It's traffic court time in Fairfax County. All manner of people have come (provided they could find a place to park) to Room 1B in the Judicial Center to plead their cases before Judge Robert M. Hurst.
"Your Honor, the Beltway was kind of crowded, and my cruise control was broken."
"That stop sign wasn't there last week."
"I was paying attention; it's just that I do not have eyes behind my head."
They're sitting on hard benches, wearing blue-jean jackets and designer dresses, arm tattoos and pin-striped suits. One woman reads Vogue, waiting for her case to be called.
Anita King is supposed to be here, according to the docket. So is Frank J. Triolo and Saeed Keshavavznig. In total, more than 500 people will go to traffic court today. And then, there's always tomorrow:
"How come his radar showed me at 70, and my own speedometer showed me at 55?"
"All I did is take a little paint off his fender."
"I never saw that school bus, and I've been driving for 35 years."
Anyone would be polite under the circumstances. The defendants clear their throats and say "Your Honor." This isn't the time to admit you favor a low-slung sports car.
And don't talk about how you "drove" to the 7-Eleven, when what to your wondering eyes did appear but two flashing blue lights cruising up from the rear.
Take a hint from the other defendants, and say: "Then, sir, I proceeded northbound to the 7-Eleven, using the utmost caution."
Judge Hurst is chief of the General District Court. In his years on the bench, he has heard thousands of traffic cases.
He twirls a pen in his mouth. The traffic charges are always the same -- failure to yield the right-of-way, improper backing -- but he likes the different people who come before him.
A defendant claims he shouldn't be fined for "disregarding" a red light. The defendant has looked up "disregard" in the Random House dictionary, and finds that the term is not applicable to his case. "We use Webster's," said the judge. A $35 suspended fine.
His retail job was to be blamed for ignoring rush hour highway restrictions, claimed another defendant. "What do you sell?" the judge inquired. "I do not SELL," the man sniffed. "I design department store interiors."
A police officer who is absent when his cases are called is ordered to write "I Will Not Leave the Courtroom" 100 times on the blackboard. "And I'd appreciate it if you'd clean the eraser when you're done," Judge Hurst added.
This judge jokes. If he didn't, he says he'd go "wacko." After all, traffic court isn't usually life or death stuff. But not all of the defendants speak English well enough to appreciate his humor.
"I want my money back," demands one man, claiming he was ticketed unfairly.
Not only does the defendant want his money, he wants to know exactly how and when the county will refund him.
Judge Hurst peers down.
"You're not from Scotland, are you?" he asks, squinting.
"No, sir," says the man, drawing himself tall. "I am a U.S. citizen."
Traffic court is a fine place to be, the judge says. It's a good cross-section. Everybody drives. This is life.
"You keep driving," he lectures one man. "You know you're not supposed to drive."
"It took courage," he tells another, "to be at 2.6 on a breath testing device and drive a motorcycle."
"A 41 in a 25, dear -- how do you want to plead?"
Fairfax prosecutes about 100,000 traffic cases a year, more than any other Virginia jurisdiction. Sometimes 1,000 cases are handled a day.
A year ago, Fairfax wouldn't have needed three courtrooms to handle traffic cases. But burglaries and other crimes are down. The police are on the road.
Still, instead of thinking of traffic court as a pain in the neck, why not consider it an opportunity? Think of it the way David Stopper, a Fairfax police officer, does:
"You have to do something really special," said Stopper, who has issued as many as 38 tickets in one day. "Then we give you an invitation to come to the courthouse and tell everybody about it."
Traffic court opens every day at 9:30. The defendants are called one by one. "See, what happened, Your Honor, is . . . "
Then, they're off -- explaining to the world why their Chevrolet Nova goes "kerchunka" in first gear, or why they've selected a vanity plate that sounds phonetically like "Spazz."
There's always a point to these meanderings, and sooner or later it emerges.
"Quite possibly my vision was obstructed by a construction sign."
"For starters, I'm not that oriented on the Beltway."
"I'm not too good with 'East' and 'West.' "
Sometimes, it all adds up.
One man who didn't drop money in the Dulles Toll Road booth was given a suspended fine.
Initially, Judge Hurst showed no sympathy. "It's like the old Chinese laundry saying -- 'no tickee, no shirtee.' "
But the defendant had produced $400 worth of toll road receipts, demonstrating that he ordinarily pays.
"Since you're such a good customer . . . " the judge temporized.
And sometimes nothing adds up.
One woman went into great detail about her Argentine neighbors as a prelude to why she drove past a loaded school bus. "If I'm guilty," she finally said, "it's on a technicality."
"Well," said the bemused judge. "That'll do it.