Randy Cohen Watch: “The Ethicist” vs. Integrity, Accountability, and the Law

Randy Cohen, “The Ethicist” of the popular New York Times Magazine column, frequently gets in trouble when he opines on the law, legal ethics, and how lawyers interact with society. This week he was at it again, and he got in trouble, all right. Big time.

Bruce Pelligrino wrote to the column to get “The Ethicist’s” take on the actions of a friend, who told Bruce he wanted to hire a lawyer to challenge a speeding ticket even though he had admitted to the police officer, in the presence of his children who were passengers in the car, that he had been driving 51 m.p.h . where the limit was 35.

“I think he should accept the consequences, learn from the experience and give his children a lesson in ethics,” wrote Pelligrino. ”Shouldn’t he just pay the ticket?”

Cohen sided with the speeder, opining…

“Even those who think themselves guilty are entitled to their day in court, and there is civic virtue in their exercising this right. A trial is a way to hold officials accountable for their conduct. Was the radar gun accurate? Was the speed zone clearly marked? Did the police officer behave properly? And what, given all the circumstances, is an appropriate punishment? Little of this could be scrutinized if everyone simply paid the ticket. It would be a court-clogging nightmare if every self-confessed speeder demanded a trial, but it is a fine thing if, now and then, some people do.”

Randy appears to have misunderstood the question, believing that Pelligrino’s friend was being charged with an arcane S.E.C. violation, or some intricate form of criminal conspiracy. The guy was driving too fast, knew it, and got caught! What does Cohen mean “Even those who think themselves guilty”? The driver admitted he exceeded the speed limit on the basis of his own car’s speedometer; he didn’t “think” he was guilty; he knew with complete certainty he was guilty, and said so to the cop who stopped him.

“The Ethicist” thinks “it’s a fine thing” for that driver to renege on his admission and impugn the policeman’s behavior, challenge the speed limit posting and question the radar gun to get out of a wrongful fine for an act he admits he committed. How could this course of action possibly be called ethical?

Here is what really is “a fine thing,” Randy: integrity—sticking to one’s word and backing it up with action. The driver said the ticket was correct. It is dishonest and irresponsible for him to turn around and challenge it as Cohen suggests. Here’s something else that is “a fine thing,” Randy: accountability—admitting when you have done wrong when you know it and accepting the consequences. The purpose of the legal system is not to encourage citizens to try to avoid just consequences for admitted violations of the law. Yes, as Cohen correctly notes, everyone has a right to challenge charges in court, but as anyone who calls himself an ethicist is supposed to know, it is not always ethical to exercise a right. Banks have the right to kick elderly homeowner out onto the street as soon as they fall behind on their mortgage payments. I have the right to limit my circle of friends and business associates to straight, white, Protestant bigots. I have the right to be blatantly incompetent in my free ethics commentary, and, like Randy in this case, to give mistaken and even harmful advice. All of these things are still unethical, however.

The Ethicist’s answer to Mr. Pelligrino’s query is unethical too, dramatically so. Cohen is saying that it is reasonable and ethical to force a trial on a traffic offense when…

  • The driver admitted the offense to the police officer…
  • …in front of his children…
  • …in order to challenge the veracity of the officer, who took his admission in good faith…
  • ….requiring the officer to appear in court, taking him away from community law enforcement duties…
  • …taking up court time, using taxpayer-funded personnel, that should be devoted to cases where the facts are genuinely in dispute…
  • …with the objective of avoiding the payment of a just fine to the government, where it would be used for community purposes, in order to transfer money instead to the pocket of, not just a lawyer, but the unethical species of lawyer who is willing to take unconscionable cases…
  • …thus teaching the driver’s children, if the driver prevails, that the objective in life is use the system to avoid accountability, even when you deserve to be punished, and..
  • …that respect for the law is less important than avoiding a thoroughly earned fine, and
  • …that speeding is all right if you can get away with it, thus…
  • …increasing the likelihood that the children themselves will regard excessive speed this way when they become drivers, and also increasing the chances that their driving habits will cause harm to themselves or others.

I have  read “The Ethicist” for years, I have learned that Randy Cohen has unseemly problems with honesty, a reflex prejudice against law enforcement, and shocking and brazen cluelessness on matters of legal ethics and the exercise of legal rights. Bruce Pelligrino managed to ask a question that involved all of them, and the result was one of the most indefensible answers I’ve seen from Cohen yet.

5 thoughts on “Randy Cohen Watch: “The Ethicist” vs. Integrity, Accountability, and the Law

  1. Pingback: The New York Times “Ethicist” is at it again « Ethics Bob

  2. Spot on. I understand what Randy was trying to say, but he missed the question and missed the mark entirely.

    Semi-Off Topic:

    I, myself, just paid the fine when I was 17 and got my first speeding ticket. I learned years later that everyone else that got a speeding ticket but showed up in court, were offered reduced point violations (non-moving infractions – “Defective Vehicle”) by the prosecutor.

    This is certainly a more favorable outcome, since non-moving infractions can’t be used by your insurance company to increase your premiums. So if you take your business to the court, you’ll save money on your insurance.

    The friend, while right about the ethics, is stepping on the speeder’s toes when it comes to fairness. If it is standard practice in society for cops to be ticket-happy because they expect people to go to court – or because they know the courts are in a “lull”, then the speeder should, in the interest of fairness, show up for his court appointed time to see what “fair” actually is.

    Just by showing up to talk with the DA doesn’t mean that a trial will ensue. A deal will be struck, a plea will be made, and the cop will remain on the streets. The kids in the car already witnessed their dad doing and saying the right things. It is unlikely that they are standing over him while he writes a check and mails in his ticket – so they are no longer factors.

    The speeder shouldn’t retain a lawyer and he shouldn’t take it to trial. But in the interest of Fairness and being fiscally responsible for his family, he should spend the time to talk with the DA.

  3. Yes, that’s right—and it isn’t challenging the ticket, either. And sure, the kids are probably clueless—I was taking the question on the questioner’s terms. Why Randy chose an admitted infraction as hsi stump for a speech about keeping the system honest, I don’t know. I worry about him sometimes.

  4. Pingback: Randy Cohen Watch: “The Ethicist” vs. Integrity, Accountability … « Arrive Deprived

  5. Well said. Accountability and personal responsibility are lacking at so many levels within our culture. It is so common for folks to deflect the truth by assigning blame to others or circumstances that they deem to be beyond their ability to control — in this case the police officer, the radar gun, etc. — rather than taking personal responsibility for their actions which is the path of good character and integrity.

    In fact, I just finished uploading a video called “The Three Root Character Flaws” that deals with this very issue of refusing to take responsibility for your own character failures. I haven’t yet posted it to the Police Dynamics Media blog but you can view it on Youtube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4_I78qU2q2I.

    Sheriff Ray

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