Hondling With the Bureaucracy – Again

May 11, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

I’ve learned my lesson. When the bureaucracy offers you a deal, don’t push your luck.

Two years ago, when I challenged a ticket, the Parking Violations Bureau offered me a deal – one-third off. This seemed violate basic sociological ideas – the quintessential government bureaucracy was offering to be flexible about what I would pay – I blogged it (here).* I also continued to maintain my innocence, hoping for a better deal. Silly me. I wound up paying the full $65.

A few weeks ago, I came down to the car on Monday morning to find no license plate on the rear of the car and a ticket on the windshield for failure to have a license plate. Sixty-five bucks. I pled not guilty on the grounds that hey, I’m the victim here, not the offender. Back came the offer – $43. The letter didn’t say, “Final Offer.” But I knew. I paid.

I had learned one lesson. But my trip to the local precinct had two other reminders about public bureaucracies. First, it brought to mind a sentence that I wrote in my crim textbook decades ago. I began the chapter on courts with a brief description of what I saw when I spent a day hanging around at the criminal court. “What you see in the criminal court is what you see at the public hospital or the welfare department: poor people waiting.” At the precinct house for my neighborhood (median household income $78,000) , the income in the room may have been slightly higher, but the atmosphere was similar.

Second, what goes in the file is more important than what really happened. The desk sergeant told me that they would have to classify the license plate as “lost” rather than “stolen.” “Y’know, sometimes if someone hits your bumper a few times squeezing into a parking space, the plate can fall off. “ The two screws that had held the plate in place for several years of New York street parking had been removed – a fact I pointed out to no avail. “If both plates are gone, it’s a theft. Only one, it’s lost.”

Could this classification have had anything to do with a concern for the precinct’s larceny statistics?

* Two months later, the Times ran a story on this policy which, unbeknownst to me and most New Yorkers, had been in place since 2005.

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