The cop car got behind me as I turned off Wire Rd. onto Lem Morrison Rd. cutting through campus. Sunny day, the time around 4:00 p.m. It was not hard for him to keep up with my blistering pace of thirty-four miles an hour. I knew the guy had a bead on me by the time I got to Donahue Dr. and took a right.

        My concentration was that of an astronaut landing the space shuttle to avoid giving the officer an excuse to pull me over. I knew my tag was expired.

        Ted Williams had vision better than 20/10. When he was a Marine fighter pilot in World War II, on missions he was able to spot enemy planes miles before other pilots in his squadron.
Famously, on one occasion during an at bat, Ted stepped to the plate then backed out of the batter’s box refusing to hit claiming home plate was crooked. A long argument ensued until finally a tape measure was brought out to prove he was wrong. The distance from home plate to first base is ninety feet and even at that distance Ted Williams’ visual acuity was such he could tell that home place was off by half of an inch.

        When the blue lights came on I figured I was cooked. I knew I had committed no moving violations and assumed the guy who was about to give me a ticket had to have had eyes as good as Ted Williams to be able to reach the microscopic letters on my tag sticker.

        I let the window down after pulling over and waited for the officer, keeping both hands on the steering wheel. I watched him cautiously approach with his hand on his gun.

        “Sir I pulled you over because you tag does not match your vehicle.”
“Officer, I have had this vehicle for almost fifteen years with the same tag on it. I have no idea what the discrepancy could be.”

        He was cautious but nice up until he ran the vin identification number of my vehicle and realized he had made a mistake. That is when he was a jerk. I can only assume he became a jerk because he knew he wasn’t going to get the big score of catching someone in a stolen vehicle or driving with a stolen tag.

        Then he told me my tag was expired and he was writing me a ticket for that. I begged for a fixit ticket if I got the tag sticker updated. No dice. To add insult to injury he put the wrong address on the ticket, not matching the address that was on both forms of identification he had from me.

        Winning in traffic court on a technicality was a long shot but the heartburn of having to pay a one hundred and sixty-eight dollar fine for a tag sticker that cost fifty-eight dollars made it a risk I had to take.

        A screen lowered from the ceiling and a pre-recorded message from a judge was projected onto it informing the hundred or so of us in the court room how this court operated and what our rights were. My optimism died and I thought for a minute we were not even going to have a judge in the court room with us that it was going to be presided over remotely.

        “Good morning everyone. I warn you all I do not have any caffeine in my body just so you are all informed.” The guy in the robe humorously said as he entered and sat down behind the judge’s bench.

        The judge told me even though the ticket was filled out wrong, it was not considered a ‘material’ error and I was still liable for the expired tag. However, since I now had the tag up to date he waived the twenty-five dollar fine for the expired tag. I still had to pay one hundred and forty-four dollars in court costs. Total bullshit.

        It wasn’t hard to tell that over ninety percent of the people who showed up for traffic court this morning were black. I don’t feel out of line in assuming that most of the people in court were also poor based upon the number of us who were given extended time to pay our fines and court costs.

        The entire affair was orchestrated in a streamlined manner resembling a finely tuned assembly line. Case after case of traffic fines and misdemeanor crimes were adjudicated with expediency and precision such that Henry Ford himself would have been proud.

        What an incredible way to produce revenue on the backs of poor people who did not have the resources to fight back. Listening to case after case and the fines and court costs associated with them made me sad. Anyone who is not familiar with the term ‘debt spiral of the poor’ that is institutionally supported in America should look it up. It is a prison without bars that few people take the time to understand because if they did, there were be far fewer ‘haves’ looking down on the ‘have nots’ judging they were all poor simply from making bad decisions or not wanting to work.

Total Surprise

        This judge, who looked to be in his mid-forties, treated every person in there with dignity and respect. Even some of the repeat offenders who were obviously bullshitting him with excuses, he did not talk down to. He treated everyone like human beings.

        He showed patience and offered guidance in ways I am certain are not requirements of his job. Never did he seem like he was simply going through the motions. With every individual he looked directly at them while addressing them and he listened intently while they pled their cases to him.

        There were some foreigners in court who did not speak English well. He took extra time with them seemingly because they were obviously scared and he wanted them to understand fully what was taking place.

        This would probably get the judge in trouble but damn, he left a lot of money on the table. He could have stuck it to a lot of people much harder. And after hearing the amounts some of the fines added up to, most of the people in there certainly needed a break.

        Am I pissed I had to pay an exorbitant court cost today? Damn straight I am. It is a racket. Was it worth it?

        Here’s the thing. The system is fucked up. I’m not going to call it broken because I believe it was designed that way. But getting to see a guy like this judge, who is indeed a human being himself, showing compassion to fellow human beings in an unpleasant circumstance gives me hope.

        Was it worth? Yes…but I damn sure don’t want to go through it again.

 

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