The Price of Innocence

comment 1
Legal Fictions / Repairing The Systen

Simon’s story is the fourth of the six “tales” that comprise the Argentine dark film comedy Wild Tales. It provides us a parable about life in a society where justice has died.

Simon is a middle-class engineer who becomes involved in a dispute with his municipal parking authority in Buenos Aires. One evening after work, Simon stops by a local bakery to buy a cake for his daughter’s birthday party. When he comes out of the bakery he discovers his car has been towed, even though it had been parked in a “legal” space. He is not completely surprised by this turn of events because he knows that the municipal authority uses traffic fines and towing and storage fees as supplementary revenue sources, and is not particular about which cars it tows. But he is angry about the inconvenience this small injustice has caused him and the disrespect for law-abiding citizens that it signifies.

Simon decides to stand up for himself. He takes a cab to the parking authority’s office and waits his turn in line. When called to the clerk’s window, Simon politely explains that his car had just been wrongfully towed, and he would now like to retrieve his vehicle, receive compensation for his taxi fare, and be given an apology from the authority for the inconvenience caused him. The clerk replies, “You will have to pay the towing fee before I can release the car to you. The bill for the parking infraction will be mailed to you.”

Simon persists (“my car was not illegally parked”), but the clerk is unmoved. “It says here (looking at the notice) that it was. That’s proof enough for me.” When Simon tries again to explain, the clerk curtly tells him to pay up or get out of line because there are people behind him waiting to be served. When Simon sees that his fellow citizens in the line behind him agree with the clerk, he pays the towing fee, retrieves the car, and drives home to find that the birthday party is over. His daughter is sullen, and his wife is angry. He tries to explain, but his wife has no patience to listen. He should know “that’s just the way things work.”

But Simon still wants justice. The next morning he goes to the traffic authority to challenge the fine for illegal parking. But it’s a replay of the day before. Simon explains the situation to a clerk who tells him he must pay the fine or interest will start to accrue. When Simon points out that he didn’t do anything illegal, the clerk reminds him that the notice says he did. When Simon tries to further plead his case, a security guard is called. Simon’s temper snaps. He throws a fire extinguisher through a window, and ends up in jail.

When he is released, Simon finds he has new problems; his outburst at the traffic authority made the television news and now his employer is firing him because the municipal government is one of its largest clients. Furthermore, his wife is filing for divorce and is using his new “unemployed” status to argue he should not be granted joint custody of his daughter. Finally, as Simon leaves an unsuccessful job interview, he discovers his car has again been towed. Standing up for his rights as a citizen has cost him a good deal of time and money as well as his job and family.

Is Simon’s tale fact or fantasy? The film does arrange the facts to highlight the injustices, but news stories tell us that some American municipalities use traffic fine schemes similar to that Simon encountered to finance municipal services. And most of us have had an experience similar to Simon’s in trying to persuade a public bureaucracy that it has made an error. So too his fellow citizens’ indifference to the injustice Simon has suffered rings true. We all have problems enough of our own to worry about without adding those of strangers. Simon should have known that “you can’t fight city hall.”

But while Simon certainly paid a price for his innocent belief that his government should treat him with respect, his fellow citizens also pay for their “innocence” in believing they can insulate themselves from their government’s abuses of others. They are living in a society where the government can illegally seize a citizen’s property and then demand payment to return it. Their turn will most likely come, but even it doesn’t, they live in a society that has lost trust in its government and any sense of community. While the relationship between individuals does not play a large role in Simon’s tale, the film’s five other “tales” make clear that fear and distrust are ruling emotions in Argentine society.

What this society needs is an infusion of “due process of law.” I don’t mean more adversary hearings, but a new approach designed to front-load due process principles to create systems where injustices seldom occur and are quickly remedied when they do. It might be something as simple as requiring that the tow truck driver take a “selfie” next to the car in a red zone. Here we need lawyers, not to litigate past wrongs, but to design systems to prevent future ones.

Even if parables of lawless societies are not your cup of tea, I think you will enjoy Wild Tales. It’s wickedly funny. I think you also will be happy to discover that Simon’s story has a happy ending. Check it out.

1 Comment

  1. Dave Ridiculous says

    John, Ferguson and other parasitic St. Louis suburbs are very relevant and close to home examples of this abuse; I kept waiting for this link to real life relevance to come up Dave R

    Sent from my iPhone



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s