By Ben Joravsky
A few weeks ago Nigel Keniry and three of his thirty-something buddies piled into his silver 1998 BMW and headed north to see a Pearl Jam concert in Wisconsin.
A few hours later they returned with more than $400 in speeding tickets. "I never figured to be a sucker from the city, but let's face it, I got caught in an old-fashioned small-town speed trap," says Keniry, a mortgage banker. "All I can say is they got me--they got me good."
At about three in the afternoon on Friday, June 26, Keniry and three friends (Eddie, Joel, and Shannon) took off for Alpine Valley, 50 or so miles over the border. "We just wanted to get out of the city and have some fun," says Keniry. "We weren't looking to get into any hassles."
At about five o'clock they got nailed by a trooper somewhere north of Kenosha in Racine County. "I admit I was speeding," says Keniry. "It had been crowded on the highway, and when we got off on a smaller road I busted loose a bit with the freedom of breaking off from the pack. As soon as I saw the cop on the side of the road, I thought, 'God, am I stupid!'"
The trooper had clocked Keniry at 78 miles per hour in a 35 mph zone; he issued a ticket for $290.75 and gave Keniry a painful choice. "He said, 'What's it gonna be--cash, credit card, or your body?' I figured there was no sense in fighting. I had been speeding and I didn't want to go to jail. I was hoping that the other guys might come up with some cash to, you know, help me out. But they just sat there, and in that slight delay while I waited for them to help out before I brought out my credit card, the trooper looked in the back and saw a white plastic bucket covered by a T-shirt. He said, 'What's that?' Joel said, 'It's a T-shirt.' And the trooper said, 'What's under the T-shirt? Please move the shirt.' And Joel did, and that's when the trooper saw the empty beer bottles in the bucket."
Beer bottles in the bucket?
"Well, I wasn't drinking--I gave up drinking four years ago. The other guys were drinking. But I knew I shouldn't have let them and I knew it was against the law to have open bottles in the car and I knew that I had to do something. So I said, 'Listen, I know I'm a jerk. I know I messed up. I know I shouldn't have let them drink in the car. It's all my fault. But just so you know--I've been sober for four years. I was not drinking, I do not drink, I will not drink.' I mean, I was pleading for mercy. He looked at me, paused, and said, 'Open the trunk.' I opened the trunk and he put the bucket in it and said, 'Sit back in the car.'
"Well, I was so relieved. Because we could have been in big trouble, even though I didn't do any drinking. Anyway, as we were leaving he said, 'Be careful now, because between here and Alpine Valley you'll pass at least 50 cops.'"
Back on the road, all conversation turned to the incident with the trooper. "Shannon was saying how lucky we were that he didn't bust us for the open bottles and I was saying how stupid I was for letting them drink in my car. And someone said he probably didn't bust us 'cause he needed to get his quota of speeding tickets rather than wasting his time hauling us in to the station. And we wondered if he came after us 'cause I was driving a BMW540i, which is a really nice car. But Shannon said nah, they probably didn't notice the car, 'cause if they did notice the car they wouldn't mess with me, figuring that I was some sort of big shot with lots of lawyers. Then we started talking about the trooper's warning and one of us said jokingly, 'Man, there's probably not 50 cops in this whole county.'"
A few miles later, they found out how wrong they were. "We were coming off the highway on a turnoff, one of those banked turns that leads into a farming or residential area. I proceeded to slow down and someone in the back--I think it was Eddie--said he saw someone crouched behind a tree with a radar gun. Well, I didn't think much of it because I hadn't been speeding. I mean, I was really cautious after getting the first ticket.
"And we pulled into this little town called Rochester. And I remember we were at a four-way stop sign on Main Street, right in the center of town, and there's a guy who's clearly a plainclothes cop asking people in the cars, 'Do you have [Pearl Jam] tickets?' I figured he's trying to entrap people for scalping. On the other side of the intersection two really serious-looking plainclothes guys are staring us down. I look to see if it's OK to go on. But they give no sign. Then out of nowhere an unmarked Pontiac pulls up and this older plainclothes cop jumps out. And I jump out and Shannon jumps out, 'cause we figure they're gonna try to hit us up for scalping, which would be a really trumped-up charge because there's no way we'd be dumb enough to scalp tickets from those guys. But the older cop said to Shannon, 'You just shut up and get in the car.' To me he said, 'Give me your license and follow me.'"
They were led by car to a large parking lot where they found what Keniry says "can only be called a ticket assembly line. They had eight or nine drivers being ticketed or interrogated. They had it down to a science. There was this woman processing credit cards and another old lady with white hair sitting at a folding table keeping us moving. And other guys hanging around watching it all, like they had nothing better to do.
"Shannon kept telling me, 'Tell the guy you just got a ticket.' And maybe I should have done that, because after the cop handed me my ticket he said, 'You should have told me you had a previous ticket--we're not looking to hurt people here.' I guess he discovered the first ticket when he searched the computer. But I come from a place where I don't say boo to cops. I mean, I've been in situations where the cops haven't been so kind. So I learned to keep my mouth shut when dealing with cops."
Keniry was charged with driving 47 miles per hour in a 25 mph zone and fined $172.10. "I just whipped out my credit card one more time. I was livid, but what could I do? I don't think I had done anything wrong. They say it's a 25-mile-an-hour speed limit, but the speed limit wasn't posted. I wasn't driving too fast for conditions. You wouldn't want me to brake fast anyway because that would have caused a rear-ender with the car behind me. I was just biting my tongue 'cause I didn't want to say anything that would get me in trouble. I remember there was this older guy watching and he was eating ice cream out of a Dixie cup and he had a big smirk on his face. I just wanted to tell him off but I kept my mouth shut.
"It was a classic speed trap--real assembly-line justice. And I was the least of it. They had all these teenagers from Illinois pulled over. These kids were taking a collection among themselves--'I got a 20, you got a 10?'--trying to make their fines. There was another guy in a Blazer with Illinois plates really arguing with the cop. He and his friends didn't have a credit card. They had enough cash to pay for a motel but not for a ticket and a motel. The cop wound up taking him away--he had to leave his friends behind."
Altogether, Keniry paid more than $450 in tickets. "The other guys said they'd give me some money, but I doubt I'll ever see any. They were kind enough to buy me a T-shirt, though. And Shannon did buy me my ticket to the concert. And Pearl Jam was absolutely awesome, so that was cool."
A week later, Keniry received a letter from David Kingstad, a lawyer in Franklin, Wisconsin. "Kingstad sends form letters to people ticketed in the area. I called him up and told him the story, and he said that he's not surprised. I guess this sort of thing's not uncommon for Racine County."
Officials from the Racine County district attorney's office did not return phone calls. But according to Kingstad it's not unusual for Racine County troopers to ticket Illinois motorists bound for Alpine Valley. It's not just that locals see the visitors as a plentiful source of revenue. It's also that they're sick and tired of out-of-town big shots in hotshot cars jetting through their streets like they were heading into the final lap of the Indy 500.
"You get the argument from officials that they're just trying to prevent speeding, but this goes beyond that definition," says Kingstad. "This was a cattle call. This was assembly-line justice. This was kind of scary. It's almost as though they're saying, 'Let's get everyone with Illinois plates and haul them off to jail or make them pay the 200 bucks.'"
Keniry says he plans to fight the second ticket rather than have two moving violations on his record (a third means a suspended license). "I'm still sort of mad about the whole thing," he says. "Needless to say I'll never go to Alpine Valley again."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Nigel Keniry photo by Dan Machnik.