QOTD: First and Best Tickets, Part II • The Ones We Got Out Of


After my first traffic ticket, I didn’t get any more until 1998-’99, then for some strange reason I started attracting tickets in my very fast, very turbocharged bright red Dodge Spirit R/T in Southeast Michigan near the University.

One of them was fair and oversquare: I’d upgraded that car’s fool system with high-flow injectors, and on the way home from the test drive I turned off a side street onto an arterial and goosed it. The car scooted right along, certainly faster than necessary. An officer saw the whole thing, and I got (charitably) done for 40 in a 30. I still went to court about it, because at the time I was onside with a mealymouthed Association’s position that each and every traffic ticket ought to be fought, just to jam up the system. The hearing was short: “I’ll knock $5 off, but you already got a break on this ticket, Mr. Stern. Next case”. I don’t remember how much the ticket cost, but somewhere I might still have that $5 check from the city of Ann Arbor. When it came up for air ten or fifteen years ago I found its info on Michigan’s unclaimed-monies website, but I didn’t get around to doing anything about it. The next time it surfaced I couldn’t find its info online. Whatever. Five bucks I should’ve paid anyhow; that officer really did give me a substantial break I didn’t deserve.

But the other ticket cluster was completely spurious, just bogus from start to end. The car developed a noisome squeak whenever the engine would move. Acceleration, deceleration, and even the most careful of gear shifts went SqueakSqueak! It was the exhaust headpipe’s doughnut gasket where it met the turbo outlet. There was a TSB with a part number for a revised gasket, and for some reason I didn’t just buy one.

So I hadn’t any new doughnut gasket, revised or not, when time and space worked out to put in a new over-axle pipe, muffler, and tailspout. I wanted to see if I could kill the squeak otherwise, so I shmeared some high-temperature anti-seize grease on the old doughnut gasket and the new spring bolts.

We (I mean the UM Solar Car Team) had a really nice shop space, so I took the car there and got help from teammate Joe, a quick-draw sharpshooter with a wrench or whatever other tool might come to hand. Jackstands…creepers…lights, annnnnd…action! We also took a chunk of rebar to the perfectly good catalytic converter and hollowed it out. Pointless Dumb Crap We Did in Our 20s for a thousand, Alex?

We got everything put back together at about 11:30 at night. Joe went home in his rusty Frankenstein’s Cherokee. I put the tools away and started up the Spirit. Almost immediately, all that anti-seize I’d been such a frivolous pastewaster with began burning smokily off the hot exhaust flange. I let the car run outside the shop for awhile with the hood raised, stinkin’ up the place, but eventually I just had to go home.

The car ran well. About the same as before, but without faulty-muffler noises and (glory be!) with no more SqueakSqueak, and now with entertaining turbo spool-up and spin-down noises echoing through the empty catalytic converter shell. There was no traffic, but there were stop lights every so often. I accelerated with gusto, but without monkeyshines. I kept it sane and safe and below the speed limit, but neither did I dawdle. Nevertheless, after the second light gone green, a Crown Victoria (I could tell by the front light signature) zoomed up behind me. No flashing lights, but its deliberate proximity made me think it best to signal and pull over to the right. The CV followed, so I pulled off and stopped.

The cop didn’t seem very much older than I—maybe younger—but he called me sir and asked me if I was in a hurry (no), if I’d been drinking (no), and why’d I’d pulled over on my own (You came up right close behind; it looked like either you wanted past me or wanted to talk to me).

Then: “Any reason you’re squealin’ yer tires away from every stop light?” No, I just finished some repairs on the car; it’s late, and I’m headed home. “Oh yeah? Well, I had to really work to catch up with you after you left those lights!”. Told me he was going to write me for excessive noise and went back to his car for 23 minutes, came back: “I wrote you up for doing it once, I’m giving you a warning for doing it the other times”. He kept my out-of-state licence; said I’d get it back when I came to pay or contest the ticket, and if anyone asked to see my licence before then, I was to show them my copy of the ticket.

In the light of the next morning, a night’s sleep, and a more careful reading of the ticket, I saw I’d been done for “Excessive noise/breaking traction”. It dawned on me the cop hadn’t been using figures of speech; every time I started from a prolonged stop, I left behind a big cloud of what the officer thought was tire smoke. Well, shoot. I had my explanation, and it was a completely valid one, but would that be the deciding factor?

A couple nights later, on the way to the solar car shop I turned right off Washtenaw onto Carpenter, squeezed the accelerator up the short hill and into aptly-named Pittsfield Township, and another Crown Vic materialised large in my rearview and lit me up. I immediately turned right into a shopping centre parking lot. The cop gave me a dirty look when I gave him the other night’s ticket instead of a licence, went back to his car for a measured 28 minutes, then came back to berate me: “Oh, I heard about you!” He kept hollering for several minutes, then threw my papers back at me and said he wasn’t going to cite me, but I’d better not try contesting the other night’s ticket, because if he saw my name on the docket he’d come testify against me about what he’d seen me do tonight (which he never actually specified).

I…they can’t do that, can they? No, I’m pretty sure not. I scheduled a court date for the other night’s ticket, then set about mounting a defence. First stop: the solar car shop, quick, before the scrap bin got emptied. I retrieved the old pipe-muffler-tailspout assembly and the old spring bolts, and threw ’em in the trunk. I fetched a scrap piece of sheet steel, clamped it in a vise, smeared some of the anti-seize on it, put a propane torch under it, and photographed the resulting billows.

Then over to Ann Arbor Muffler. I explained my plight; sure, they’d put the car up on the lift for me for a few minutes. I took pictures of the silver-grey rivulets running from the flange down the headpipe.

Came the day, and I arrived well prepared and dressed respectably. I dragged in the old pipe-muffler-tailpipe assembly; the old spring bolts; Joe (who looked, as always, like he’d just come off a 30-hour shift of grease jobs and muffler replacements); the tube of anti-seize on a double-bagged paper plate; a stack of twenty-seven five-by-eight colour glossy photographs of smoking anti-seize; receipts for all the new exhaust parts, and the factory service manual and TSB binder with drawings showing an exploded view of the manifold outlet and headpipe junction with circles and arrows and a paragraph explaining what each one was, to be used as evidence in court.

The magistrate asked the cop what happened. Cop said “His light turned green and he squealed his tires quite loudly—extremely loudly—and fishtailed away from the light. He got to another light and when it turned green, he did it again, squealing the tires and fishtailing. I was approximately a half mile behind him and I had to really work to catch up to him. I pulled behind him and he pulled over before I could initiate a traffic stop. I asked why he did that, and he said ‘I did something stupid, and I figured you caught me’. I asked him why he squealed the tires and he said ‘I just put new spark plugs in the car and I wanted to see what it would do'”.

Magistrate asked if I wanted to explain. Yes, thank you, your honour; I would like to explain how Officer Williams could have got the mistaken impression that I broke traction. May I approach the bench? I showed him the shop manual illustration of the manifold outlet and seal ring, pointed out the spring bolts, showed him the TSB about the squeak, showed him the tube of antiseize (“contains graphite in an oil-base grease”), pictures of the headpipe with obviously new spring bolts and melted antiseize, and pictures of smoking antiseize on the hot metal plate. Showed him the receipts, told him about the exhaust work, and directed his attention to scruffy-lookin’ Joe holding the dirty muffler and pipe in the clean courtroom.

“Okeh, but what about what you said to officer Williams?”

Your honour, when Officer Williams asked what was my hurry, I did not say I wanted to see what the car would do; I was not in a hurry, and I didn’t say anything about the car’s spark plugs, which I hadn’t touched. I said it was late and I was headed home. Also, there’s a problem with Officer Williams’ statement that I was fishtailing. As you can see here in the specifications page I’ve tabbed in the factory service manual, mine is a front-wheel-drive car. Front-drive cars do not fishtail if one or both drive wheels lose traction; that only happens on rear-drive cars. Moreover, nobody bought my tires for me, and when they wear out I’ll have to buy the replacements; I can’t afford to turn them into smoke.

Magistrate said “Well, you’ve brought lots of evidence that it happened the way you say it happened, and the discussion between you and the officer is…uh…in dispute. I’m dismissing this ticket. Officer Williams, do a better job of correctly remembering your roadside conversations”.

It’s inexplicable, but Officer Don’t-You-Dare-Dispute-That-Ticket didn’t show. I got back my licence, and I didn’t have to pay any money about it. I took Joe out for a nice lunch; we went to Bob Evans.

Your turn! Tell about the tickets you got out of after they were written and issued. Not the ones you talked your way out of or otherwise avoided getting in the first place; those are for another time.