It looks like the free ride has finally come to an end.

I first noticed it one night this past summer when I was stopped for speeding on Lake Shore Drive.

“The speed limit is 45,” the cop informed me, “I clocked you at 62.”

“Yeah,” I said, “I didn’t see you down there till it was too late.” He’d been hiding just in front of an entrance ramp on the far side of an overpass.

“The speed limit is 45,” he said again.

“Yeah, sorry, I wasn’t paying attention. I usually try to keep it under 60.”

“Sixty? The speed limit is 45.” He pronounced each word distinctly, as if he’d been practicing.

“Yeah, but I know you don’t usually bother until 60.”

“The speed limit is 45,” he said again. Christ, there’s a sign every quarter mile. Does he think I can’t read?

It was like talking to a cop out in the sticks, someplace in Iowa or Nebraska, or, worse yet, in the suburbs. It was as if my speeding were a personal affront, as if I’d spit in his face. “You’re not gonna last long in this town,” I wanted to tell him, “if you’re gonna take every illegal lane change personally.” I didn’t bother. I was afraid he’d take that personally too.

I gave him my license and bond card and walked back to my car to wait for the ticket. When he handed it to me I could see he was still irritated.

“Look pal,” I felt like saying, “this has got nothing to do with you. Haven’t you ever felt like getting out there in the left lane–the darkness of the lake on one side, the lights of the city on the other, the radio cranked as loud as it’ll go–and just passing everything in sight?” Oh well, I decided, he probably hasn’t.

The average Chicago cop will generally only give you a ticket if that’s what he’s out to do. If he’s in the traffic division that’s his full-time job and if he pulls you over chances are good you’re getting the ticket. If a beat cop decides to write tickets, he’ll usually go to an intersection where a left turn is illegal, or just one where it’s easy to hide. If you’re the next guy to make that turn or the next one through the light late, the chances are good that you’re getting written up. If you run the same light while the same cop just happens to be passing by, you usually won’t rate a second glance.

Years ago the laws were enforced more evenly; if you ran a light or even almost ran a light your chances of getting pulled over were high. Sometimes two different squad cars would fight over who saw you first. This wasn’t because they were in a hurry to write tickets. Actually only a fool, or an extremely poor or honest man, got a ticket back then. You gave them a couple of bucks or a five or a ten, if you were a sport, and you’d be on your way. If the smallest thing you had was a 20 all but the greediest would give you change. Then the federal government stepped in and started sending cops to jail for accepting bribes, and traffic enforcement hasn’t been the same since. The police no longer have any incentive to pull you over.

Now the average cop will usually only go out of his way to give you a ticket if you do something exceptionally foolish, like run into the side of his squad car; even then some guys will give you a pass if there isn’t too much damage. And when they do give you a ticket they almost always skip the lecture; these guys hated school too. And they really don’t care how you drive.

If they ask, “What’s the hurry?” they generally appreciate honesty.

“There was a good song on the radio” will usually get you a lot farther than “My little baby’s sick and I have to get to the drugstore for medicine.”

“You were 20 over,” they’ll say to the former. “I’m gonna write you for 12. If you go to court, they’ll let you walk. Sorry if you didn’t hear the end of the song.”

The story about the baby will usually get you tickets for advanced mopery and lack of imagination in addition to the original charge.

If you really want to get a rise out of them you can say something like, “Don’t you think the city would be a lot better off if you spent your time catching some of the criminals who are running around loose out here?”

They might suddenly decide that you look just like a criminal. Try to remember, these men are armed and often dangerous. And even if they restrain themselves on the street many judges will ask them, before court begins, if there are any defendants they really care about. If your name ends up on that list you can usually forget about getting off.

The second sign that things were changing was taped to the wall in traffic court: “Do Not Check In,” it read. “Have a Seat Your Name Will Be Called.”

I found an empty seat next to a young Latin guy. “What’s going on?” I whispered.

He shook his head. “I don’t know,” he whispered back. He looked worried and it turned out later that he had every reason to be.

“No movie?” I whispered.

“I don’t think so,” he whispered back.

Just then the judge started to talk. “Those of you who are used to being sentenced to see a movie are in for a surprise: there is no more movie.”

A ripple of disbelief went through the courtroom. The judge didn’t appear to notice. She went on and on about the horror of illegal left turns, U-turns too close to intersections, right turns on red lights between 7 AM and 7 PM, illegal lane changes, speeding, running red lights, failure to signal a turn, failure to signal a lane change, failure to do anything after signaling, failure to have a light over your rear license plate, and a host of other infractions too numerous to mention here. She sounded just like a teacher I had in the fourth grade; wait a minute–this must be some kind of conspiracy–she sounded just like that cop out on Lake Shore Drive.

“The free ride is over,” she told the hushed courtroom. “There will be no more mass dismissals. If you plead innocent be prepared to have a defense.” She explained that all the police officers were present and prepared to testify. She then listed defenses that we might as well forget about using. She didn’t actually mention the good-song-on-the-radio defense but I decided it was probably not a good idea.

If we plead guilty, the judge informed us, the court might consider the nature of the infraction and our good driving record and fine us $45 and place us on supervision for a month. OK, I thought, I knew there had to be an out somewhere.

However, the judge went on, if we have been placed on supervision recently, or if our driving record is bad, we might as well forget it; there will be no more repeated passes for repeat offenders.

Well, that takes the wind out of my sails. Not only was I put on supervision a few months before in this very same building, but I have a driving record that is less than perfect. The convictions are all from out of state. But even if I could prove that the state of Iowa has a personal vendetta against me it would probably not be much help with this judge.

“Oh, well,” I thought philosophically, “it was bound to happen eventually.” For years it’s been the greatest deal in town, probably the whole country. Many courts will give you a pass on a minor violation if you take the time to appear. They’ll put you on supervision for a month or two, and if you don’t get another ticket they’ll drop the charges and it won’t go on your driving record. But in most of these places they kept track of how many passes you were given and they always made you pay a fine.

In Chicago there wasn’t any fine, and no one kept track. There was the infamous traffic-safety movie, which the Special Commission on the Administration of Justice in Cook County called “a joke to repeat offenders, who would brag about how many times they had seen the film.”

What a silly thing to brag about. The real joke was that you didn’t even have to see the film. Most times they just handed you back your license and sent you home. Actually, the movie was kind of fun, especially if you liked antique cars.

Those were the days, I thought, as I waited for my name. The guy next to me was called first. “Good luck,” I whispered as he slipped past.

He’d been pulled over for doing 12 over the limit. In the old days he’d have been home by now. He pled guilty in the hope of getting supervision. “What’s his record like?” the judge asked the corporation counsel.

The corporation counsel had a huge computer printout in front of him. He flicked through it. “Supervision for a red light in April, your honor,” he said.

That was all it took to get the judge sounding like my fourth-grade teacher again. The kid bowed his head as the lecture went on and on; he looked a little like Mad Dog Cole, I decided as the judge talked. Finally she said, “Guilty,” and the kid slunk away to pay his fine.

When my turn came I prepared for a similar fate. When the judge asked about my record there was a long pause. The corporation counsel was off to the side but I looked straight ahead. “It’s fine, your honor,” he said after a while. I uncrossed my fingers but I continued to look straight ahead. I was afraid if the judge caught me looking his way she’d ask to see the printout herself.

I don’t know why he did it. Maybe his father had driven a truck for a living and he understood about out-of-state tickets. Maybe the state of Iowa had once had a personal vendetta against him. More than likely, the computer screwed up.

A minute later I was out in the hallway whistling, waiting to pay my $45 fine. It shows how quickly man can adapt to a new system. At least I had the cash. Several defendants had not bothered to bring money to court. The judge couldn’t understand why anyone would do this. She must be from out of town, I decided on my way home.

The news has recently gotten worse. It turns out that I was simply caught in the gap between the movie and the newly instituted traffic-safety school. Since November 17, when you are placed on supervision you have to pay the $45 fine and take a four-hour traffic safety course. Records will be kept and if a person is sentenced to the school twice within three years he will then have to take an eight-hour course.

Personally, I’d rather take the CTA.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.