A Marin County judge ruled Monday that local activist Jonathan Frieman was guilty of driving alone in the carpool lane in October 2012, despite his claims that a corporation, or the pile of documents in his passenger seat, constituted another person.
Frieman, a 59-year-old San Rafael resident who has often challenged the idea of corporate personhood, drove solo in the carpool lane on Highway 101 in Novato just north of the Rowland exit on Oct. 2. When he was pulled over by a California Highway Patrol officer, Frieman claimed that a pile of documents next to him were part of a corporation he co-founded, the JoMiJo Foundation, and so he was allowed to drive in the carpool lane without violation.
Marin judge Frank Drago did not agree, and ordered Frieman to pay the $478 ticket or appeal the decision within 30 days.
In order to drive in a carpool lane, one must have two or more persons in a car. According to the California Vehcile Code, the definition of a person includes a natural person, firm, co-partnership, association, limited liability company or corporation.
"What we're talking about here is a pretty simple case," Frieman's attorney Ford Greene said in court Monday.
Greene argued that the state doesn't say anything about occupants in a vehicle, only persons, which presents a troubling double meaning. "Here the double meaning is 'person.' Is a 'person' a natural person? Is a 'person' a corporation? It is both?" Greene said.
Corporate personhood is a legal concept that enables a corporation to enjoy similiar rights as an individual, such as suing someone in court. Frieman said that over 200 years ago, corporations were just investment tools, and now they donate to charities and politics in ways that need more speculation.
Frieman's actions with the carpool lane were a political statement to challenge what he considers a "constitutionally vague" definition, Greene said.
"It's a novel argument," Drago said Monday, noting that he never heard a similar one in his years in traffic court. To Drago, the intent of the legislature when using the term "person" was to relieve traffic congestion. "A common sense interpretation is carrying a sheet of paper in no way relieves traffic congestion," he said.
Frieman has been attacking what he calls the “absurd” corporations-are-people definition for more than 10 years, putting himself as bait in the carpool lane roughly 25 times. Expecting that the judge would reject his argument, he intends to appeal the decision.
Several of Frieman's supporters attended his court appearance Monday afternoon. One of them was Pat Johnstone, a community organizer for Move to Amend, a nonprofit that hopes to change the Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that corporations are persons.
"It appears there is some ambiguity," she said. "If corporations are people, then [Frieman's argument] should count."