For those who have kindly followed and read my musings over the last year – a change of pace from the constant angst which I post over spiritual matters. This is a short story I wrote several years ago in honor of Chief Sonny Morrow of the West Fairview Police Department. West Fairview is a nice little town which sits immediately across the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg PA. In over 20 years of being a policeman, Sonny wrote almost 10,000 speeding tickets in his nifty little speed trap at the bottom of the hill by the Sparkle Car Wash. If you are ever driving down Route 15 through Enola towards LeMoyne
FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE SLOW DOWN!
They are still off pulling this crap to this day, down at the Sparkle Wash where they sit at the bottom of the hill and wait for the suckers to come by!!
This is what I wish I had been bold enough to do to him.
Sonny and the Sign
Maybe it was the sight of the little girl crying that pushed Brenton Smith over the edge. I say little, but she was probably around twenty-five or so, standing beside her fire engine red Mustang, crying her eyes out while Officer Sonny Maddox wrote her a ticket. Brenton could see it all clearly from the other side of the road as he drove by, the tears running down her cheeks. Maybe it was that.
“Way to spoil her day, Sonny, you jerk!” Brenton growled under his breath. Honestly, did Sonny do anything other than write tickets and sit at Sammy’s and drink beer while he cheered for the Eagles or the Phillies, depending on what time of year it was?
For all of the thirty years Brenton had lived in the boro of West Riverview, he had watched the weekly routine that took place outside the only traffic light in town. Cars entered the north end of town on Mountain Road, a two lane highway with a speed limit of thirty-five miles an hour. For the unwary visitor, or the tourist passing through, it was a deceptively pleasant drive into a trap. The road wound along past Al Galankis’ Sunoco station on the right, and Tom’s Beef-N-Beer on the left, through a line of trees shading the road on either side, and then down a sharp hill to the single stop light at the bottom, where the road made an odd, jug-handle turn across itself, and then up to the docks at the river. Anyone coming down the hill would automatically pick up speed, so that at the same time a small and innocuous sign reduced the speed to twenty-five, most folks were hitting the upper end of forty-five. To make the trap more insidious, the road, for some peculiar reason known only to the highway engineers who planned it, split at the bottom into a median-divided four-lane. This made driving twenty-five miles an hour over the posted speed limit to feel completely natural, which was what Sonny Maddox counted on as he waited around the curve in the road, hiding behind the far wall of the Sparkle Wash car wash to pounce on hapless drivers who had no idea he was there.
Brenton’s truck labored up Mountain Road. At the top he turned left and angrily gunned his engine, shooting the truck up Spruce Street towards his house. For thirty years he had watched this little scenario play itself out. Thirty years of watching a variety of faces and expressions as he drove by Sonny giving out yet another ticket. Resignation, disgust, anger – and the one truck driver who earned himself an overnight stint in lockup for mouthing off to Sonny about being caught in nothing more than a “high-dollar speed trap to benefit you and the mayor of this sorry-assed little town.” Challenging an officer of the law to a fist fight is pretty much a guaranteed trip to a holding cell to cool down. The case made news when Judge Allison and Sonny got into an altercation in the courtroom over terms used in the arrest. The judge threw two of the three counts on a technicality, and reduced the fine on the speeding ticket, which brought forth an explosion of protest from Sonny. When the gavel fell to close the trial, the trucker approached Judge Allison.
“Yes, Mr. Thompson?”
“Is there anyway I can make my opinion of this known without winding back up in the pokey again?”
“I gave you a break, sir. If I was you, I’d just be thankful and head on out of town.” The judge leaned forward to whisper to the trucker. “Look, mister. I don’t have any particular love for Officer Maddox, but if you say anything at all to him on the way out the door, he’s going to drag you in here again, and if I find a reason to turn you loose again, he’ll have me in front of a review board. Take the break you were given and be satisfied with that.”
“Off the record, sir? Between you and I?”
“Fine. Off the record.”
“This is bullshit. That’s nothing more than a cheap way to make the township money, and you know it.”
The district justice leaned forward. “Off the record – and I’ll deny that I ever said this if you try to speak about it – you’re right. There’s nowhere to put any more buildings, therefore the tax base can’t increase. So they have to raise revenue for the town somehow.” Judge Allison leaned back in his chair and mumbled under his breath, “However, I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of that revenue helped the town’s yearly need for a new Cadillac for the mayor.”
Well, there you have it. That’s what I heard from Shirley Jackson, and she should know, since she is Judge Allison’s court stenographer. When the judge realized she had heard the whole exchange he warned her not to breathe a word of it to anyone, but we have been married for fifty years, and there’s no way she wasn’t telling me this over our morning coffee. But I digress from the fun part of my story.
Brenton was newly retired, and had a lot of time on his hands. For some reason, the sight of the girl bawling her eyes out over a traffic ticket would simply not clear itself from his mind. By the next morning, he had a plan.
The Jiffy Signs shop made the sign in about a half an hour. It was a simple placard that read: WARNING! SPEED TRAP. SLOW DOWN! Brenton took it to the top of Mountain Road, pulled out a lawn chair and a book to read, and sat there the rest of the morning. Whenever he heard a car approaching, he put down the book, and waved the sign at the oncoming driver.
It wasn’t until a little past noon that Sonny realized something wasn’t right. He knew he was good for at least three or four tickets on a slow morning, a good dozen on an average day. But not one ticket had he written that whole morning.
“What the hell are you doing?” The veins in Sonny’s neck were bulging.
“Just letting people know they should slow down.” Brenton was his usual laconic self. Nothing ever riles the old man very much.
“You can’t…you … you’re under arrest!”
“Interfering with police duties.”
Brenton stood up slowly, watching as Sonny attacked the sign with a pocket knife, rendering it into shreds of plastic. “You sure you want to do that?” Sonny roughly grabbed Brenton, spun him around, and snapped handcuffs on his offered wrists.
“You think this is funny?” Sonny growled furiously.
Brenton said nothing. He had a plan, and knew his time to speak was coming.
“And that’s where I found him, your honor! Sitting at the top of Mountain Road at the corner of Spruce, waving his sign and warning people to slow down.”
Judge Allison leaned forward to get a better look at the old man sitting in the defendant’s chair. “Where exactly is the sign, Officer Maddox?
There was a long silence, broken eventually by the sound of Officer Maddox sucking air through a front tooth in frustration.
“I…uh…I destroyed it.”
“Oh, did you now?” Judge Allison leaned back, a faint smile curling at the corners of his mouth. “So we really have no evidence of this supposed violation of the law then, do we?” He looked at the ceiling in thought. “In other words, if the defendant says that he didn’t actually do what you claim he did, then you have no proof, and I have to let him go because there’s no circumstantial evidence with which to prove your case.” His eyes fell on Brenton. “Well, sir. Did you or did you not obstruct justice?”
“Oh, I had a sign, just as the officer states, your honor. But I did not obstruct justice.”
Judge Allison lowered his head and did a face palm with his right hand. He had just offered the offender a clear door to freedom, and the man had slammed it in his face. Shaking his head slowly, he looked back up at Brenton.
“Do you wish to reconsider that statement, sir?”
“No, your honor. I wish to take the stand in defense of myself and my sign, which this officer has destroyed. I spent good money on that sign, and I expect to be reimbursed for its destruction.”
“Very well,” Judge Allison sighed, blowing the air out between his lips in frustration. “You are charged with obstruction of justice. How do you plead?”
“Not guilty, your honor.”
“Are you ready to defend?”
“Do you have any witnesses on your behalf?”
“Fine. Call your witness, please.”
“I call Officer Sonny Maddox.”
Officer Maddox opened his mouth, but before anything could come out, Judge Allison ordered him to take the witness’ stand and take the oath. Sonny again started to speak after taking the oath, but Judge Allison turned to him and said,
“Be quiet, Officer Maddox. You will get your time to speak when it is time for cross.”
“Officer Maddox.” Brenton’s voice was almost eerie in its calm as he approached the stand. “Do we agree that on the fourteenth of September, at two o’clock in the afternoon, you were sitting behind the south wall of the Sparkle Wash, and aiming a radar device at the cars coming downhill on Mountain Road?”
“What of it?
“Answer the question, officer.” Judge Allison’s tone was unmistakable, and Sonny glared back at him.
“Yes. I was there. Catching speeders.”
“I see.” Brenton turned away, walked a few paces in thought, then turned back. “What is the purpose of this action you are taking? Why do you want to catch speeders?”
Sonny opened his mouth, but no words came out. His eyebrows knotted for a few seconds, then he replied, “To protect the public. It is dangerous to the public to have people going too fast.”
“So if I understand you correctly, the whole purpose of your speed trap…”
“I object, your honor!” Sonny stood up. “It’s not a speed trap.”
“Well, what is it then, sir?” Brenton was still calm.
“It’s an excessive speed detection stop. It’s designed to make people slow down.”
“And that is the only purpose, to make people slow down, right?”
“That’s right!” Sonny slammed back into his chair.
“And what happened when I was sitting at the top of Mountain Road with my sign?”
“I couldn’t catch….” Sonny stopped. His eyes darkened in recognition of the trap he had just entered. “You were interfering with police duties!” he snapped.
“Not what I asked you, sir!” Still calm, still quiet in demeanor, Brenton slowly approached the chair where Sonny sat. “Please answer the question, Officer Maddox. When people saw my sign, what did they do?”
After a long silence, Judge Allison intervened.
“Answer the question, Officer Maddox.”
There was another thirty seconds silence before Sonny answered, sounding very much like a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar. “They slowed down.”
“Precisely. And you just said that the purpose of your ….what did you call it…excessive radar something or the other….was to make them slow down.”
More silence. After waiting patiently, Brenton turned to his seat, opened the briefcase he had brought in with him, and produced a handful of newspaper clippings.
“Your honor, according to the testimony of Officer Maddox, the sole purpose of his being behind the Sparkle Wash that day was to make people slow down. By holding my sign as I was doing, I helped him achieve that goal. Therefore, rather than obstructing justice, as the good officer claims, I actually helped him do his job.”
Brenton held up his handful of newspaper clippings. “Permission to approach the bench, your honor.” When Judge Allison nodded, Benton ambled forward and deposited the handful of clippings on the judge’s desk. “Your honor, these are all newspaper clippings of stories where average citizens like me helped out the police in the course of their duty. In each case, the police were trying achieve a certain goal. In one case, it was saving a little girl from drowning. In another, it was finding a lost child. In each case before you, not only was the average citizen publicly acknowledged in the local paper, he received a rather nice monetary award.”
Brenton turned from the judge and headed back to his seat. “In light of the fact that I have, by Officer Maddox’s own confession, helped him to achieve his goal for that day, that of making drivers slow down, I would ask the charges be dropped…and…” Brenton turned to face Officer Maddox… “and that I be reimbursed the sum of $34.95 for the sign which he so maliciously destroyed.”
Shirley laughed when she was relating the story to me. She said she had never seen the judge look so pleased in his courtroom in all her life. He did offer Officer Maddox the opportunity to say anything in his defense, but Sonny just sat in his chair and glared knives at Brenton. I have to give Sonny his due. Takes a smart man to know when he’s been whipped and he ought to just shut up before things get worse. Oh, but get worse they did, and in a big way! What Judge Allison did next has been the talk of the town for the last three weeks.
“So ruled!” The gavel slammed down on the judge’s bench. “Furthermore, since we see a well-established pattern of rewarding good citizens who help the police in the line of duty, I think we shouldn’t break that cycle. We don’t want people to think of West Riverview as a chincy little town that doesn’t reward model citizens.” Shirley said the look Judge Allison gave Sonny would have melted steel. “I order the town of West Riverview to award this fine citizen the sum of five hundred dollars for his outstanding help to Officer Maddox, help which enabled him to achieve his goal of slowing people down on September fourteenth.” He then turned to Brenton. “And you, sir, don’t ever be afraid to help the police with their duties.” He had just handed Brenton carte blanche privilege to sit with his sign at the top of the hill any time he wanted to. Shirley said he was grinning from ear to ear after he said that – right at Sonny.
I won’t repeat in polite company all that Sonny said when he exploded at Judge Allison. Let’s just say that it was a remarkable act of restraint for the judge to not give him some time to cool down in our lovely little county jail.
On any warm day in West Riverview, you will see an old man holding a sign and sitting in a lawn chair at the top of Mountain Road. Slow down, and wave to him as you go by. He is, after all, a good citizen performing a fine act of public service in helping the police do their duty.
PS. For those who think that a District Justice wouldn’t say or do the things in this story, I happened to get caught in a speed trap in LeMoyne one day about twenty-five years ago and said to District Justice Robert Manlove exactly what the trucker in my story said. And his response was exactly what the justice in my story said. LeMoyne is a landlocked borough with nowhere to build, so traffic tickets help the revenue shortfall. Anyone who believes that the police catch speeders “for their own safety” is living in La La Land and needs his head examined.
And District Justice Robert Manlove did have a distinct dislike for Chief Sonny Morrow.