(Originally Published May 8th, 2008)
It was a particularly cold Monday morning. I had to get up early to leave for the courthouse and I made sure to bring my coat with me. Naturally the courthouse is packed on such a morning and the parking spots are just as easy to find as an honest lawyer. That is just my opinion anyway. I parked on the side that happened to be on the opposite side of the entrance. I suddenly remembered how cold it was and how I wish I hadn't left my jacket in the car as I walked around to the front of the building feeling the cold nip at my arms. I was greeted by a myriad of voices and two officers standing in front of a metal detector as I entered. I began to put my metal objects into the dish to my left as the officer looked at my cell phone.
"I'm sorry; your phone has to stay in your car. They aren't allowed in the court building." He announced with as much enthusiasm as a dead ferret on valium.
"Would I need to leave my keys in my car as well?" I asked thinking they might be viewed as some sort of lethal weapon that could be used in close combat.
"Nah, your keys are fine." He said looking away into the main lobby of the courthouse.
I walked back around braving the blistering cold so I could leave my cell phone in my car. At least I had the opportunity to grab my coat I thought. By the time I walked back around to the front of the courthouse again minus my cell phone there was a line formed just outside the metal detector. I somehow imagined people walking through carrying guns, knives, long swords, and weapons of mass destruction; of course the two ladies ahead of me were immediately stopped because they had cell phones. As I entered I felt safer in the knowledge that I wasn't going to be stabbed to death by a cell phone; at least not today anyway.
A lady behind a card table with a box full of folders sat just outside the actual court room. Along the hallway were about twenty to thirty other people waiting on benches, folding chairs, tables, and even on some poor old man that happened to fall asleep. I told the lady my name and she dug a folder out of the mysterious box of fun. That's what I called it anyway because it would make this part seem more interesting.
"Ok, just go into the courtroom and have a seat." She said turning back to her laptop (Probably to try and beat solitaire once and for all).
I smiled and turned to walk into the courtroom. I suddenly realized why the hallway was so packed as I cracked the doors opened and met with some resistance owing to the fact that the room was packed fuller than something that is packed really full (use your imagination). I was resigned to wait in the hall with everyone else. I sat patiently and watched the women across from me play with her children. She had a little girl that had a smile that seemed out of place in a court house. It seemed to brighten everything around her. People would walk in looking gloomy having just been dragged out of bed on a bitter Monday morning. That all seemed to melt away as they stopped to smile at the small girl laughing and having a good ol' time at the courthouse.
"It's all a matter of perspective." I thought to myself. I may be sitting here a while so I might as well as make the best of it. I decided to strike up a conversation with the lady next to me.
"How are you?" I said excitedly and grinning from ear to ear.
"Fine." She responded shyly as she scooted down the bench a few feet from me while at the same time checking to make sure she still had her mace in her purse.
"That went well." I said to myself turning back away. A few people shuffled out of the courtroom. I took this opportunity to go in and wait in the actual courtroom. At least I would have something to watch while I waited for my turn.
The courtroom was still packed but there were a few open seats near the front of the room. I took my seat as a young woman was called up to the front for her case. She was a petite woman looking to be about eighteen or nineteen years of age. Her dark hair was tied back more out of necessity rather than style.
"You have been charged with possession of marijuana and PCP also known as angel dust with a minimum fine of one thousand dollars and a minimum of one year in jail." The judge spoke without looking up. "How do you plea?"
"Guilty." The young woman replied. Her voice seemed to crack a little bit.
She shifted her wait nervously as the judge read off the rights that she would be waiving by pleading guilty. I began to wonder if I was in the right courtroom. I was just here for a simple traffic violation. Yet this young woman was facing a huge fine and jail time. I continued watching the girl as she heard the judge rattle off the rights and terms of her sentencing as if it were a recipe for cookies.
"Season lightly with a fine of one thousand dollars and bake in jail for one year." I thought I heard him say. The woman was escorted out of the court room looking slightly shaken. I thought I noticed a tear running down her cheek. It made me wonder what it took for this poor girl to make such a bad decision. Perhaps she could learn something from the little girl I saw earlier, laughing and smiling. Maybe jail time wouldn't be so bad. It would be a bit like summer camp. All the inmates laughing and playing together and learning new crafts and skills.
I was pulled back into reality with the next case being called up. This was a much older woman; she looked like she could have been my aunt. She wore a knit sweater that had flowers on it I think.
The judge again read out of a folder without looking up. "You have been charged with the obstruction of a police officer and interfering with arrest. How do you plea?"
"Guilty." said the woman.
"Alright, you face a minimum fine of a thousand dollars and a mandatory forty eight hours in jail." The judge stated nonchalantly.
The woman seemed to be a bit taken back by this. A fine would be one thing, but spending time in jail did not seem to sit well with her.
The judge of course did not notice because he hadn't bothered to look up. He continued reading the memorized speech. "Are you pleading guilty of your own choice?"
"Yes." The woman stated. "Is there something else I can have besides the jail time though?" she asked nervously.
"It's possible if you change your plea." He said looking up at her for the first time.
"I can't." she said. "I have to plead guilty because my nursing license is being reviewed.
For the first time the judge actually showed a little compassion. "It seems that your guilty plea is actually being forced considering your circumstances." He looked through her folder and tore up a piece of paper. "I'm sorry but I can not allow you to plead guilty. We will schedule another hearing for an appeal. Please see the gentlemen across the hall."
The woman was at the point of tears. I couldn't help but feel sorry for her. Here is another person that has made a bad choice. I later found out she crossed traffic in order to stop a police officer from arresting a friend. It made me a little sad to think how little humanity there is left in the world. She was being punished for standing up for someone she believed to be innocent. Now she was facing jail time and possibly losing her nursing license and her job.
I began to wonder again if I was in the right court. I waited another hour as case after case was presented; each one making a change in someone's life. There was a teenage boy charged with reckless driving. He got off easy. One year of court supervision with a hundred and fifty dollar fine. His parents probably took him out for ice cream afterwards for being such a responsible adult going to court.
Finally it was my turn to go up and present myself. I had an entire speech memorized by then. I was going to defend myself to the death. I rehearsed the speech quickly in my mind as I walked up to the bench. "Your honor," I began. "You can not define a man by one choice alone. We have all made bad choices in our lifetime at one point or another. I admit I have made a few bad choices in my life and I regret them. I really do. The idea is to make more good choices than bad ones. That's what life is all about. If you can find it in your heart to overlook this one bad choice, as I have already made a few changes in my life. I will be forever in your debt and I will repay it by making regular contributions to society." This speech swam around in my head and I imagined a large applause from the room followed by a full pardon from the tearful judge.
"Ok, it says here you were driving without proof of insurance do you have an insurance card to show me now?" he said rather quickly with his nose buried in a yellow folder.
Suddenly my entire speech faded away like some distant dream that I couldn't quite remember at the moment. "Yes" I replied. "I do have insurance but it started the day after my ticket." I was trying to find the speech in my mind again when the judge broke my concentration.
"Right, your fine is set at five hundred and one dollars, will you be paying that today?" he asked closing my folder and put it off to the side.
"uh," I stammered. "Well, it might take me a few days to get that together." I started thinking about ways to make quick money. Unfortunately nothing came to mind.
"Right," the judge said grabbing another folder. "You need to take a hearing with the payment officer then. Just wait across the hall for your name to be called."
I walked out in a semi daze, the words 'five hundred and one dollars' still danced inside my mind. "Was it over already?" I thought to myself as I took my seat on one of the benches out in the hall waiting to see what would happen next.
I occupied myself by filling out a nice form someone handed to me. It was full of questions about my assets and how much money I had. I chuckled at the question towards the bottom. "How much cash do you have with you currently?" It asked in bright cheerful letters. That was an easy one I thought marking down my answer of two dollars.
Time went by and things started to really drag .. I finished filling out the questionnaire. I began to feel a little bored, and hungry. I haven't had breakfast yet and already it's approaching lunch time. I decided to take my chances that I wasn't going to be called within the next five minutes and went to investigate the vending machines at the end of the hall. My choices were limited to water, juice, and a variety of chips. I had used up my two dollars. I made a mental note to change my answer on the form I filled out. When I got back people were still being called into the courtroom. The woman with the little girl was finally called in. She was there in place of her boyfriend. Unfortunately the court wouldn't let her show in his place. It was all a big waste of time. I was a little saddened thinking about how the smiling little girls face contrasted with her mothers. I almost felt like giving her a big hug as she left but that might not go over too well I decided.
Another hour passed and I began to find ways to amuse myself. I watched the other people waiting for the same thing I was waiting for. One man in particular with a cap and long shirt and his jeans down around his ankles kept me quite entertained.
"I'm gonna walk right in there and tell them I ain't giving them no more money." He chanted like a mantra. "What are they gonna do, arrest me?"
Another woman was cursing up a storm about the pig that gave her a ticket and she shouldn't even be here. She left for a smoke to calm her nerves she announced to no one in general.
As I sat there I noticed a very old and frail looking woman. This lady looked like she just came from a church function, either that or an all you can eat buffet where she would hide leftovers in her purse. She sat down on an empty bench with her ticket in her hand. I started to wonder what she could have possibly done to warrant a fine. She just simply didn't seem to move fast enough to be a speeder, or strong enough to commit anything that would be noticed by anyone. I imagined her tearing down the road with her stereo blazing and half a bottle of Jack Daniels sitting next to her, laughing and wheezing at the same time.
The cursing lady came back from her smoke break. She did seem a bit calmer; she sat down and busied her self by cleaning the mud off of her shoes on the office chair that had been set out to accommodate more people. I chuckled quietly. This woman was a free spirit that didn't take crap from anybody. I bet she would be one of those funny drunk people that are fun to laugh at.
It was finally my turn to enter the office and set up a payment schedule. It turns out that on top of the five hundred and one dollars, I also owed an additional four hundred dollars in court costs.
"Excuse me." I said still in a slight stupor, did you just say that it cost me an additional four hundred dollars just to have some man tell me I owe the first five hundred?
"Yes," the man said. "I agree it is a bit like highway robbery." He handed me some papers to sign.
I suddenly regretted spending my two dollars on some measly chips and a drink, I suddenly had no appetite. I walked out of the office feeling a bit numb. I was sure I would feel it once the shock wore off.
As I walked to my car in the cold I started thinking about all the people I saw today and their different stories and the changes they were facing. I didn't feel judgmental really; I didn't see anyone as good or bad. Life really is a series of choices, some are good and some are bad. The hard part is deciding what a good choice actually is. Is it something that affects only the decision maker, or is it a part of a larger scheme of things. Perhaps one needs to make a few bad choices in order to understand it all and to start making really good choices. A few days later I went back to the courthouse to pay my fine. I had some emergency money saved up for such things. I admit a new set of tires would have been nice but at least I can now put all of this behind me and I can now think about the things that I have yet to experience and hopefully, just hopefully I can start making good choices; at least ones that won't cost nine hundred dollars.