Tuesday, June 19, 2018
Opinion

Hero or jerk? Texas traffic violator makes it rain pennies

Brett Sanders didn't just get mad. He got even — to the penny.

Sanders, who lives in Frisco, Texas, tried to beat a traffic ticket and lost. So when it came time to pay the $222.60 fine, he paid in cash. Two buckets full of pennies, to be exact. He dumped them on the counter of the municipal court clerk's office. To judge from the video he posted, it was like someone hitting the jackpot, except a lot less fun.

"Ya'll can mail me the receipt too," Sanders tells the clerk. Then he leaves.

Now Sanders has become an Internet celebrity for his stunt. More than 1 million people have viewed his YouTube video. An NBC news affiliate also covered his story.

"I just decided I would comply in the most disrespectful, most flamboyant way I could. It was peaceful resistance and compliance at the same time," Sanders said in a telephone interview Tuesday. But is this the guy to make into a hero?

Sanders, 32, is a self-described "freedom fighter" and "citizen journalist" according to his website and social media. He has aligned himself with the right to open-carry firearms and for "Copblock," a movement dedicated to monitoring abuses by law enforcement and ensuring that people can legally film police activity in public.

"This boils down to a morality issue for me," Sanders said "We shouldn't just roll over and pay traffic tickets … I want to make a bigger point that laws are not always just."

Sanders, who is an IT consultant, described a much more expansive view as to why he made a protest of paying a traffic ticket. In fact, his explanation sounds a lot like the talk of an anarchist — a term that he rejects. Anarchy, he said, has connotations of violence and chaos.

"I like to use the word 'voluntarist' because it's more associated with peace, prosperity, free market, free trade, best governance, individual liberty — that kind of thing," Sanders said. "All interactions in society are voluntary and therefore mutual for both parties."

In such a society, police would be less coercive, and traffic laws would be more like recommendations, he said. Motorists could drive at whatever speed they like, so long as they don't harm anyone. In his view, if there's no victim, there's no crime. Sanders, for example, does not dispute that he was traveling 39 mph in a 30 mph zone.

"I literally put nobody's life in danger, " Sanders said in the interview. "Now, if I had crashed into someone and created a victim and damaged someone's property, I would take responsibility for whatever my actions would be. And I think a lot of people would agree with that," he said.

Well, as it turns out, his argument did not fly with a jury of his peers. Jurors listened to his unusual view of the law and found him guilty of speeding. The judge levied the maximum fine.

Sanders went to some trouble to make his point anyway. He spraypainted two spackle buckets and stenciled the words, "Extortion money" on them. He obtained wrapped rolls of pennies but busted them open to fill the buckets. Then he went to the court clerk in a T-shirt saying, "Authority — you have not."

"My whole goal is to basically illustrate the inherent violence in the system of the government," Sanders said. "If I didn't pay the fine, I would end up in a cage. So to stay out of a cage, I decided to pay the extortion fee."

The clerk at the window was cordial as could be, even after being showered with coins — a fact that led some family members to criticize him for taking out his anger on person who was just doing her job. But Sanders, in the interview, was unrepentant.

"In my opinion she's part of the problem as well, you know?" Sanders said. "She's paid with stolen tax dollars. She is accepting stolen money. She is complicit in a crime. I don't think thieves should be respected."

Sanders is not the first to capitalize on the fact that nobody, except maybe the U.S. Mint, wants to keep pennies around. If you ask Google, you'll find a wealth of similar numismatic rebellions. My favorite involves the Utah guy who paid a disputed $25 medical bill by dumping 2,500 pennies on the clinic's counter — and then was cited for disorderly conduct, which carries a potential fine of up to $140. Not clear how he paid the fine, if any.

I'll confess that I have engaged in this form of juvenile rebellion, too. It was so long ago I can't remember what it was for. It might have been a traffic ticket or a disputed cable-TV surcharge, but it was small enough that all the pennies could fit in a shoe box. It felt great taking that up to the counter — certainly better than writing a complaint that no one would ever read. I haven't done it again — although sometimes I think we'd all be justified paying for speed-camera tickets this way.

Thank goodness we live in country where legal, if annoying — and maybe even unjustified — forms of protest are allowed. These mini rebellions might even convince the federal government that it's time to get rid of the penny.

I'm also glad that Sanders is part of that army of citizen activists who insist on exercising their First Amendment rights to photograph law enforcement officials in public. That's a small, but important way to make sure that police remain transparent and accountable to the public. I might have cheered if he used pennies to pay only the $10.60 "processing fee" that the court charged — because, let's face it, those transaction fees are a ripoff.

But deciding to dump on a clerk because you admittedly violated a traffic law or because you object to living in a society based on laws?

Not my kind of hero.

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