Corporations in cars?
Jonathan Frieman, an independently wealthy-ish political activist and attorney from San Rafael, has been carrying on a campaign for years to make corporations more accountable.
He is cofounder of the Washington, D.C.,-based Center for Corporate Policy, which has, among other things, demanded of the Obama Justice Department that DOJ produce an annual report on corporate crime like the one they compile each year on street crime. CCP’s argument is that corporate crime goes largely unreported and actually costs the nation far more financial damage than all forms of street crime combined.
So, long before the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United effectively bestowed personhood on corporations for the purpose of making political donations, Frieman has been arguing that corporations aren’t people and shouldn’t be accorded the status of personhood.
To dramatize that point, for close to a decade he has been driving solo in the commute lanes on Highway 101 with a collection of corporate documents in the passenger seat of his car, hoping to be arrested.
Last October, a CHP officer patrolling 101 in Marin finally fulfilled Frieman’s wish.
The officer pulled him over and wrote him a $489 ticket for violating the two-or-more rule in the carpool lane. Frieman argued that he wasn’t alone, that there was, in fact, a person in the passenger seat in the guise of a corporation.
The officer said, in effect, tell it to the judge, which was exactly what Frieman wanted to hear. It may have been the first time the recipient of a traffic ticket sincerely thanked the officer who issued it.
Pleading not guilty, Frieman finally got his day in court Jan. 7, when he explained to a Marin County traffic referee that he had not violated the law because he had a corporation, and therefore a person, in the car with him.
The referee called it a novel argument and found Frieman guilty.
Again Frieman was delighted. He plans to appeal and, reportedly, hopes to take the case as far as it will go – to the Supreme Court if necessary.
It is highly unlikely the case will ever get that far, in part because no judge is likely to take Frieman’s argument seriously, but also because the focus of the carpool lane rule is clearly to reduce traffic congestion, not to upend almost 200 years of legal precedent defending the fiction that corporations can ride around in cars.
Ironically, eliminating corporate personhood could also eliminate the rights of real persons to sue corporations. And the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision on Citizens United was based not on the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, but on the majority’s insistence that corporations have First Amendment protection to spend as much money on political messages as they like because it is part of their right to free speech.
We believe Citizens United has permanently polluted American politics by substituting the influence of money for intelligent and rational discourse. And we doubt that Frieman’s carpool traffic ticket will nudge the law an inch.
But if Frieman achieves nothing more than some increased public awareness about the issue of corporate personhood, his Quixotic campaign may yet prove worthwhile.