadn't seen her) to which I heard a voice, "Yes, your honor, I'm here. She was sworn in and testified that she had indeed started to go, but the car in front of her had stopped again to pick up more passengers. She had heard my brakes and looked in her rear view to see me stop completely. Then, she had been hit.

The judge looked at the policeman involved and said, "Did you give a ticket to the guy who was double parked", "No" was the reply. Then he admonished the policeman, "I would love to find the guy who hit first a fine, but he is only guilty of Careless Driving, not Reckless and you wrote an invalid ticket. This young man shouldn't have had any ticket at all and all that has happened here is that you have wasted a bunch of people's time not to mention mine. All cases dismissed."

Out in the hall we all congratulated ourselves on our good luck, I offered to pay damages on her car and he offered on mine, but the damages were so slight we decided to forget it.

Davdan @ 2008-2018