The law is the law. But sometimes, the law doesn’t make much sense.
Indeed, New Jersey is famous for having quirky laws on the books, such as “No bingo before breakfast” in Hoboken.
In Trenton, there was a time when you weren’t permitted to throw away bad pickles on the street. Trenton needed a law for that?
Statewide, reports say, it was once illegal to slurp your soup. And men were not permitted to knit during fishing season.
Urban legend? Maybe. We checked with the New Jersey State Library, but the law desk’s Ken Ritchie said the sources couldn’t be found. Perhaps they were lost to history. Or maybe they never existed, despite repeated but uncited mentions in news articles.
There was once a law, allegedly, that said you’re not permitted to frown at a police officer anywhere in New Jersey.
But we do know as fact that in 1995, Bernards Township passed a resolution that deemed the municipality a “Frown-Free Zone.”
t’s a good thing for Elizabeth Jaeger that the resolution was only in force for a year.
Jaeger went jogging in Bernards Township on Oct. 17.
She was running in the street, as she said is common in her neighborhood. She said she was jogging close to the curb and running against traffic when a motorist backed out of a driveway and hit her.
Jaeger said she was knocked to the ground, hitting her head and shoulder. She said she was a little dizzy and disoriented at first, but she didn’t need medical attention.
All she wanted was a police report in case her injuries were worse than they seemed.
When the officer arrived, he took Jaeger’s name, address and Social Security number.
Then he asked what happened, Jaegar said. She said she explained she was running and the car backed into her. She expected him to ask for more details, such as exactly where she was running or where the impact was, but he didn’t.
The officer then handed her a piece of paper with a case number.
He told her that by running in the street, she shares half the responsibility for the accident, she said.
“I responded, ‘So that means when I’m driving, I don’t have to pay attention to pedestrians? Does that mean if I hit someone, the responsibility is only half mine?'” she said she asked.
She said a verbal scuffle ensued, and the officer asked why she was running in the street.
Jaeger said she explained that she ran in the street out of habit because the sidewalk is often obstructed by cars poking out of driveways and covering the sidewalk, or the sidewalk is blocked by leaves raked into piles or unshoveled snow that has turned to ice.
Then, she said, the officer told her it’s not safe to run in the street.
“I then asked, ‘So where do I run when the sidewalk isn’t clear?'” she said. “He curtly told me, ‘Get a treadmill.'”
Jaeger said she’s unemployed and her family can barely cover their mortgage and grocery bills. A treadmill isn’t an option.
They then had a discussion about unshoveled sidewalks, and whose responsibility it is to make sure they remain passable, Jaeger said.
She said the officer told her that wasn’t his job.
“I told him that as a police officer it was his duty to keep me safe, that if I shouldn’t run in the street, the sidewalk should be clear,” Jaeger said. “I admit I was confrontational, but I was responding in kind because I felt attacked by him telling me to buy something I can’t afford.
“I wouldn’t have had words with him if he had just handed me the case number and let me go,” she said.
About an hour later, Jaeger was back at home. Her doorbell rang.
It was the officer, and he handed Jaeger a ticket.
“He said, ‘You insulted me so I’m giving you a ticket for running in the street. And since I didn’t like your attitude I’m finding you 100 percent responsible for the accident,'” Jaeger said the officer told her.
Jaeger said she didn’t know it was illegal to jog in the street, but what bothered her more was the determination of fault for the accident.
“Can he fault me for an accident that he did not witness, simply because he didn’t like the way I talked to him? Does the whim of a cop really carry that much weight? It seems unprofessional and unethical,” she said. “When I learned how to drive, my instructor repeatedly told me that if I struck a pedestrian in the street I would be liable.”
At least she wasn’t ticketed for frowning.
CHOOSING NOT TO FIGHT
The ticket was for violating a little known state law.
It states pedestrians must: “Walk on sidewalks where they are provided and accessible.”
The violation has a $54 fine.
The regulation doesn’t specifically address joggers, but “pedestrians afoot,” which would include joggers.
Jaeger said when she went to court last week, the prosecutor needed to look up the violation because he said he wasn’t familiar with the statute number.
“He said he had never seen anyone get that ticket,” Jaeger said. “When I told him what the officer said, he told me that without witnesses, there was no proof and the officer would deny saying that he gave me the ticket because of my attitude.”
She said the prosecutor empathized, saying he personally runs in the street all the time. But if she was to take the case to trial, it would be Jaeger’s word against the officer’s. He advised she wouldn’t have much hope of winning.
Jaeger decided to pay the ticket, pleading guilty to the offense, but with a civil reservation. That means the guilty plea would in effect be sealed so it couldn’t be used as evidence in a civil proceeding. She never admitted being at fault for the accident itself.
Bamboozled’s calls to the prosecutor were not returned.
But we did catch up with the township’s police chief, Brian Bobowicz, who said officers are expected to issue motor vehicles summonses to accompany a New Jersey Police Crash Investigation Report, where they determine fault.
We asked how the officer could determine fault if he didn’t witness the incident.
Bernards Township Police Department
Bobowicz said it appeared that the driver wasn’t operating the vehicle in an unlawful manner, but the pedestrian’s actions were unlawful.
“The officer obviously determined the pedestrian was at fault and issued the summons accordingly,” Bobowicz said. “If there’s a violation of a statute, then there’s a good chance that maybe that was the cause of the accident.”
No summons was issued to the car’s driver.
But the chief, who has been on the force for 28 1/2 years, said he’s never issued a summons for this violation, nor has he ever seen it given.
Bobowicz dismissed the possibility that the officer gave the ticket because he felt disrespected by Jaeger, saying the officer is “extremely professional” and has no complaints against him.
Plus, he said, Jaeger had her opportunity to fight the summons in court.
“I don’t want to sound cold, but she pled guilty to the violation,” he said. “She admitted her guilt, whatever reasons were offered.”
He took it one step further.
“Based on the information provided, I feel strongly that the complainant owes my officer an apology for her demeanor as he, nor any of my officers, deserve to be treated disrespectfully or in a non-civil manner,” Bobowicz said.
He added that if anyone ever wants to make a complaint against an officer, they should call (908) 766-1122.
Jaeger took issue with the Crash Report.
The officer wrote that he asked Jaeger why she was running in the street, and she responded it was because people did not shovel their sidewalks in the winter. He then wrote that Jaeger “yelled at me and stated to a small child next to her ‘See.. I told you. Police are crap!'”
Jaeger denied calling police “crap,” but said she called the situation “crap.” The officer only wrote part of the story in the report, she said.
“He didn’t put in that report what he said to me, and he only talked about the shoveling, not the other things I said that often block the sidewalk,” she said.
She also said the report makes it look like she was running with the traffic, but she said she was running against traffic.
And while the report noted the driver said she looked both ways before backing up, Jaeger said she regularly scans for traffic and other obstacles when she jogs.
“Maybe the driver looked both ways, but she zoomed out and slammed into me so it obviously wasn’t good enough,” she said.
Jaeger said she pleaded guilty to avoid a time-consuming experience that could, in the end, cost her more money.
“If he’s giving me a ticket because I broke the law, that’s fine,” she said. “Then the law should apply to everybody and he shouldn’t give me a ticket because of my attitude.”
Indeed, despite the law, running in the street is a pretty common action for joggers. Our photographer even caught a jogger in the street when he met Jaeger to take photos for this column. In the photo, you can see the sidewalk is covered with leaves, making it impossible for a pedestrian or a jogger to see obstacles that could be under the leaves, or if the sidewalk was cracked or uneven.
We spoke to officials from a few Jersey running clubs, and they said they’d never heard of any of their members getting a ticket for running in the street.
And Steve Carrellas, head of the New Jersey chapter of the National Motorists Association, said he was somewhat surprised to hear about the law.
“The street is a public thoroughfare,” Carrellas said. “How can you force people to use the sidewalk instead of the street unless you make walking in the street unlawful? Although, is it really necessary to do so to get most people to use the sidewalk?”
Carrellas may represent drivers, but he said he’s had some experience in choosing to use a street rather than a sidewalk because his wife uses either a wheelchair or an electric scooter to get around.
“Between no curb cutouts when crossing a side street or rough, uneven or narrow sidewalks, the use of a sidewalk can be a tough go compared with the usually smoother street,” Carrellas said.
So, readers, what do you think? Did Jaeger deserve the ticket? Should the law prohibiting jogging in the street be repealed? Let us know in the comments section below.
Have you been Bamboozled? Reach Karin Price Mueller at Bamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KPMueller. Find Bamboozled on Facebook. Mueller is also the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com. Stay informed and sign up for NJMoneyHelp.com’s weekly e-newsletter.