Friday, June 7, 2013

Toothless Justice

Another one from the vault, this time 20 years ago...

Toothless Justice

On Tuesday April 16, 1993 I had to appear in court. No big deal, I thought, I've been to hearings before. However, this was to be one of the most bizarre mornings of my life and it went a little like this:

First of all, the court was in some tiny spot on the map between Houston and Austin, and I had to be there at 9:00 am. I am never anywhere at 9:00 am, so this was going to pose a problem. It was a hearing about a speeding ticket that I had pleaded not guilty to. I had gotten the ticket on my birthday, January 2, coming back from a disastrous day of being lost for four hours among Houston's highways but that's another story. Anyway, my offense was going too fast, obviously not fast enough because I still got caught. I was going 97 mph in my friend's car. We had just gotten pulled over 10 minutes before for his third ticket of the day and decided to switch off for the next one (sort of a lets-take-turns-getting-busted game). I remember my arresting officer very well, he had a great sense of humor and laughed out loud when he saw our three previous tickets on display on the dash board. He said something like "damn boy it's only been 10 minutes since your last ticket, and only 5 minutes between these two!" I said, "No sir, those are his tickets, we are taking turns." I realized that there was no way I could hope to explain going 97 mph in a 55 mph zone at 2:00 am on a foggy night, so I just took the ticket and said thanks. I threw it on the dash with the others and asked my friend if it was a local cop or a state one. It was state, and I knew I'd actually have to take care of this one. (There are, no doubt, warrants for our arrest over the other three tickets but we'll never go back to Houston)

Anyway, I had to be at some small town courthouse at 9:00 am. I figured that if I woke up at 7:00 and left Austin at 8:00 I could do it, if I speeded. I only scheduled this thing because I had heard that a lot of the time at hearings like these, the witness against you doesn't show up (cops must live such busy lives) and you can get off. This is what I was hoping for. I drove down the highway from Austin and thought about how ridiculous this whole thing was. Why didn't I just buy that radar detector I was going to get? It would have undoubtedly been a hell of a lot cheaper for me than this. I could barely afford the gas for the trip down there. I found the town with no problem at 8:50 am. Now all I had to do was find the court. I decided not to waste my precious remaining minutes by driving around the country and getting lost in a field somewhere, so I stopped at a gas station to ask for directions.

A toothless old man walked up to my car. When I say he was toothless, I'm really just exaggerating as I tend to do. He had teeth, three of them as a matter of fact, it's just that they must have been pretty useless to him with one being in the upper right corner and the other two in the lower left. I couldn't understand a word he said. Maybe he was drunk. Maybe he was stupid. Maybe he was just toothless, I don't know but he did look at me like I was an alien with a third eye or long green tentacles or something. At least he could lift his arms, I'll give him credit for that. He did manage to make some sort of motioning gesture as he was grunting and I figured that was about the best I'd get from " ' him, so I took it and followed the street he waved at.

Four blocks down I found a building with a cop car in front of it. This couldn't have been it. I've been inside bigger Taco Bells. I mean this place couldn't possibly be a courthouse. I kept driving and realized that there was absolutely nothing else down the street so I decided to check it out. I walked in at 8:59 and was told that the judge was busy so I should wait in her office for my turn. She would come out and get me when she was ready. Right here I feel I need to give a little description of this place. It was like something right out of a movie like “Deliverance” (actually I've never seen “Deliverance”, but I hear it's pretty good). The place was so Andy Griffith-ish, it looked like the whole town was built for a Twilight Zone episode, I mean how could people live in a place like that? Did they even have running water? It was just so damn weird. Being a former New Yorker, I think my opinion of the place may be a little culturally biased, but there was this other guy waiting for the judge too. He looked pretty consistent with the local ambiance, cowboy hat, missing teeth, limited gene pool, and bright red arms and he started a conversation with me with the opening "damn, now this is a hick town!" It was so surreal, so Beverly Hillbilly-esque, so backwoods I couldn't believe it.

I think I waited for at least 45 minutes for that judge. During this time "Bubba" and I talked. I'm not kidding here, he told me his name was Bubba with a straight face. Bubba was there for the same reason I was and we were both hoping to get off on the technicality. As we were waiting, we saw a cop enter the building and go into the courtroom. I heard him speak, recognized his voice, an immediately realized that I had wasted my time. This was my cop. (I didn't tell Bubba this, I would've hated for him to get off and me not to). Suddenly the judge came and got me. I can't believe it! She wasn't busy, she was just making me wait until the cop got there! What about my technicality, I was there on time! It's just another way to keep liberal white guys down.

My hearing was quick, I changed my plea to guilty because of the cop showing up and then told them that I was not financially able to pay my fines. Another hearing was going to be scheduled to determine if I was indeed as broke as I said I was. I thought damn, I'll have to come back here, when the judge turned to the prosecutor and asked him if he could do it then.

The prosecutor asked me a bunch of questions about my income, my bills, my tuition and such. After declaring me broke, he suggested that I perform community service instead of pay a fine. This meant that I'd have to make several trips back to this crummy town and service its toothless community. I would have been okay with the idea if it was my own city, but really I didn't want to do work for this town. Besides it was such a small town what kind of work could I really do? I only saw maybe four pieces of litter on the street coming in. After picking that up, then what? Odd jobs for the state? Washing the police car? Picking up lunch for everyone in the office (probably no more than five people)? Or even babysitting the judge's kids? I just couldn't see it. Finally the judge put me on a payment plan to last the rest of my life and sent me on my way. I passed Bubba as I left and told him that I got off. "wasn't my cop," I added, "good luck".

I ran outside to my car, tore off my tie, changed my shirt, and got out of that place as fast as I could. I couldn't believe my morning and couldn't wait to get back to Austin.

I was doing 93 when I got pulled over again.