Gene Weingarten: Trial by perjury

April 19, 2012

It is said that everyone has a price, a sum of money large enough to corrupt his moral integrity. I always suspected that I might have a price, too, but was a little alarmed recently to discover it is $125.

That was the price of the speed-camera ticket that arrived in the mail, together with a photo of a car in flagrante, doing 40 mph in a zone designated for 25. The car was the make, model and color of my car, and the infraction occurred at a place and time consistent with my routine. So, let’s face it, it was my car. However — here is where complex moral mathematics begin to intrude — the close-up photo of the license tag was a little blurry. With a little creative squinting, those two zeroes on the tag might be seen to resemble 6s or 8s. Which would mean this law-breaking vehicle belonged to someone else entirely.

My family looked and squinted, informed me those were clearly zeros, and advised me to just pay the ticket. “Not so fast,” I said. (Ha-ha.) There were complicating moral factors here, I explained, such as the inherent unfairness of a system that places the word of a soulless machine over that of a human. I decided this argument would appeal to Immanuel Kant, the 18th-century German philosopher who is still considered the go-to guy on matters of moral reasoning. Would not Kant — a humanist besotted with the notion of God and soul — have countenanced just the teensiest of prevarications in furtherance of the cause of mankind?

“No.”

Drat. This is Paul Guyer, America’s leading Kantian scholar. I have him on the phone. Surely, I argue, given competing injustices, Kant would have …


(Illustration by Eric Shansby)

“Kant,” Guyer said with dreadful finality, “believed that if you misrepresent what you know to be the truth, you are no longer fully human.”

What a wussbag that guy was. I decided I didn’t need a philosopher, anyway. What I needed was a lawyer. So I called a lawyer friend and asked how much I could, you know, lie.

“You can’t,” he said.

What is WRONG with these people? I started to object, but the guy kept talking until I dummied up and started taking notes.

“You are permitted to present a vigorous defense and you are constitutionally protected from having to incriminate yourself. This becomes very valuable when you remember …”

A theatrical pause.

“… That criminal justice isn’t about whether you did it or not.”

“It’s not?”

“No,” he said, as if talking to a particularly thickheaded dog. “It is about whether there is ample evidence to convict you. So your job is to talk about the terrible injustice created by the lamentable insufficiency of the fatally blurry evidence.”

Now I was getting somewhere. For good measure I made one more call, to a different sort of lawyer. This one worked at one of those firms with the cheesy midnight TV ads asking if you’ve been victimized by asbestos, a car accident, mold, alien rectal probes, etc. A lawyer there advised me: “Have a big file in front of you, like you’re going to take hours of their time if they don’t make this go away. And bring a stack of pictures.”

Pictures of what?

“Your car. All angles. Say it doesn’t look like the car in the speed camera photo, which it won’t, because the lighting will be different, plus also it might not be the same car.”

But it is the same …

“Because. It. Might. Not. Be. The. Same. Car.”

Gotcha.

So there I was, at Traffic Adjudication Court with a stack of 8-by-10 glossies and a file as thick as my thigh filled with old newspapers. The hearing examiner looked at it, and me, and my photo, which he said was too blurry, dismissing the case before I had issued even a syllable of fictoid.

Soul prevailed over machine. I had retained my humanity. I hope Kant is satisfied. That wussbag.

E-mail Gene at weingarten@washpost.com.

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