By Richard E. Peck
There’s a fine line between a normal, law-abiding life and the abrupt descent into the criminal underworld. For me, the plunge from respectability into the pit of outlawry happened on a recent rainy Friday and followed a single misstep — less a crime than a moral hiccough.
Coming out of a small village post office west of Lihu‘e, running through the rain, I stepped in a puddle and soaked one foot. Not important, but a contributing factor.
That post office sits at the end of a dead-end street, less than a block long. Nobody goes there. No bicycles, trikes, scooters, skateboards … nothing. It was probably a waste of taxpayer money even to pave the street. Three cars in that block on the same day would be a major traffic jam. There was no vehicle in sight, none on the street, none passing by, none entering or leaving the tiny two-car parking lot. I was alone.
Nevertheless I obeyed the faded, never-before-heeded stop sign on leaving the driveway.
Or tried to. But the wet sole of my soaked sneaker slipped off the brake pedal, and my car lurched past the stop sign and burst a full three feet onto the deserted street before I could recover. A second tap on the brake pedal stopped the car. I’d lunged into the street at the breath-taking speed of two miles an hour. Maybe three.
Now… I’ll admit, running that stop sign did break the law. But it was a victimless crime. And the circumstances raised an interesting question, triggered by the old saying “no harm, no foul.” Philosophers have long debated questions like, “If a tree falls in the forest with no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?”
Or, “If a man says something where his wife can’t hear him, is he still wrong?”
So if my violation occurred without a cop there to see it, was it really a crime?
The police officer who’d been snoozing in the car parked in the gas station across the street, hidden behind an hibiscus hedge, obviously thought so. Passing the gas station, I got the full treatment: flashing lights, the squawk of the patrol car’s hooter followed by a wailing siren and screeching tires. It felt like Police Videos.
Maybe the cop wasn’t after me. I thought the jogger disappearing into the mist up ahead was probably in real trouble, but I pulled over. I looked in the mirror and saw a woman in uniform get out of the flashing car now parked behind me in the rain. Maybe she wasn’t a cop. Her uniform fit.
Be cool. Wait and see.
Apparently waterproof, she sauntered up to my door through the rain and knocked on the window to demand my license and registration. When I rolled down the window I knew she really was a cop: I could smell doughnuts on her breath.
She was standing in the rain. Seeing her get soaked might be the only satisfaction I’d get out of this encounter. I searched for the license I knew was in my back pocket. I searched for three minutes.
When I handed her my license and registration, she grinned and said, “Gotcha! Nobody ever stops at that stop sign back there. ” She winked at me.
I didn’t wink back.
She waded back to her car, and I watched in my mirror as she consulted her computer. She wasn’t going to find anything. My last crime was 13 years ago, for overtime parking. My insurance company had eventually wiped that off my record and dropped the policy rate back to only triple what I’d like to pay.
I learned a lesson. I have paid the fine. Now I drive aloha. Kaua‘i is much safer.
- Richard E. Peck is a part-time Kaua‘i resident and a retired president of three universities. He has written numerous books, plays, columns and TV shows, and his work can be seen at www.richardepeck.com.