Thursday, November 29, 2012
My day in court
Doing 65 mph in a 55 mph zone. And a citation because my left directional wasn't working. Which was why I was on Route One, heading north to Dover. I was on my way to the VW place there to have it fixed.
But, because of the defective directional, I was driving a car that was "impaired". And, because of the "impaired" vehicle, my court appearance was now mandatory.
I was sooOOoo annoyed.
The state cop who stopped me was embarrassed. He told me that I could negotiate the speeding charge, get it reduced and thrown out by going to the Court of Common Pleas. So, I asked, why not just give me a warning. Can't, he said. The Governor stopped all warning tickets.
Warning tickets don't make any money for the Governor, see? It would become more and more clear that this was all about making money for the Governor.
So, two weeks later, off I went to court. Well, that's what they said it was. It was this little prefab building in the middle of a corn field way out in the boonies of Lower, Slower Delaware.
A guard - complete with gun - stopped everyone at the door and announced loudly that no electronic devices were allowed inside. No cell phones, iPads or other tablets - not even a Kindle. Can I just silence my cell phone, I asked. No, Ma'am, he said. Put it back in your car, he scowled like an angry parent to a petulant child.
I didn't know I could be more annoyed, but the worst was yet to come.
Without so much as a book or a newspaper to distract me, I waited in line to sign in - amazed that they actually fit that many people in one small building and wondered (wickedly) if they were breaking a building code - then settled in to people-watch.
Most people just sat there, looking at the floor. Looking at the wall. Looking anywhere but at each other. It felt like I was in the Principle's Office in the 6th Grade and we had all been brought there for chewing gum in class and our parents were going to ground us to our rooms without television until we were 35 years old.
Looking around the room, I made a fairly startling observation. I must say, in the time I've lived in Lower Slower Delaware, I've never seen more "diversity" anywhere else in any one room. Indeed, this was one of the first times that Caucasians were in the distinct minority.
Hmmmm....... Funny thing about that, eh?
No one explained what would happen, but we soon learned that we would be called in, one at a time, to talk with an officer - a woman who was a state cop - who offered us each reduced sentencing and a fine. If we agreed, we would be called into the next room around the corner - eight to ten at a time - to appear before the judge. After the judge rendered her verdict, we all came out and waited again until we were called up to pay our fines.
They had this little money-making scheme for the governor down to a science.
There were a few young people who had foolishly let their license expire and had been caught, essentially, driving without a license. The fine was $80, and then there were "fees", in addition to having had to pay to renew their license. Each and every one of them had to work out a payment plan in order to pay their fine because they couldn't afford the fine and fees all at once. Indeed, most of them had to take a day off from work - without pay - just to come to court.
There were a group of about 10-12 Haitians who met up with a translator who also negotiated with the state cop and judge for them.
Funny thing - all of them were brought in on infractions like driving an impaired vehicle - a directional or headlight was out - or failing to come to a full stop at a stop sign. No one was speeding. Most of them got between an $80 - $104 in a fine - plus what they had to pay the translator. All of them had to work out a payment plan. And, take a day off from work.
Well, except for the one woman in the group. She was tall and beautiful and very nicely dressed. Her infraction was not coming to a full stop at a stop sign. Apparently, her translator had negotiated a reduced fine for her but she was clearly not happy.
When asked by the judge if she was guilty she said, with a very thick Haitian accent, her voice quiet and respectful but defiant, "I will pay the fine, but I know in my heart that I did not do what the officer say I do."
The judge said that she could not accept anything but an innocent or guilty plea - yes or no, flat out - and asked the woman to consider that, if she did not take the reduced fine, she would have to appear before the Assistant Attorney General at a later date and make her plea. Which, the judge informed her, may cost her more money.
I should note that the judge had sincerely apologized to all the Haitians in her court for not having the court's instructions translated in their language, for not being able to speak their language or having a court appointed translator for them, and that she had to tell them their rights in English and wait for her translator to explain their rights to them in their native language.
I should also note that, in every case, the judge imposed the lowest fine allowed by law. Clearly - and without saying a word - she understood that she was, for the most part, simply part of a government money-making scheme and, as an officer of the court, would faithfully execute her duty, but do so at the lowest possible cost to the .....um......"offenders".
The judge moved on to the next Haitian man before coming back to the Haitian woman. Again, she read the charge. Again, her translator told her what the judge said. And, again, she said that she would pay the fine to settle things but she knew in her heart that she was innocent.
The judge looked at her a long time and said, "Then you are telling me that you want to appeal your case to the Assistant Attorney General?" The woman lowered her head and nodded yes.
The judge said that she was sorry but she needed to hear hear answer. The woman picked up her head and said, "I am innocent. I will go before the Assistant Attorney General. Thank you, Madam Judge."
The other Haitian men in the room shook their heads and snickered. I happened to catch the eye of the judge and we shared a silent smile of admiration.
"Good luck to you, " said the Judge to the Haitian woman. "I hope you do well. I hope you find at least a modicum of justice in the system."
Me? I got the speeding charge reduced and then thrown out. No report to the DMV. No points on my insurance. But, I had to pay the fine for driving an "impaired car". Which, with all the other - ahem, "fees" - came to a whopping $96.40.
While I was waiting to pay my fine, I stepped outside for a moment, just to breathe in some fresh, cool air. I overheard a young African American woman talking with her boyfriend about how she was going to pay the $80 fine - plus associated "fees". She said they were making her wait while they worked out the payments so she was going to be even later to report for work at MacDonalds.
When she got off the phone, I walked over to her and asked if she would do something for me. She looked at me with that same kind of quiet defiance I had seen on the face of the Haitian woman.
Look, I said, I got off easy. And, I know why, and so do you. So, why not let me pay your fine?
She looked at me and said, "What did you just say?" I smiled and repeated myself, adding that I knew that the system was not exactly designed to favor her, and since I was flush this month, and could afford it, I'd like to try helping her out.
All that attitude melted away and a very grateful young woman sat before me. "Lady," she said, "you have no idea how much this would help."
I had my collar on - of course (My momma didn't raise no fool) - and suddenly she looked at it. Hard. She looked back into my eyes and said, "Oh, I got it. You're a preacher or a nun or something, and I'm your charity for this month. It's okay, I need it so bad, I'll even take it from you."
"Actually," I said, "I'm an Episcopalian. An Episcopal priest. And no, you're not my charity this month. I just know injustice when I see it and smell it and I hate injustice and this place reeks of injustice."
She sat for a minute and took it all in. Then, she smiled and said, "Well, for an Episcopalian -- whatever -- you are alright."
I smiled at her and said, "Well, I don't know if the judge is right. I don't know if you can find even a modicum of justice in the system. But, like the judge, I try to do my best even in a bad situation."
So, we went and paid her fine - well, I paid the $80 fine and she paid the fees - and then, I paid my fine and fees in full. The woman behind the window watched all of this and allowed her facial expression to change briefly from bored to a sarcastic smirk and then back to bored again.
We didn't beat the system, but at least three women that day in that courthouse did what we could to find a modicum of justice wherever we could.
Yes, the moral arc of the universe always bends toward justice - I believe that - but sometimes, you know, you have to get out ahead of the curve and push at it some, however which way you can.
Even if that personally costs you $80 whole dollars.
Sometimes, justice looks like someone trying to help someone else - even a complete stranger, even just a little bit - in the face of injustice.