Math Wins a Traffic case
I sat next to a young man at a dinner following a barbershop singing contest. I heard him complaining that he had to take a math class in high school that he thought was a waste of his time. He did not think there was any possibility that what he was being required to learn would ever be useful to him or to anyone. I told him the following story.
Before I opened my office, while still with a large firm, I was asked to represent a client who was charged with driving 56 miles an hour in a 50 mile an hour zone. The charge was important because he had points on his record from prior traffic tickets. If he was convicted of this speeding charge he would get not just one point for breaking the speed limit, but two points for driving more than five miles an hour over the 50 miles an hour speed limit.
The case was important to this banker, a good client of the firm. I was delighted to be trusted to be assigned to defend this important client.
The case would be held in Municipal Court. Our client was concerned about being represented by an associate, not an experienced partner, in his defense. I had previously handled two other traffic cases for the firm. This would be my third case since graduation from Cornell Law School and being admitted to the bar. I am not sure I would have trusted a new lawyer with such an important client. I was pleased that the firm trusted me.
I prepared by reading the law, some cases, and talking about the case to one of the younger litigation partners in the firm. I went to the scene of the alleged crime, as I always have and would even today with more than fifty years of experience under my belt.
It seems our client had been driving on a major highway and was cruising exactly at 55 miles an hour. Because of his concern for his points he was sure that he had not gone as fast as the 56, which would have given him just enough points to cause his driver’s license to be suspended.
It was his luck that he drove under an overpass just as a State Police Officer was driving down the ramp from another major highway to join into the one our client was driving on. There was no radar involved. Apparently the officer "paced" our client as they drove parallel to each other and appeared to be driving at the same speed. The officer testified in Municipal Court that he was going exactly 56 miles an hour and that our client was driving parallel to him and therefore he must have been going 56 miles an hour, just 6 miles over the speed limit and enough to result in a 2 point charge.
At the conclusion of the presentation of the State Police Officer’s testimony, I questioned him and obtained absolute conformation that our client could not have being driving any slower or faster than the police officer. I diagramed on a large pad in Court that our client was driving along one of the two shorter legs of a triangle while the police officer was driving along the hypotenuse — the longest side of a right angle triangle, the side opposite the right angle, the longest leg of the triangle.
Therefore, if the police officer was going exactly at 56 miles an hour, our client, covering less distance, but appearing to cover the same ground as the police officer, had to have been going slower than the officer. The officer had to have been going faster than our client. The Judge was impressed with the idea and the mathematical presentation. He found my client guilty of exceeding the speed limit, but not to such an extent has to be awarded 2 points and lose his driving privilege.
Our client was delighted. I was pleased that I had justified the faith my firm placed in me by giving me this opportunity. I found a truly practical use for the trigonometry I had studied in High School.