Friday, October 18, 2013

My Day in Court
(If possible, read this with the following music playing in the background.)

It has been several years since I was ticketed for a moving violation while driving my car. However, recently I was ticketed for a stopping violation instead. As a result, I found myself in Municipal Court in “downtown” Glen Rock, my hometown. I had never been to Municipal Court before, and it is an experience.

Here’s the background behind my “crime.” (By the way, I’m not trying to minimize my guilt here, but I want to explain my side of the events.) I had driven to the town post office to mail a time sensitive letter that I felt should be mailed inside the post office rather than in the sidewalk mailbox that gets emptied only in mid-morning and late afternoon. Unfortunately, every space to park was filled—in the parking lot beside the post office and even on both sides of the street in front of it. There were two exceptions: the handicapped parking spaces. Both were empty. Would anyone really object if I occupied one of them for a maximum of 30 seconds? Certainly not, I thought recklessly. And I did the dirty deed!

Of course, in those 30 seconds, a police officer drove past my vehicle, saw me emerge from the post office, stopped, and confronted me. (Had he been hiding in the bushes hoping to spot a potential miscreant, I wondered?) “Do you have a handicap parking sticker?” he asked ominously. I cowered a little as I said “No, but. . . .” (I decided not to finish providing an explanation, which sounded weak, even in my head.)  He told me to wait while he printed out a citation. I took it and sheepishly drove away. When I got home, I studied the ticket to see what this was going to cost me, but could find no dollar amount spelled out. Instead, the ticket read “Non-payable offense.” Was this some kind of warning? Nope. At the bottom were instructions telling me to report to Municipal Court on a Thursday afternoon three weeks in the future. Just what was I in for?
Glen Rock Town Hall and Court Room
I arrived at the Town Hall a few minutes before 4 p.m., the time indicated on my ticket. I joined a long line of defendants and attorneys waiting to go through a metal detector that I knew was not there any other day of the week. Just how dangerous are those of us summoned to Municipal Court? I started to rethink my decision not to have my friend Joe, the attorney, accompany me here. How hard a book would the judge toss at me for usurping a handicapped person’s spot near the post office? I remembered that the police officer had never mentioned any Miranda rights when handing out the ticket. Shouldn’t that help me avoid jail time?
As we came inside, a clerk explained that people handed a white sheet of paper spelling out their offense (like the one I was given) should stand in the back of the room. Those with blue tickets should wait to meet with their attorneys, and attorneys should line up along the window side of the room. I took my place around tenth in line at the back of the room and carefully looked around. Frankly, I was a little nervous.

It took nearly 45 minutes for the judge to finally emerge from his chambers behind the courtroom, which doubled as the town council meeting room twice a month. Then he began talking quickly in a voice that was hard to hear above the movement in the room. What I did manage to pick out was that the order of appearance would be (1) those whose attorneys would make pleas, (2) followed by those of us planning to simply plead guilty without an attorney, (3) followed by those standing trial that evening. There were lots of people in the room. This could take some time.

I discovered that the line in the back of the room was for those who were to meet with the town prosecutor and learn just what they were pleading guilty to. (I understood that you could change your mind about the guilty plea at that time, whatever that meant.) I got my minute with the prosecutor, learned that it was a bad thing to park in a handicap space, affirmatively indicated that this was my first such offense, signed my pleas, and was told that the lawful fine of $250 might be adjusted somewhat if the judge felt kindly toward a first offender. I gave a small sigh. I was glad I had placed a blank check in my wallet; I had a feeling that they wouldn’t accept Visa here.

Then the fun began. Now those of you who think being a lawyer is a glamorous occupation should avoid attending Municipal Court. The guys (and one woman) lined up near the windows looked like they had been through a long day already, and it was just going to get longer. They also looked like they were trolling for business among the “low-lifes” holding blue sheets. One by one, the defendants and their attorneys moved to a microphone set up a few feet in front of the judge and began a proceeding.

Here is a typical one that took place over the next hour.
Attorney and defendant stand in front of judge, who explains the violation by number rather than words. Judge asks defendant for plea, which is generally guilty. Then a brief explanation follows.

Attorney asks defendant: “On the night of September __, were you driving through Glen Rock when you were stopped by a police car?

Defendant: Yes.
Attorney: And did you drop a small plastic bag containing a white powder outside your car window.

Defendant: Yes.
A: And did that envelope contain heroin?

D: Yes.
A: And did you tell the officer that your name was John Jackson?

D: Yes.
A: And is that your name?

D: No.
A: And did you tell him your age was 23?

D: Yes.
A: And is that your correct age?

D: No.
A: That is all we have, your honor.

The judge then gave out a sentence that involved a fine (greater than that I was to receive for my parking offense, I noted with limited satisfaction), plus $33 court costs, and a $6 surcharge. What the heck is a surcharge, and why was that not subsumed in the court cost or fine, I wondered? I didn’t figure that I was going to find out any answers.

After the lengthy string of blue sheeted defendants finished their allocutions, we “white sheets” got our turn. I was fifth in line. I faced the judge, agreed again that it was wrong to park in a handicap space, affirmed that I was a first-time offender, and was handed down my sentence (which also included court costs of $33 and that $6 surcharge). I was then sent off to a window down the hall to pay for my crime.

When I learned that my actual fine was significantly less than that stated by the judge in open court, I happily wrote out the check (I was right that they didn’t accept credit cards, by the way) and went on my way, a little poorer but properly chastened.

So that was my day in court. I figured that I should write about it in this blog because you’re never going to see these happenings in a John Grisham novel. That is, unless some defendant someday raises holy hell in a courtroom to protest paying that damned surcharge!

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