Contesting a traffic stop leads to justice – and mercy

Courtesy of Maisie Sparks
Maisie Sparks turned a frightening traffic stop into an important lesson for all involved.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 5 Min. )

Grateful her traffic stop hadn’t turned violent, commentator Maisie Sparks could have paid the fine and left it at that. Instead, she went to court.

There, she explained what had happened the night of the stop and how she’d felt:

Why We Wrote This

Commentator Maisie Sparks proves that when fighting for your rights reveals something in common with your “enemy,” the outcome can be a win for both sides – and for society.

I didn’t know why the officer turned his lights on me. I wasn’t speeding. My license plate sticker wasn’t expired. My lights were working. In that moment, everything I know about being black in America kicked in, and I decided I was not going to stop at night on an unlighted stretch of road for anyone, including and perhaps certainly not for a police officer. I truly feared for my life. 

Eventually, of course, once she’d gotten to a well-lit, populated place, she pulled over. That’s when the officer gave her a ticket for following too closely, a charge she denies.

Stuck in a “he said, she said” dispute likely to end with a winner and a loser, she suggested “justice … meted out as mercy” instead. To her surprise, the officer and judge agreed.

The lesson? “Regardless of the past and no matter what our fears, sometimes we touch the heart of another human being when we share our own.”

This was not the first time the flashing lights of an officer of the law had appeared in my rearview mirror. But it was the first time I refused the invitation to pull over. It was one of those split-second decisions that people like me have to make whenever we engage with law enforcement officers. My encounter, thankfully, didn’t reach the fatal threshold of a Darrius Stewart, Philando Castile, or Marcellis Stinnette. But people like me live with a constant fear that the potential is there.

Once I left the scene of the incident, I could have just paid the $164 fine or taken the four-hour, $49 traffic safety class and been done with it. But for reasons I still don’t fully understand, those options left me feeling violated. And even though I had no expectation that something good would come of entering the halls of justice – in fact, there would be added court costs to pay if I lost the case – I felt better just thinking about having my say.

The morning of my court appearance, I realized that going to court would be a scary and intimidating experience, so I needed to write down what had been rolling around in my head or I’d stumble over my words. After the police officer, who was white, gave his version of the incident, here’s what I had to say:

Why We Wrote This

Commentator Maisie Sparks proves that when fighting for your rights reveals something in common with your “enemy,” the outcome can be a win for both sides – and for society.

Good afternoon, Your Honor.

I was not following too closely. I don’t know why I or anyone else would follow a state police officer too closely. And, more significant, I don’t think following too closely is the reason I got a ticket.

On that evening, I was in the right lane; the police officer was in front of me at what was a safe distance. We were not even going the speed limit. I would be getting off the interstate soon, and I didn’t want to speed up and pass the officer or miss my exit. The officer moved to the left lane, then beside me for a little longer than seemed normal, and then behind me, … following me at the same distance I had been following him. I thought nothing of it until he turned his lights on. And this is when things got interesting.

I didn’t know why the officer turned his lights on me. I wasn’t speeding. My license plate sticker wasn’t expired. My lights were working. In that moment, everything I know about being black in America kicked in, and I decided I was not going to stop at night on an unlighted stretch of road for anyone, including and perhaps certainly not for a police officer. I truly feared for my life. …

… I didn’t get a ticket for following too closely; I got a ticket because I didn’t pull over, and I didn’t pull over because I didn’t know what might happen to me on a dark highway.

I pulled over when I reached the exit with lights and people and I felt safe. By the time I got to my exit, another police car was there, and that caused additional trauma.

When the officer came to my car, he said I could have caused an accident. I had no idea what he was talking about. I said, … “I didn’t know who you were.” What did I mean by that? Yes, I knew he was a police officer, but I didn’t know what kind of police officer he was.

Then he quoted the section of a traffic code that I had violated and told me I was following too closely. I was shocked. I couldn’t believe this was what the lights were all about.

Why do I share this with you? First, because I wasn’t following too closely. Second, even if I were, I could have been given a warning. And third, these are the kinds of minor and major situations that people like me find ourselves in on a daily basis. It’s a situation where grace could be applied, but instead there is punitive and financial judgment. … For far too many people like me, an innocent traffic stop has ended tragically. And, yes, I know, for many a police officer, an innocent traffic stop has ended in tragedy as well.

This, Your Honor, is a “he said, she said” case. And, what he – a police officer – says carries more weight than what this she has to say. I understand and respect that. I respect the law, [and] I am grateful for the dangerous work our law enforcement officers do each day. …

In our binary world, we are divided into winners and losers. Ruling in my favor makes the officer a loser, and ruling in his favor makes me the loser. I’d like to offer a third way.

By the end of our encounter, I believe both the officer and I realized that we were not the people we thought each other was. That was the win for me and the officer, but more importantly, it was also a win for our society. Being in proximity with others is what changes hearts and minds. And that was the gift of the encounter. I was in fear, but what I didn’t know is, the officer was living in fear also. The second or third time he came up to my car, I said I wanted to get out of the car to stretch my legs, but he said I couldn’t and something to the effect that he meets a lot of people and he doesn’t know what they will do.

I was shocked. By then, he knew I was a 64-year-old woman driving a 13-year-old Volvo. But he was in fear of me? There is something dangerously wrong in our society when good people feel this way about each other. Your Honor, your ruling today can help us all to walk away from here with a new, grace-filled narrative about the scales of justice, or we can continue to react to our unbalanced fears. Your Honor, I’m asking you to dismiss this case. Why? Because I wasn’t following too closely, and justice, in this case, can be better meted out as mercy. Thank you, Your Honor.

What happened next was as shocking as seeing the trooper’s lights behind me on that dark night on a dark road. The state trooper walked over to the prosecuting attorney. They shared a brief, private conversation, and then the prosecuting attorney turned to the judge and said, “Your Honor, the state would like to dismiss this case.” She did.

There was nothing in my racial understanding of American life that would have led me to believe that the officer who gave me the ticket would seek its dismissal. But regardless of the past and no matter what our fears, sometimes we touch the heart of another human being when we share our own.

Maisie Sparks is the author of “Holy Shakespeare!” and other works.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.