Friday, January 11, 2013

Is a Corporation a Person for Purposes of the Carpool Lane?

A self-described "social entrepreneur" recently argued in a California traffic court that while he was alone when ticketed for driving in a 2-passenger minimum carpool lane in Marin County, California, that because he had incorporation papers of a company sitting beside him in his passenger seat, that he in effect had a "corporate person" in the car with him which should total two persons or passengers in his vehicle.  As such, the driver argued that he should be immune from paying a fine for driving in a carpool lane with only one passenger.  This novel argument stretches the parameters of the corporate personhood doctrine and essentially forced a traffic referee to determine whether a corporation could be viewed as a person for purposes of carpool lane passenger requirements.  The judge in this case held that a corporation did not constitute a person for purposes of carpool lane travel.

After Citizens United decreed that corporations are persons with first amendment free speech rights in 2010, management and executives of companies throughout the U.S. have been empowered to engage in political speech and electioneering activity with very little restriction.  The Corporate Justice Blog has reported often on the impact of Citizens United and the utility of providing a corporation with free speech protection.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle:  "By [driver Jonathan] Frieman's estimation, if corporations are indeed persons as was first established in the 1886 Supreme Court case Santa Clara County vs. Southern Pacific Railroad Co., and he offered evidence that a corporation was traveling inside his vehicle - riding shotgun, of course - then two people were in his car.  'The question of personhood is a very poignant one, Frieman said before he entered the courtroom. 'This is designed to bring a very strong point to bear upon the legal system. Corporations have grown into large, huge, fictional entities. Now I am taking their power and using it in order to drive in the carpool.'"

A traffic referee in California refused to follow the corporate personhood fiction to its logical extreme, refusing to hold that while corporations enjoy free speech rights, they do not represent actual living, breathing human beings for purposes of carpool lane requirements.  Per the SF Chronicle:  "[Traffic referee] Frank Drago . . . admired the unusual argument.  'I must say it's a novel one,' Drago said. 'But I look at it a little differently.'  Drago directed . . . Frieman to the vehicle code's subsection, which addresses the intent of the carpool lane - to relieve traffic congestion.  'Common sense says carrying a sheath of papers in the front seat does not relieve traffic congestion,' Drago said. 'And so I'm finding you guilty.'" 

Frieman plans to appeal the decision.

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