Note: A Republic

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Today’s column is about getting things notarized, and how it’s dumb.

After I was issued my $431 speeding ticket mere seconds after arriving in Oregon in June, my friend Rob (who is a cop) suggested I fight the ticket through a process called trial by affidavit. This is where, rather than driving all the way back to the city where the incident occurred — a journey that would surely result in my receiving another speeding ticket — I write a letter to the judge and say the things I would say if I were actually in his courtroom. Rob even offered to write a letter to accompany mine, where he would enumerate the errors in the citing officer’s procedure, explaining that if he, as a field-training officer, were to see one of his trainees write a ticket this carelessly, he would declare it unacceptable and shoot the trainee in the head, execution-style.

This seemed like a good idea to me. (Writing the letters, I mean.) Even if the judge were unyielding, at least I would have delayed my having to pay the $431 by a few weeks. There are prisoners who have been on Death Row for decades, putting off their punishment simply by continuing to file appeals. Perhaps I could avoid paying the $431 just as indefinitely.

Rob said that since I’m the professional writer, I should write my letter myself. I held that he should write the letter, on the grounds that he is a police officer and that I didn’t feel like it. He refused, saying he had to write his own letter and besides, he wasn’t the one who was speeding. I pointed out that even if he HAD been speeding, I bet he still wouldn’t have gotten a ticket, what with professional courtesy, and that the system is thus inherently unfair. He said I get to see free movies. I told him to quit throwing that in my face. We reached an impasse.

I wrote my letter as follows:

Dear Judge:

I do not wish to pay this $431 ticket. Please do not make me.

Love,
Eric

Rob deemed this letter wholly unacceptable and agreed to help me with the gist of what I should say, but that I should put it in my own words. I accepted these terms and typed up everything Rob told me, word-for-word. He wrote his own letter, too. I proofread his work, and we were nearly finished.

All that remained was for us to get the letters notarized, which you’ll recall is the topic of today’s column, i.e., that it’s dumb. We went to Washington Mutual, where Rob and I are both customers and where there are known to be notaries public lurking about.

Now, in case you have never dealt with a notary public — I was 30 before I ever did — I will explain how it works. Basically, you go to this person, this notary public, and you show him the document you intend to sign, and he watches you sign it, and then he puts a stamp on the document indicating that yep, sure enough, you signed it.

Occasionally, this sort of thing is useful. For example, when I divested myself of the condo I owned by handing it over to my parents, the bank that held the mortgage needed us to sign lots of documents, of course, and since no representatives from the bank were on hand to see us do it — everything was conducted by fax and FedEx — they wanted the documents notarized. That way, they’d have proof that it was my parents and myself who were actually doing all this, and not impostors.

Now, in the present instance, of writing to a judge to ask for clemency, the notarization process is somewhat less useful. Even if it were someone writing the judge merely pretending to be me — well, that would actually be OK. In fact, it would have been better, because it would have saved me from having to write the letter myself.

But anyway, what’s funny about notaries public is how seriously they take the whole thing. You have to be licensed, and you have a license number, and your stamp has your name and number on it, and you can have your license revoked. They don’t seem to realize the simplicity of their duty, which is to watch people sign their names.

To become a notary public, you must actually take a state-administered exam. I cannot imagine what this exam entails. The only skills necessary to being a notary, as far as I can tell, are that you must be capable of seeing, and also capable of putting a stamp on a piece of paper. You will immediately recognize that chimpanzees — literal, actual monkeys — can do these things with almost no training whatsoever.

STATE NOTARY EXAM

Question 1: Can you see?
Question 2: If someone were signing his or her name on a piece of paper in front of you, would you be able to watch this without turning away, being distracted, eating a banana, etc.?
Question 3: Do you have religious or personal beliefs that prevent you from applying rubber-stamped messages to documents?
Question 4: Do you want to be a notary public?
Question 5: Really? Why?

So Rob and I were at Washington Mutual, and we waited for one of the notaries to emerge from a back room. One eventually did so, a young man clearly no older than Rob or myself. We showed him our letters, and he said in order for him to notarize something, it must have a particular stamp on it, a stamp that has certain terminology about “the foregoing” and “solemnly swear,” with some herebys and wherefores and such. Many notaries have a stamp that says those things, which they affix to the document in addition to their own personalized notary stamp. But the bank did not have it, he said. Baffled, he called for backup.

Out came another notary, a woman this time, but just as youthful. She reiterated the first notary’s position, that the documents must bear these certain words. She even found a document that contained the terminology necessary — three or four sentences with a place for us to sign. All of this would need to be part of the letters before she could notarize them.

I asked, “Couldn’t we just take this” — indicating the sheet of paper she had produced, the one with the special terminology on it — “and staple a copy of it to each of the letters?”

“No, it needs to be part of the actual document.”

“Then couldn’t we rubber-cement it to the bottom of each of the letters, where there is plenty of extra space, and then photocopy the letters, thus producing new versions that have the special terminology as part of the actual documents?”

“No, I’m sorry, we can’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“They have very specific rules about what we can and can’t notarize –”

“Are you telling me they actually covered this in notary class? They were like, ‘If anyone ever comes in with a document that doesn’t have the official notary language on it, you can NOT just stick the official notary language to the bottom of the document and then notarize it’? That seems awfully specific….”

“I’m sorry, we can’t do it.”

“Could we go home and, on the computer where we typed these letters in the first place, type in the official language at the bottom, then print out new copies and bring them down?”

“Yes.”

“How would that be different from just photocopying the official language onto the bottom right now?”

“Well, they have very specific rules about what we can and can’t notarize…”

Clearly we were getting nowhere. Clearly we had reached the point where the notary knew she had made a mistake — there would have been nothing wrong with photocopying the language onto the letters, as I’d suggested — but didn’t want to admit it. She was now hiding behind her office as a notary, declaring there to be arcane rules that did not actually exist, hoping we would give up and say, “Well, obviously the world of notarizing is foreign to us and we will take you at your word, good notary.”

Having no choice, we left the bank and returned home to type the official language onto the letters. I briefly considered going to Kinko’s and photocopying it onto the originals and getting the bank woman to notarize them before revealing that we had tricked her and had done exactly what she’d told us not to do, but I decided against it. For all I know, it’s against the law to deceive a notary.

I typed the fancy terminology exactly as it appeared in the sample the notary had given us, printed new copies of the letters, and Rob and I returned to the bank. These documents she gladly notarized, making small talk about the upcoming weekend as she did so. She did not acknowledge how silly the whole thing had been. And the proud tradition of notaries lives on.

Postscript: Nine days later, I received a form letter from the Baker County Justice Court indicating my correspondence had been received, examined, and ignored. I was ordered to pay $431 by Sept. 30 (two months after the original deadline, so at least part of my goal was achieved). In the space where the letter should have been signed, the judge had used a rubber stamp to apply his “signature.” Not only was the letter not notarized, it wasn’t even really signed. The system, as I mentioned, is inherently unfair.

I have condensed the conversation between me and the bank notary for the sake of clarity, but the gist of it is 100 percent accurate: Photocopying the wording onto the bottom of the letter was not OK, but going home and typing it on ourselves was fine.

My first experience with a notary was in January, when I was going through the whole business with the condo. It happened to coincide with the Sundance Film Festival, and there was a co-signer involved whose signature was also needed, so I had to coordinate movie times with the co-signer's lunch break with when the notary would be at the UPS Store with FedEx pickup times -- oy vey. It was a pain. I didn't know then that banks often have notaries on hand; Rob clued me in on that useful piece of information.

Trivia: When I was young, I mistook the phrase "notary public" to be "noted republic." I think my grandfather, who had a business downtown that did about 50 different things, might have been one at one point. I wasn't clear on what it meant -- something important, obviously -- but that's because "notary public" doesn't make sense anyway. It's archaic; it really should be "public notary," shouldn't it?

By the way, you can go to The National Notary Association Online and see people being VERY serious about being notaries. They even have a magazine!

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