I’m not proud of it, but a few weeks ago, I received a speeding ticket.
I was driving from my sister’s house on one of the national highways that runs through my rural hometown and was just half a mile from turning off onto the gravel road that would lead to me to my mom’s house. I had had my cruise control set to 63 mph, even though the speed limit was 55, but I had just passed through an intersection with a stoplight, and I had forgotten to reengage the cruise. Plus, I had one of my favorite CDs playing and was singing along at the top of my lungs.
The state trooper was apparently flashing his speed radar at oncoming cars while driving westbound. Because when I sped by him going eastbound, he made a U-turn so quickly, I was sure there was an escaped convict in the car just ahead of me that he was chasing. When I slowed down to let him pass, he instead pulled in behind me. I felt my heart in my throat; I hadn’t gotten a speeding ticket since I was 18.
“I clocked you at 66 miles per hour,” the officer said when he walked up to my car.
“Oh, well, I had my cruise on earlier, and I don’t think I was going that fast,” I said, trying to defend myself. When the U-turning officer had first swung around behind me, I had glanced at the speedometer and it was hovering around 64 mph.
“I just need to see your license and registration,” he said, not really caring about my cruise control.
While he was running my plates, I sat there embarrassed and mad. I wasn’t going that fast, I thought. In Indianapolis, if I don’t go at least 10 miles over the speed limit, someone will rear-end me, I reasoned. Maybe I should mention that I have cancer, I plotted. Maybe I should tell him I have cancer and that I’m going to visit my step dad who has cancer, I thought, feeling justified.
I was right, sitting there fuming behind the wheel. All of those things that I was thinking, they were true. When the officer walked back to my car just a brief three minutes later, I was sure that he had seen the light and decided to give me a warning.
But about the warning, I was wrong. He was apparently just very quick at writing tickets. The charges were made, and after giving me the standard warning, “Slow down out there, ma’am; the speed limit is 55,” he sped off, not even waiting to make sure I safely merged back into traffic. Not that there was any traffic.
Later, as I was looking over the ticket, determining how much my speeding indiscretion was going to cost me, I saw three options on the ticket. I could either plead guilty, and pay the fine. I could plead innocent and defend my case in court (and pay the costs). Or there was a third option. I could plead nolo contendere or “no contest.” In that case, I would still pay the fine but at least I didn’t have to accept the charge. It would be power to the people! I could stick it to the man!
For days before I made my plea and submitted payment for the fine, I thought about nolo contendere. Choosing to accept or not to accept the charge actually had nothing to do with whether I was guilty. And even if I wasn’t going 66 mph, I certainly wasn’t going 55 mph.
When it was finally time to complete the form and mail the money, nolo contendere was no longer about sticking it to the man or even standing on my principles. It simply meant choosing not to accept responsibility for my actions. And that was not acceptable.
So I took a deep breath and checked “guilty.”
And when it was finished, I was free.