Why was in court? Because I failed to pull over for emergency vehicles. This was a law no one had told me about. Everyone knows you should pull over for emergency vehicles. But most people don’t know that you need to pull over for stopped emergency vehicles. And most people don’t know how far you have to pull over. You have to pull over far enough so that there is an entire free lane between the you and the emergency vehicle and yourself. Like this:
The fact that I slowed way down and that I was driving very safely doesn’t matter at all. I also happen to live near the newly incorporated city of Dunwoody, which is making up it’s budget problems by issuing ridiculous tickets. They set up a trap to get people with this law, and they got me. How much do you think the ticket is? (I hope this works – my first poll.)
$695. That’s right. Six hundred and ninety five dollars. Don’t forget the points and the inevitable raise in insurance rates. This was worth fighting.
I went to the arraignment phase to get a deal cut. But the conversation went wrong, and before I knew it I had agreed with the Solicitor that yes, you’re right, I am pleading not guilty, and I want a full jury trial! I’m still not sure how that happened. Six months later, I got my summons to DeKalb Superior Court and it was time to argue my case.
I have a lawyer buddy who occasionally works cases like this. He got his partner Charles to meet me at court that day to help out.
Strangely, we were back in the arraignment phase all over again, only in a different courtroom. Once again, the judge spent twenty minutes going over the ground rules, and then asking each person if they were pleading Guilty, Nolo Contedere, Not Guilty, or if they wanted to talk to the prosecutor before deciding. I already did this part, why am I in reruns? If I had known it was going to be this stuff again I would have pled Nolo on my own or bargained with the prosecutor myself, I would have never bothered getting a lawyer.
There were 89 cases scheduled. In a standard 8-hour work day, that means about five minutes per case. That isn’t a lot of time to dispense justice.
I have my own bench. They made everyone move over because there are so many cases. But most people don’t show up, and Charles is exiled to the jury box to save room, so I am all alone on my bench. I don’t mind. There is about 50% attendance. That is sad. The guard later told me that most of the people who aren’t here can’t get time off work. Then a warrant goes out for their arrest and things get even worse for them. Sad.
There is a man on the bench behind me sleeping. He was sleeping when I walked in. He is half-snoring. It’s weird. Maybe he works the night shift? He is taking up two or three spaces and everyone else is squeezing around him like he doesn’t exist.
The prosecutor walks in, and Charles gets to him before he can even sit down. It took Charles all of thirty seconds to make a deal. He and the prosecutor whispered back and forth. I hear the prosecutor say, “What does he want?” then nod okay at the reply, and the deal was done. I probably saved a couple hundred dollars worth of my time, just by getting this taken care of and being out the door early.
Demographics: It was 90% Black and Hispanic. The dress was often informal, but never disrespectful (unlike last time, where one guy wore pants down to his knees and a Lakers jersey). It was mostly sneakers and polo shirts. I am the best dressed person here by a country mile. I don’t think dressing up nicely actually influences anyone that much. If this has ever influenced a judge, it hasn’t been around me. I suppose that’s a good thing.
Three out of four white people have lawyers. That’s not a percentage or a ratio. There are four white people, and three of them have lawyers.
Public Defenders now cost $50 (used to be free), but the fee is waived if the case is completed on that day.
It sucks to be poor. Off the top of my head:
• I got a lawyer for free, just because I know many lawyers in my regular life.
• I took time off work (not everyone can do this). I probably won’t even get charged a vacation day for it.
• Charles was telling me about the usual cases they have here. In car accident cases, Insurance agencies identify the poorest plaintiffs and purposefully offer terrible settlements. The companies know the victim doesn’t have the resources to fight and are likely to take any offer as “better than nothing”.
• The $50 charge for a public defender. I am surprised. I thought if you were poor enough it was a guaranteed constitutional right to have a free lawyer.
• In rural counties, they’ve outsourced probation. As a result, it cost $200 just to be on probation.
• Court is just plain intimidating. It’s easy to make a mistake and screw everything up, and you are painfully aware of that all the time. If a mistake is relatively catastrophic, it makes the scenario even more frightening, making it more likely that you’ll make a mistake.
A woman just pled an agreement with the state for shoplifting at WalMart. It was arranged that she would go into a shoplifting program of some kind. But she only speak Farsi. Can the program handle Farsi? Her son is interpreting for her. But when she was called up to the stand, her son was outside feeding the parking meter. So she stood mutely for fifteen minutes while the judge decided whether to delay everyone’s day waiting for the son, or to move on to the next case.
The mix of electronics and paper is ridiculous. The judge and her workers have computers to record the flow of cases and determinations. But all the actual information about the case is in old manila folders that would look fine on Mad Men.
“How do you plead?”
“I am not guilty!”
“Do you have a lawyer?”
“I am represented by Edmunds and Associates, and they will. Get. Me off!” Maybe not, but I’ll bet they are screwing you pretty well.
I was wrong, there is another person here dressed well. A middle-aged black man outshines me easily. The judge asks, “How are you doing today?” He answers, “Blessed.” I like that.
Remember the man sleeping behind me? They call his name, but he isn’t there. The security guard speaks up. “I had to remove him to the sick room, he’s on some kind of medication.” “Okay, so he is here, but sleepy?” “Yes, he can’t stay awake.” “I hope it’s not marijuana. That’s what here’s for!” The whole courtroom laughs.
“Sir, is this your first case of this kind?”
“It’s my first case of any kind!”
When it is time for the arranged pleas, I go first. I pled (or rather, my lawyer pled) Nolo Contedere. Interestingly, I was given my choice of two charges I could plead to. Either the original not Moving Over for Emergency Vehicle, or I could change to “Unsafe Speed for Conditions”. I decided the latter sounded a little better. $200 plus court costs poorer, I walk out.