I protested a ticket in the Weehawken Traffic Court. I won’t bore you with the details, except to note that the definition of a careless driver is “A person who drives a vehicle carelessly, or without due caution and circumspection, in a manner so as to endanger, or be likely to endanger, a person or property.” I was being circumspect, careful, and was not endangering anybody or anything, though I had consciously chosen to proceed in one of the two up lanes of the down part of a road in order to get where I needed to go.
I had half hoped that one of the policemen in the patrol car posted about 20 yards away would get out of the car and guide me. Instead I got a siren. A policeman thundered over, red-faced and out of control. “What kind of stupid are you? You’re the kind of person who should not be on the road! You cause accidents! You could have killed somebody out there! You’re just lucky I don’t write a ticket that would take your license away! You don’t know what a traffic cone is? How stupid are you?” And on and on.
Not so strange that I should feel the pain of a black man at that moment. I’m an old white lady. They’re not going to shoot me, probably. But black men have been pulled over and subsequently shot for a malfunctioning headlight, or, like Trayvon Martin, for nothing at all. As I reached into my glove compartment to pull out the black folder with my insurance documents a wave of empathetic fear washed over me. Could the officer possibly think I was reaching for a gun? I had seen numerous recent videos of people being shot for less threatening gestures.
I decided to appeal the ticket. There were perhaps 30 other people in Traffic Court, “a light day,” they said.
First we saw the public defender, who ascertained our pleas, and sitting directly across from her was the persecutor, whom we would see if we pled guilty. The defender said I had a case, so “not guilty.”
First the cases with lawyers were heard. That made some sense, but it also rewarded people with enough money to afford a lawyer. They were mostly “guilty.” The person was given a “yes” or a “no” to rote questions, and they all stood there abject and silent, except for their yes or no. Driving a limousine without a license. Driving with a fake inspection certificate. Driving without a properly equipped diesel vehicle. Causing a public disturbance. Making an unauthorized turn.
In return for pleading guilty, people received hefty fines – $200, $300, plus a “New Jersey state surcharge” of $250 – there must have been twenty surcharges, and I thought what cowards we are in New Jersey to pay for public services with surcharges that represent more than a week’s pay for some people. There was a $33 court fee, and various other bits and pieces. The highest fine was for a man who was using his private car as a limousine without registering it. $1,000, plus a $250 surcharge and the other smaller charges.
There have been many times in my life when such a fine would have broken me. Even finding the money to pay my smaller fine, $189, would have set me back for months. Each person was instructed to go across the hall and make payment on the spot. Some people had cobbled together mismatching outfits so for court, some were wearing clothes from the Walmart sale rack, if there is such a thing. Where would they find $600, $800? If they had paid the amount listed on the original ticket there would have been no surcharges. They were being punished for using the court system.
Pleading “not guilty” meant that you would receive a Summons to a trial in the mail. I didn’t want to cramp my future with a court date weeks or months in the future, nobody could give me an estimate. Still, I was incensed over this ticket and ready to plead not guilty.
There were only five people left in the courtroom when I saw the policeman who had verbally abused me walking into the prosecutor/public defender’s office. My number was called and I was told to see the prosecutor. The policeman was seated in the chair recently occupied by the public defender, looking like a puppy who had been spanked with a rolled up newspaper for peeing on the floor. He was a big man, with a blonde but greying crew cut, beginning to put on the pounds, but thinner than other pot-bellied policemen around the courthouse. He might possibly have been cute when he was 16.
A man who can turn red-faced with fury at a woman going five miles an hour, and scream at her for five minutes without asking her a single question or hearing her side of the story does not belong on any police force. I pity the poor woman who might possibly be married to this stewpot of rage.
“Hello there,” he said with a weak smile.
I said, “We meet again,” and sat down with my back as firmly to him as I could muster.
“You are here, and the officer is here,” the prosecutor said. “He has photographs and you have photographs. If you choose to plead guilty we’ll reduce your charge to “failure to yield.” You’ll have no points on your license – you know careless driving carries two points, right?” I nodded. “No points and a one hundred and fifty dollar fine plus a thirty-three dollar service charge. Do you want to do that, or do you want to plead not guilty? The choice is up to you.”
That was hard decision. The policeman could lie about his tantrum, and could also lie about the half-hearted apology he offered me when he came back after he had both flagged another motorist for doing exactly what I had done, and written the ticket. There was also the bald fact that, no matter who else had done it, I was driving the wrong way. They didn’t care if my aunt was waiting for her lunch, and my analysis of myriad alternatives was irrelevant. If the judge dispatched cases the way this one was, respectfully churning them through, I might get two points on my license and a higher fine.
“You can think about it a little, and if you want, you can change your plea before the judge,” the prosecutor clarified.
I left the room without looking again at the policeman. This piece of shit had the weight of the prosecutor and court on his side. The prosecutor worked with the police all the time, and so did the judge.
I called my husband and we agreed I should accept the guilty plea.
The judge went through his rote questions. Before pleading guilty I wanted to confirm the fine the prosecutor had quoted and asked the judge “Could you confirm first what the fine is?”
He banged his hands on the table and swung back in his chair, irritated at my uppityness. “My first task is to find out whether you are guilty. Are you guilty or not guilty?” He thumbed through something then said, “One hundred eighty-three dollars. Guilty or not guilty?”
I felt railroaded.
“Guilty or not guilty,” he said impatiently.
“Guilty.” Pleading guilty and being guilty are different things, and the friction between them was making me fidget. I wondered if in the future a plea of guilty would come back to bite me – perhaps with my insurance company. I also flashed back to those days when such a sum would have broken me.
“Are you sure?”
“Are you sure?” He said it louder.
He snapped the rest of the case shut with his rote repetitions and said, “Please go across the hall and make payment.”
What if I saw the policeman on the way? I hoped I didn’t. Something might slip out. I rehearsed the possibilities.
The rest of that evening, even today, the day after, I feel inhabited by the news stories I have read in our recent history. How would I feel if I were Tamir Rice’s mother bumping into the policeman who had killed her son, exonerated and walking free? Or what if Trayvon Martin’s father found himself standing behind George Zimmerman in the supermarket checkout line? Never in my life would I have worried about reaching into my glove compartment, but my mind has been imbued with videos of fellow citizens shot for less.
I walked out of the building and down the road, watching car after car pass me at 40 miles an hour or more – in a 25 mile an hour zone. Some day they’re going to pull over one of those poor suckers. Nobody goes 25 miles an hour there. Nobody. You get the luck of the draw.
I’m getting less and less enthusiastic about driving, especially in this congested area. I’d rather walk.