Biopower, repentance and traffic court

“[T]he judicial institution is increasingly incorporated into a continuum of apparatuses (medical, administrative, and so on) whose functions are for the most part regulatory” (Foucault, The Will to Knowledge, 1976, 144, Found in “Sovereign Power and Biopower).

Today I went to traffic court. After sufficiently cursing my car while circling several city blocks looking for parking, I found a spot, fed the meter and walked toward the John Marshall Courts Building in Richmond. “You can’t bring your cell phone in here,” the security guard told me, “you have to leave that in your car.” What if I had walked here? I said to the front door as I walked out of the building. But since I’m privileged to own one of these machines, I begrudgingly obeyed the woman, walked back to my car, left the contraband and returned more mentally prepared for an audience with the powers that be.

When I entered the the building and rode an elevator to the second floor I found a clerk’s office flanked by two mid-sized courtrooms devoted to the justice of traffic violations. I was amazed. How many full-time employees work in Richmond to bring justice to disobedient drivers? When I found my designated courtroom I was even more amazed. How many people are here for minor violations? Why not let them settle the case another way?

Then, the dance of the American legal system began.

An attractive young woman would call a name, someone would walk forward and sometimes an attorney or a translator would accompany to advocate on behalf of the accused. The accused would state their name or their advocate would speak on their behalf, then the judge would tell them how they had operated an automobile against the law and ask them whether they believed they were guilty. Most pled “guilty” and the judge usually accepted their plea. He would then give a punishment based on their previous driving record: If they did not have a record then they could go to driving school and get this violation erased, if they did have a record and had recently been to driving school they had to pay the fine and add this violation to a growing record. The judge seemed reasonable, but the whole system seemed like an absurd act.

I decided that they didn’t really care that we had broken the law. Instead, it began to seem like the automobile is merely a site of governmental control in American society. I watched as Foucault’s biopower crept from the voice of the young woman to the voice of the judge and eventually into the mind of the repentant accused. The judge often simply changed violations from reckless (over 20 mph above the speed limit) to not reckless (under 20 mph above the speed limit) if the defendant was willing to cooperate. “Ok,” the judge said to the black man in front of me, “One free pass. I’ll take your reckless charge of 80 in a 40 and reduce it to a charge of 59 in a 40 so it you attend driving school it can be taken off your record.” Thank you, he said, and then proceeded to the clerk’s office. He later told me that he was surprised that the judge could simply change the record of the speed at which he had been driving his car. But I realized that the court really wasn’t concerned with controlling the speed of the car itself, the court was concerned with the controlling the minds of American citizens.

After I left I wondered how the entire dance actually began over a month before we arrived at the courts. That’s when, at some point, a police officer pulled all of us over in violation of a law. When I was pulled over, the officer told me that I was going 63 in a 40, but that he would knock my offense down to 59 in a 40 so it wouldn’t be considered reckless driving. Regardless of my actual speed that day, when I walked into the courtroom my crime was 59 in a 40. The man in front of me will forever be recorded as going 59 in a 40 as well. Furthermore, if we complete our driver safety course the offense will be erased from our record entirely. In one year, the entire experience will only exist as a faint memory in my mind and perhaps the other characters in this strange play. I began to think that perhaps the state allows us to drive these cars so that we will break the law and be forced to resubmit ourselves to the sovereignty of the state. Thus, while the car seems liberating, it is perhaps the easiest way for the state to control the life of Americans. Furthermore, because we move independently of each other, the state is more able to target specific populations and perpetuate the cycles of the justice system.


One response to “Biopower, repentance and traffic court

  1. Thanks Michael. What an odd little game it all is. Unfortunately, I have played it often and not well. 🙂

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