You really don’t think you deserved that last speeding ticket, so you decide to go to court to fight it. Is it worth the effort? If nothing else, a visit to your local municipal court is sure to shake things up for your humdrum law-abiding life … and provide a new appreciation for the simple freedoms you regularly enjoy outside that little-glimpsed, colorful other world of petty offenses. At least that’s what it did for this writer. …
Smirky, guilty glances. Scruffy, dirty shoes. “Not your first time here, eh?” commiserates one grubby-jeaned fellow to another, while waiting in line at the “Violations” counter. I’m surprised to find myself waiting my turn, as well.
A woman touting a day-glow purple wig (apparently leftover from Halloween, though it’s now well past the season) trudges in along with three other women in tow. “My daughters,” she announces to a clerk. They take up a broad swath of the municipal court waiting area as they cascade toward some chairs, en masse. Restless, soon two of them slough off, giggling, toward the snack vending machine while purple hair and her faux-fur-coated friend, who drags a fuzzy scarf along the gritty carpet as she goes, saunter into the adjacent court room. The clerk hasn’t called them in yet, but apparently they are familiar with the territory.
I’ve already spent an hour in the court room, myself. It’s the first time I’ve set foot in a municipal court facility, and my ignorance shows as I sit obediently close to the unattended bailiff’s desk, where I can furtively read the roster of today’s cases: Petty theft, shoplifting, “AC” (what might that be, I wonder?), and harassment are some of the charges listed. And then there’s my rarely used full legal name, printed on the same line as the charge: “speeding.”
“What it comes down to,” concluded the judge, just minutes earlier, “is Agent H.’s credibility versus yours.” So, would the judge side with a 20-year-veteran police officer and fellow employee of the city, or the speeding mini-van-driving mom? In the end, after listening for what seemed like hours to the police officer spewing technical data about how his laser-gun works, the judge “wasn’t persuaded” by my pleading testimony. The officer is flawless in his confident reply that, yes, he recognizes me (from three months prior – really?), and I am indeed the guilty party in question. The city attorney, who grows increasingly vicious during the course of the trial in her pink-cashmere sweater and pleated slacks, is nothing but smug, ready to move on to the next defendant. I am but an amusing blip in the legalistic parade that is her day.
And yet, waiting afterwards to be called to pay my exorbitant fine (for supposedly going 40 in a school zone; I won’t blather on about the details of that, now), I felt relieved: “I’m free,” I thought, and reiterated that sentiment as I pushed my way out the scraped-up metal exit door, past the armed security marshal sipping a Mountain Dew. Had I lived elsewhere, I reflected, I might have gotten a much more serious sentence for my pesky argumentativeness.
Walking into the natural foods market across the street shortly after my morning in court feels like walking into another world. Here, I find refined solace in the soothing piped-overhead music and all things heartwarmingly natural. I finger an organic lip gloss while a nearby masseuse smiles at me from his station. Strolling down an aisle in search of crystallized organic ginger, it suddenly occurs to me that the judge, city attorney and police officer might also spend their lunch hour here. I glance around me but quickly decide it’s not worth the forced smile, and proceed through the store with shopping blinders on: I can clearly see the freshly grated pecorino-parmesan cheese and freshwater shrimp on special, but don’t raise my head enough to see any faces until it’s time to check out.
Smugly sitting in my own car, afterward, I break into the container of crystallized ginger and chew a chunk until my throat burns and nose tingles. Heading out of the parking lot, I neglect to turn on my blinker for a right turn — ha! Maybe the price I had to pay in court will cover that, too. I’m headed home … in the slow lane, for now. What price, freedom?