Your Rights Hanging By A Belt…

PHOTO: Fake courtroom

…or How I Contributed To The Public Coffers Of Warrenton, NC

By Ian

Last week, I had to go to court to “defend” myself for getting a speeding ticket. Let me first tell you about how I got said ticket so you understand how I ended up in this situation. My fiancée and I were driving from our place in Durham, NC to visit her family in NY. On our way, we take I85 up until it meets I95 in Virginia. If you have never driven this stretch of I85, know that it is one of the worst speed traps in existence. Between the two directions of interstate are a lot of tall pine trees. Every mile or so there is crossroad between both sides of the highway with signs saying, “Official Use Only.” You can probably see how this works. State Troopers like to sit on the crossroads and you can’t see them until you are right next to them because of the trees. Just be happy that your tax dollars have paid for trees to be cut down and asphalt laid down so cops can pull you over, oops, I mean keep you safe on the highway. That’s right, pay for your harassment.

OK, so here I am driving my fiancée’s car which has a significantly nicer engine than my own. We are right near the NC/VA border. I’m not paying attention because I am talking and to add to it I’m stupidly riding in the left lane. I’m not the only car on the road and I am not driving the fastest around me either. Well, one of these safety-protecting State Troopers pulls me over. I really can’t complain, I was doing 80 in a 65. That isn’t what gets me mad. Right after he pulls me over, an unmarked Mustang pulls up right behind him. The first cop comes up and asks for my license and registration. He looks at my NC license and then asks, “You still living in Durham?” He asks this because the car has NY plates. This is why I have 2 cops pulling me over, because they thought I was driving a stolen car. He sends the other cop off once he figures out that it’s the passenger’s car, and not mine. He gives me my ticket, tells me to slow down, and drives off.

So if you have never gotten a speeding ticket, here is how it works. They give you the ticket and there is a hefty fine on it. In my case, it was a $120 court fee and a $30 fine for the speeding offense. You have the option of sending this ticket along with a money order for the fee to the court and this counts as a guilty plea. Apparently this is somehow worth $120 of the court’s time. Your other option is to attend the court date listed on the ticket and try and defend yourself. Hmmm, why would a cop want to pull someone over with out of state plates? Maybe because the possibility that you stole the car or at worst for them that you won’t drive from NY down to NC to defend a $150 ticket. Ah, but there is an option for you as a driver if you can’t make it to the courthouse on your court date. You can hire the friendly neighborhood lawyer in the town of the courthouse to go to court for you! How do I know this? Well, I got a mailbox full of letters from lawyers telling me that they could make this all better for a simple fee of a couple hundred bucks, on top of the cost of ticket.

Why would you bother with the lawyers or going to court at all when you can just pay the ticket and be done with it? Your car insurance gets notified the ticket and they judge you as unsafe and raise your insurance. In my case, it was going to be an increase of $1800 a year for three years. I’ve never had an accident. I’ve never been pulled over. Apparently though, one simple mistake such as this can cost you around $6000 total. There is an interesting thing to it though. If you were going only 9 miles over the limit, your insurance won’t charge you. I didn’t know this until after I went to court.

I have to go to court because I just don’t have this money lying around. I had planned to say that I was speeding and it was a mistake (it was) and I hadn’t ever gotten pulled over so could the court please show some mercy. So I get dressed up and drive 90 minutes out to the court house for the county I was pulled over in. This town is pretty small, and it is surrounded by farms. They don’t have much other than a few shops on Main St. and a gas station and grocery. I get in the courtroom and it is just packed. Over a hundred people sitting on the benches and almost all of them are defendants. The majority of these people are black men. Maybe that’s because this is what the majority of the towns population is comprised of, maybe racial profiling by the police, maybe an indication of socio-economic differences between races, I don’t know. The district attorney makes an announcement that she is willing to offer a “standard deduction” to those with speeding tickets. I get in line cause I have a speeding ticket but I have no idea what a “standard deduction” is and want to ask.

I hate to play the race card and this is all a bunch of unfounded speculation, but oh well, here goes. The DA was a black woman. So the guy (a black guy) in front of me in line has a ticket for reckless driving or some such business. He seems concerned about what is going to happen to him and what kind of fines he will have to pay. The DA takes the time to answer his questions and tell him what the judge will do. I get up next in line and she tells me that she is going to knock my ticket down to a 74 in a 65. Remember that at the time I didn’t know that this is what I wanted. I asked her if this would make it so my insurance wouldn’t charge me so much. She responds that she can’t give me legal advice. I ask what my options are if I choose not to accept this deal. She says again that she can’t give me legal advice. That’s it. The guy in front of me gets a few minutes of his questions answered, but I get the same response for everything I ask. Maybe it was cause he was black, maybe its because I was white, or maybe the DA just had the hots for the guy in front of me. Maybe its because her job is to put people in jail or get them convicted, and the guy in front of me was obviously going to be guilty and she just felt sorry for him. I don’t know, I really can’t say. So I take the deal, because I’m starting to feel like this place is kind of stacked against defendants and I don’t want to end up with a worse bargain. A lesser charge must make for a lesser fine from your insurance, I figure.

The judge comes in, and now it turns from just messed up justice to high comedy. Before he begins his proceedings, he takes 5 minutes to lecture us. About what? About how we are to behave in his courtroom. He is a kind judge in that he makes sure you know the rules of his courtroom before you come up in front of him, since he might, in his words, “be taking away your freedom” for breaking his rules. For one, don’t come up with your hands in your pockets. He will throw you in contempt. Two, your shirt better be tucked in. Otherwise, contempt. Thirdly, you better not be wearing shorts in his courtroom. Fourth, and this is what most of the lecture was about, you better not have sagging pants. God help you if you have sagging pants. Its not enough to tuck your shirt into your sagging pants. Your pants better be up at your waist. You know where you waist is. Don’t act like you don’t. Don’t you think about pulling your pants back down either when you walk out of the courtroom. You aren’t bad. I don’t care what the style is or what your friends wear. In his courtroom, you better be presentable. Don’t think he won’t throw you in jail overnight. As he is shouting this at the courtroom in his best, “I have authority” voice, he spends half the time looking at each half of the room. I was sitting in the front of the court like the uncool kid in school, so half of his speech was said with him looking right at me.

Speaking of school, this is starting to feel like when your teacher would have the assistant principal come in and yell at the class for misbehaving. As he is going through all this, my face must be turning red because I’m struggling not to laugh or crack a smile. You really would have to see this to believe it. In our hallowed halls of justice, you can get lectured about how to wear your pants. Not only that, you can go to jail for how you wear your pants.

Finally the judge starts the proceedings. Guess who gets to go first in line? The friendly neighborhood lawyers. Their time is too valuable to be spent waiting in line with all of these other people. Know how many words they said for each person that hired them? Maybe 10, tops. It all amounted to, “I represent that person. They plead guilty.” Your hard earned money at work. Next up were the people who cut the deal with the DA. One guy actually went up there in shorts. I couldn’t believe it. The judge asks him what he’s doing and the guy, absolutely terrified looking, responds with complete earnestness, “I thought you said short-shorts.” Again I am fighting not to laugh. The judge makes him give his name to the bailiff and go home and change into some pants. He wouldn’t just let him say “Guilty” and leave. Oh no, this man sticks to his principles.

They finally call my name, and the DA says the charge is 74 in a 65. I plead guilty. Now comes another fun part. The judge sets your fine, and he sets it arbitrarily. My ticket was $150, which was $30 fine plus $120 court fees, that is if I plead guilty by mailing it in. The judge says, “The fine will be $35, plus the $120 fees, for a total of $155. Do you have the money with you today?” I’ve never been so happy that ATMs make you take money in multiples of $20 because otherwise I would’ve brought $150. I know its only $5 more, but why he can just set this as he pleases I do not understand. I pay my fine in the office downstairs, and I leave. A call to my insurance verifies that because of going down to 74 in a 65, my insurance will not be affected. Happy day. On the way home, I count three cars pulled over by state troopers. I shake my head and think of the line by the cowboy in The Big Lebowski, “I guess that’s the way the whole durned human comedy keeps perpetuatin’ itself.”

So what did I learn? I learned that speeding tickets are a large source of revenue for small towns near state borders. They support the public funds and the local lawyers. I learned that just because officials like judges and DA’s are elected, it doesn’t mean they are necessarily qualified for their jobs. I learned that you can go to jail for how you dress, bringing new meaning to the phrase fashion police. The most important thing I learned is that in such a circus of a justice system, the best thing you can do to protect yourself is to never have to be involved with it again. So maybe the safety-protecting state trooper really did make a difference. You won’t see me speeding again.

Flickr photo by Erin Nealey

10 Comments

  1. Chris

    Great story. I’ve got a few traffic court tales myself. My favorite involved a “courtroom” that was just this guy at desk wearing shorts. His secretary actually sat on the corner of the desk while I was on trial.

    And on the subject of dress codes, you’ll probably enjoy this article:
    Flint, Michigan Battles Crack Epidemic

  2. Ian

    I can understand why they care so much about being presentable in court, but it seems culturally insensitive (dare I say racist?) to force people to dress a certain way. Its not just a trend, people have been sagging their pants for a long time now. I don’t sag mine, but I sure am glad I dressed up for court that day.

  3. Sheepywoman

    What do you think he would have done when parachute pants were in style? And do you think he has the same disdain for all fads, like Ugg boots?

  4. Ian

    He didn’t like when guys were wearing tank tops (“wife-beaters”). The bailiffs turned those guys away at the very beginning and made them go change. It is absurd how these people choose to show up to court, but I see it as irrelevant to serving justice. It just shows that there is some bias for simple things like how you dress, when there really should not be. I think if you wore MC Hammer Pants and Uggs (what a proper name) he would probably be OK as long as you had your shirt tucked in and he couldn’t see, in his words, “the round of your buttocks”.

  5. Sheepywoman

    How appropriate:

    http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,380143,00.html

    I think it trumps the absurdity of your situation, Ian

  6. Ian

    That’s classic. “Jew you down”? Who says that other than people who are being blatantly racist? I really like how he thinks “black hole” is racist. Its black because no light can exit it, only enter it. Thats not racist, that is the definition of black. And for the record, devil’s food cake is way better than angel food.

  7. Daimao

    That’s an interesting tale. My parents and relatives grew up in Warrenton on my grandparents’ farm, and I’ve heard stories about them getting stopped by cops for no reason. I also remember riding with my cousin when I was younger and him getting pulled over by an old white sheriff. The courtroom scene sounds like what I would imagine it to be. It reminds me of that one judge from Atlanta who kicked out the white lawyers in the courtroom to talk to the black defendants about getting it together. Judges like those probably see so many black youths come through with no respect or concern that they get fed up and become harsh as possible.

  8. scythia

    Great post. And I had a traffic ticket due today, so y’all saved me a bunch of cash. Thanks!

    “Jew you down”? Who says that other than people who are being blatantly racist?

    As the only Jew in my town (well, not the ONLY one, but one of the few), I had to endure this constantly from my friends. Didn’t seem like racism so much as the adolescent gauntlet, but even still, I didn’t have a problem with it.

  9. Clint

    Ian,

    I had a similar encounter earlier this year with a red-light ticket. I ended up pleading not guilty, going to trial, representing myself and winning (which was a thrill), but I noticed a lot of the same stuff going on in the Chapel Hill court.

    It was packed. Almost all blacks and Latinos.

    I don’t think the DA (it was an assistant in CH) was profiling you or anything. They (two white people) originally offered me the same kind of bargain, and, when I asked about the effect on insurance, he said he couldn’t give me legal advice and repeated that a few times. Those particular questions must be off limit completely.

    And remember you have the right to ask for a continuance, which I opted for since I was unsure of the ramifications of the bargain (pushed the date back by about a month).

    That judge sounds like a complete douche though. Perhaps notifying people of the dress code beforehand would make more sense …

  10. I got pulled over on that same stretch of road in Nov. for doing 82 in a 70mph zone (the only 70 mph stretch of highway in the whole gol durned state of Va). Not knowing that anything over 80 mph is considered reckless driving I asked the officer if I could just send a check for the ticket and was informed that reckless driving requires my presence in court. I then asked him if he could the charge to 80 mph instead of 82 mph and was told he could not do that. My court date was set for a week before Christmas. I took my sister-in-law, the lawyer, with me and we watched at least 100 people being milled through the court for speeding tickets. A young, good-looking blonde college student was sitting behind me and told me the same trooper had pulled her over for 84 mph. Unlike me, she was able to convince the trooper to drop the charges to 80 mph. I’ve since been informed that troopers do have the discretion to drop or lower charges. When we got to court there were at least 8 state troopers there and it took about 2 hours to get up to see the judge. He dropped the charges and the fine, for which I am ever so grateful. What rankles still is that those charges could have been lowered beforehand, keeping me from driving 3 hours one way to get to court. I didn’t have a problem with paying the ticket but for a month, I was scared to death that I was going to lose my license, go to jail, have to pay $2500, etc. The letters from the local lawyers didn’t help calm my nerves either. I finally decided to just trust in God and throw myself on the mercy of the court. It worked! I drove away with a ticket for non-moving violation which means my insurance wasn’t affected. I only paid about $150 for court fees and fines.
    Man, what a racket they have going on down there!