The legal classification of corporations as people allows for a whole host of things, from making lawsuits simpler to justifying why Goldman Sachs was able to donate some $4.7 million to American political campaigns during the last election cycle.
But if corporations are people, can one of them ride in your car? And if so, does that qualify you to use the carpool lane?
That's the question Northern California political activist Jonathan Frieman hoped to have answered when he was pulled over driving in the carpool lane last October on Highway 101 in Marin County. The police officer issued Frieman a nearly $500 ticket for driving by himself in the carpool lane, and Frieman countered that he wasn't solo because he had stack of documents in the car representing a corporation he had co-founded.
It turns out that Frieman, who has a history of snarkily causing trouble in local politics, had more on his mind than just trying to worm his way out of paying a ticket. The 59-year old San Rafael resident is hoping to use this case a way to challenge the whole idea of corporate personhood.
While corporate personhood has been settled law in the United States for nearly 200 years, it recently became a flashpoint issue after the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision allowed corporations to donate unlimited amounts of cash to political campaigns.
"The case is kind of complex. What I want [the judge] to do is say 'no' so that I can appeal," Frieman explained to Mill Valley Patch, noting that he could foresee the issue going as far as the U.S. Supreme Court. "I don't want corporations to be defined as persons."
"When a corporation is present in one's car, it is sufficient to qualify as a two-person occupancy for commuter lane purposes," Ford Greene, a San Anselmo city councilmember who is also acting as Frieman's lawyer at his impending court date, told the Pacific Sun. "When the corporate presence in our electoral process is financially dominant, by parity it appears appropriate to recognize such presence in an automobile."
According to a blog post he wrote in mid-2011 for San Rafael Patch, Frieman had been driving around with his corporate imaginary friend hoping to get pulled for over a decade before it finally happened late last year--making him probably the first person in existence actively trying to get a traffic ticket.
In the article, which took the form of an imagined dialogue with a judge, Frieman wrote:
Your honor, according to the vehicle code definition and legal sources, I did have a 'person' in my car.
But Officer 'so-and-so' believes I did NOT have another person in my car. If you rule in his favor, you are saying that corporations are not persons.
I hope you do rule in his favor. I hope you do overturn 125 years of settled law.
On the other hand, your honor, if you dismiss the ticket and say I am right, that means anyone can go into the carpool lane alone during restricted hours. That is, you are saying that everyone, riding alone in an automobile in the carpool lane during restricted hours, also has on board a corporation, or, under California law, a 'person' other than them.
And we couldn't have that, could we?
University of San Francisco law professor Robert Talbot seemed unconvinced that Frieman's strategy would ultimately prove successful because its too far away from the spirit in which the carpool laws were conceived. "A court might say, 'Well, it says person, and a corporation is a person, so that'll work for the carpool lane,'" Talbot told NBC Bay Area. "It's possible, but I doubt it."
Section 470 of the California Vehicle Code defines a person as "natural person, firm, copartnership, association, limited liability company, or corporation."
What do you think? Should corporations qualify for the carpool lane? Should papers from newly formed corporations have to ride in booster seats?