"Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent." -George OrwellIn an earlier, more civilized time, crime used to be defined as an action that harms another person. Now it means disobedience to any one of the state's 10,000 arbitrary commands. I was found in violation of one of these commands in August of last year, and I finally had my arraignment for the "offense" last week. Apparently, the court house in my home town is so backed up that it takes seven months to hear a case after the original citation. The violation in question was "failure to produce documents," namely failure to provide my car registration and proof of insurance. I was driving safely and committed no moving violations, and was pulled over simply because I neglected to put the state-mandated sticker on the license plate of a new car.
At the time of the "offense," I was, in fact, registered and covered by insurance. When the officer first pulled me over, she asked for my license only, which I provided. She left for several minutes while her male partner studied my vehicle, me, and my two passengers, one of which was my 4-year-old nephew. When she returned, she presented me with the ticket that she had just written and explained that it was for failure to produce documents. I replied that she didn't ask, and that I had the documents with me. She told me she had already written the ticket and I would need to speak to a judge. Her male partner mentioned that he saw my nephew checking him out, so he gave him some stickers that were shaped like police badges. He was obviously trying to be nice, and I don't fault him for that, but I remember thinking, "How much do these damn stickers cost the taxpayers?"
I went on my way and tried not to let this incident spoil the rest of my time with my family who had come a long way to see me. I forgot about the ticket until I got a notice from the court in the mail that the citing officer had made a mistake. "Finally!" I thought. "They caught the mistake." It turns out I was wrong, it was just a notice of correction. (By the way, the police make you sign tickets when they issue them to you. I did not sign, nor did I have a chance to sign, the corrected ticket.) To this day, I have no idea what the correction is supposed to be. The corrected ticket is exactly the same as the original; I've studied it up and down and see no changes. About two weeks later, I got a follow-up in the mail. This was the big one; it had the amount of the ticket: $1184. That's not a typo. One thousand one hundred eighty four dollars. For nothing. I felt physically ill at such a financially burdensome fee.
The next day I started making calls. The first number I tried was the issuing courthouse. I didn't know this at the time, but due to "budget cuts" there's no one at the court house to take phone calls. Sure, they still have an automated pay system if you want to just pay the damn thing, but no one to speak with. Ever. How convenient. Next, I tried the citing police station, and spoke to a very nice female officer who at least tried to help me. I gave her the Reader's Digest version of the incident, and she apologized for my trouble and suggested that I try talking to the citing officer. I asked when she would be in, and I was told Sunday morning at 6AM. She said I should call first. I thanked her and told her I'd call on Sunday.
Sunday morning, I awoke at 5:50 AM to make sure I didn't miss the call. At 6 sharp I called the police station once more, and asked for the citing officer. "She's not in today, she's working the festival." Great. "When will she be in?" "Tomorrow at 10." "Thank you."
I called the next day at 10, again on the dot. Same story, once again. "She's not in, what's this about?" I explained my situation, and this time I was told the ticket was already in the system so I should speak with the court liaison, who would be in later that week. I thanked her and told her I'd try when the liaison was in.
Later in the week, I called the court liaison, who seemed a bit flustered when I spoke to her. I guess I would hate my life if my job was the liaison between the public, the court, and the police, but I digress. I mentioned the mistake and the "correction." She apologized for my trouble but told me there was nothing she could do to help. She told me I should go to the courthouse on my court date (October) and talk to a clerk. I think it's worth noting that up until this point, everyone had been pretty kind to me, and very apologetic, but no one seemed to be able to give me a straight answer or help me in any way other than passing me off to someone else.
October came, and my first court appearance date came. I had to take the morning off of work to wait in line to see the clerk. After waiting in line for 45 minutes, it was my turn. (Thank God I arrived early; the line was wrapping around the building by 8:05.) I told the clerk the whole story as quickly as I possibly could. She apologized, and told me it was a "fix-it ticket: $25." I didn't do anything wrong, but fine, $25 was a cheap way to end the ordeal. "Oh wait, the citing officer checked that it's not a fix-it ticket... you'll either have to pay the full amount or talk to a judge." I was annoyed at this point, so I asked her what the full amount was, even though I knew the answer. I just wanted her to say it. "Eleven hundred eighty four dollars." "What would you do if you were me?" "I'd speak to a judge." "I'd like to speak to the judge, please." She scheduled a court appearance for March, almost seven months after the incident took place.
Between October and December, I spoke to a few friends that I have in the legal profession; one is a lawyer and the other is a retired police officer. I showed the ticket to my retired cop friend, and he pointed out several errors on the ticket itself, not even counting the fact that it was issued under false pretenses. For one, he told me that "failure to produce documents" is, in fact, a "fix-it" ticket. I asked him why the ticket amount was so high, and he told me it's because the city tacks on processing fees, as does the county and the state. By the time you're done, a $100 becomes a $1000 ticket. Nice.
I let it go and tried to forget as best I could until my court date.
On my March date, I took another morning off of work, and I arrived at the courthouse at 7:45 AM. My arraignment was scheduled for 8:30, but everyone I know mentioned I should try to arrive early. A man was leaving the courtroom, and he mentioned to me and another "offender" that he'd be back at 8:45. I didn't know who he was, as he was wearing a t-shirt, shorts, and a baseball cap. I remembered thinking that I was on time, early even, so why does the court not extend the same courtesy and keep the 8:30 appointment? My irritation was unfounded, though, as he returned promptly at 8:30. It turns out he's the bailiff.
I'll give credit where credit is due: he was very personable, pretty funny, and he told us that they were going to try to get us in and out as quickly as possible. However, he essentially told us that if we pleaded "not guilty" we would lose. The way he put it was that the judge has known the citing officer for a long time, knows his/her family, and knows his/her work ethic and beat. The judge doesn't know you from Adam. I was reminded of the phrase "a nation of men versus a nation of laws." Long story short, I didn't have to speak to the judge. I gave the bailiff the short version of the incident and presented my documents that were current at the time of the citation. I asked for advice. He said something to the effect that I was clearly not guilty, but if I go to trial, there's always a chance that I'll lose if the judge is having a bad day. The cost for a "fix-it" ticket is $50 (up from $25 five months earlier) instead of $1184 so he recommended I pay the $50 and be done with it. That's what I did. Obviously, I was happy not to have to pay the exorbitant and financially crippling $1184, but $50 for nothing is pretty aggravating.
More aggravating still are the calls from the insurance companies, still happening more than a week later. About two hours after my arraignment, I started getting calls from what seems like every insurance agent in my area. I get these calls every twenty minutes or so and have to turn off my ringer to avoid hearing it non-stop. As I didn't request an insurance quote, that leaves only two options: 1. The city government sells the names of their traffic offenders to the insurance companies to make extra money. 2. The insurance companies troll the public records for leads. Either way, I find this extremely disturbing as just another example of business and government collusion at the expense of consumers/taxpayers.
Now, some of you may say I'm making too big a deal out of this, it's only $50, etc. My response is this: I worked for that $50, I don't care if it's $1. My labor belongs to me, and it is my natural right to spend the fruits of my labor as I see fit. When an armed government tax collector in a costume approaches my vehicle to give me a payment notice, I see little difference between that and an armed thief stealing $50 out of my pocket at a traffic light. In fact, I would have preferred the latter for a couple of reasons: 1. The thief is honest about his intentions to take what is mine, and doesn't force me to thank him for protecting me. 2. As soon as the thief runs away, I'm done with it. I don't have to take 2 days off from work to deal with it. 3. Other people immediately recognize that what the thief does is wrong. For some reason, when a person wears a government costume there's a cognitive dissonance in the mind of the third-party observer to what's really happening. As I noted, everyone in the system was very kind to me, from the citing officer, to the court liaison, to the courtroom bailiff. But theft with a smile is still theft, and much of the evil in this world is banal.
I've told this story to a couple of people, and a few mentioned that they or someone close to them had gone through a similar ordeal. Is this standard operating procedure? In 2005, the US Supreme Court declared that police do not have a constitutional duty to protect the public. (The article is here.) If the job of the police is not to protect, then what is it?
Originally posted on March 13, 2013 on http://www.digitaltyrants.com. Thanks for reading!