My eyes opened lazily and I stared around my bedroom. I glanced at the clock. It was 9:30 AM. With a cry, I quickly jumped out of bed and dashed to the bathroom. I was supposed to be in court before 10:30 AM. How will I ever get there on time? What if I am barred from entering the court on account of my lateness? What will happen if my case got postponed for my failure to appear in court on time? Why, oh why did I not stop watching episodes of Prison Break to go to bed on time last night? A thousand questions chased themselves around in my mind.
I brushed my teeth as hastily as I could then quickly jumped into the shower. I turned the shower on full blast and jumped back immediately when the icy cold water hit my body. It is winter here now, and I usually have to take some time to turn the Hot and Cold knobs on the shower to get the right temperature for my shower. Too hot, and you’d burn your skin; too cold and you’ll feel like you are drowning in icy water. I jumped back, fumbled with the knobs, got the right setting and started showering. Time was really of the essence now.
Close to two months ago, I woke up one morning and discovered that I was already late for work. Usually, when I am running late to work, I’d call in to let my colleagues know about my situation. That would enable me to take my time, get everything in order and drive safely to work. On this very day however, this protocol totally skipped my mind. All I could remember was that I dressed up quickly, jumped into the car and was driving furiously to work.
Not too long after I turned the ignition and started driving, I came to one stop sign in my residential neighborhood. By law, you are required to come to a complete stop at a stop sign, before proceeding. I came to the stop sign, slowed down a bit, and then drove on without coming to a complete halt. I was in a hurry to get to work, besides this was a quiet residential area and it was not like there was any danger I could run into some approaching vehicle. If you know about some quiet suburban residential areas, you would know that at 9 o’clock in the morning, there was a remote chance that a driver in a vehicle would even see some pedestrians not to talk of other cars.
As the case may be, there was a cop patrolling the neighborhood at precisely that time. As if this cop knew what was going to happen, he was concealed in a corner, beside some trees, and sat waiting as it were, to see if anyone would fail to stop at the stop sign. I did not notice the cop as I slowed down at the stop sign, made a turn and continued driving quickly to work.
Suddenly, I heard the police siren. Flashing lights, the cop’s headlights trained on me. Oh dear, not again. I pulled over to the side of the road, and rolled down the windows of the vehicle. I produced my driver’s license and began to fumble in the glove compartment for my registration. The policeman sat behind in his vehicle running my tags and watching my general demeanor. I was not flustered because this was not the first time that I have been pulled over for one minor traffic issue. For example, last year, I was actually pulled over by an overzealous cop and given a ticket because unknown to me, the bulb of my left headlamp had gone out and I was driving with only one headlamp.
“But where in the world is my registration?” I murmured to myself.
I usually kept documents like this in my glove box. Then it hit me. And suddenly I began to sweat profusely. I did not have my registration document in the car at all! I knew that when the policeman walked up to me, with his hand placed menacingly on his gun, the first thing he would ask was for my license and registration. Failure to produce a registration document would heighten the policeman’s suspicion seeing how I failed to stop at a stop sign. He might begin to think that I stole the car or that something fishy was up. After all, I need not explain to anyone the consequences of driving while black.
The reason why I did not have my registration papers with me in the vehicle was that the last time I renewed my registration, I chose to do so electronically. Rather than go to the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration, sit there for goodness-knows-how-long, in order to pay for and collect new registration documents, I opted to pay the fees electronically. The instructions were to print a copy of the receipt which I could place in my car. I did so, but forgot to take the paper from my study back to the car. So the proof of my registration was lying somewhere on my desk at home and here I was on the road stranded.
After what seemed like an eternity, the cop walked over and brusquely demanded to see my license and registration. I handed over the license and politely explained why I did not have the registration at hand. He explained that not only did I not stop at the stop sign, but that I was actually speeding through a residential area. Speeding? What, a few miles above some inconspicuously posted speed limit? Are you serious? However, the truth was that I was indeed guilty. I politely explained the urgency of the situation as I was running late to work already. He told me to wait and then went back to his vehicle.
I am not in the police department, so I don’t know what protocols are often in play when they pull over a driver. But I do know that I have often noticed that if a black, male driver is pulled over, there usually are two cops on the scene. If the cop that pulled the car over does not have a partner, he or she usually radioed in for backup before approaching the vehicle. As I sat down there, I wondered what sort of terrible fines he would hit me with. Is he going to detain me for longer because I did not have my registration in the car? Is he going to call for backup? Is he going to hit me with the double whammy of a ticket for speeding and for failure to stop at a stop sign? Is he going to write a ticket that also required that I remove my car windows’ tint—a tint level below the official limit? What if he decides to search the entire vehicle—even though there was nothing he could find? I remember that I couldn’t open the trunk if asked to because I needed to work on my car’s remote-controlled trunk-operating system.
Apparently, the cop had a way of verifying with his database that I was licensed to drive, that I had a valid registration, that I also had vehicle insurance and above all, a relatively good driving record. And if I daresay, I was professional and polite in addressing him. There was no need to call a backup. Finally, he came forward, handed back my license and a ticket explaining that if I so chose, I could avoid paying the ticket so that I could have my date in court. I thanked him and drove away.
And today is the court date.
No sooner had I finished showering and putting on my clothes than I was out driving furiously to court.
As it turns out, I got there just on time. I walked into the courtroom which was almost already full with people in my predicament, waiting for the judge to decide our cases. It turns out, I could have taken my time getting ready and driving to court, because at 10:30 when the judge was supposed to be ushered into court, he was not ready yet.
I sat in the audience and began to search the courtroom to see if the officer on my case was in court. I didn’t have to look for long. At the corner of the courtroom reserved for police officers, I saw about 6-7 cops already seated. My heart sank to my stomach. I assumed that the officer associated with my case was there.
Here’s how it usually works: When the judge is ushered into the court, everyone rises to greet him or her. Then after the judge takes his seat, he explains a few things. He explains that if you are called, and the officer responsible for your citation is not present in court, you can plead “Not Guilty” and he will find you not guilty; whereupon the points on your license will be dropped as well as the charges you were supposed to pay. He also explains that if the officer in your case is present, you could plead “Guilty with an explanation”. He would listen to your explanation and if he deems it sufficient, you can expect to pay reduced charges or fees rather the original amount that was written. In addition, you could have the points dropped as well. If the cop i there and you plead “Not Guilty”, then your case will be moved to the back of the pile. Afterwards, the judge would listen to the officer make his case, then listen to you and make a determination. Usually, when that is the case, one needs to have strong evidence showing one’s innocence or even a lawyer speak for one, otherwise one is liable to receive the full points on the license in addition to fees reaching as high as $500.
By 11 am promptly, the Judge was ushered into the court and we all rose up to greet him. When the formalities were out of the way, he began to hand down his judgment for the traffic violations on his desk. A number of people came with their own lawyers, but that didn’t seem to get them off the hook. They were simply told to take a seat and wait at the end for further deliberations by the judge. The atmosphere in that room was very tense; besides, I did not have any legal representation.
I sat waiting for my name to be called.
There was a Spanish speaking immigrant in court who appeared to be in court for the first time. A Spanish-speaking court-appointed interpreter was given to him to help him understand what was being said. The Judge asked him how he pled –whether “Not Guilty”, or “Guilty With An Explanation” etc. The Judge reminded him that the policeman in his case was not around, but to my astonishment, the man pled “Guilty”. The Judge had no option than to find him guilty and he asked that he pay his fines. Another Mexican immigrant chose to plead “Guilty with an Explanation”—his explanation being that he didn’t see the stop sign on the school bus. The Judge reminded him that there was no witness to the case (that is, that the policeman that wrote the ticket was not in court and that he could change his plea). He kept on stating that he didn’t see the stop sign on the school bus over and over again and so he was found guilty and required to pay the full fines. I began to feel uncomfortable. What was wrong with these people? All they had to do, when the policeman was not in court, was to plead “Not Guilty” and all charges would have been dropped. Was the court-appointed interpreter doing a terrible job? It seemed to me that she could have used a few more sentences to explain to these Spanish-speakers what they could have pled! Or maybe, by law, all she was required to do was to translate only the things that the Judge spoke to the plaintiff.
There was also an unfortunate Mr Olusola in court today. He did not need a Spanish interpreter, but he also seemed to be having a hard time understanding what the judge said in his preliminary statements. When he was called to the stand and asked how he pled, he kept mumbling “Your Honor, I am sorry”. The Judge asked him several times how he pled. He also reminded Mr Olusola that his witness was also not in court. All Mr Olusola was required to answer when the Judge asks “How do you plead?” was “Not Guilty”. C’est finis, finito, gaskiya, simple and short. Poor Mr Olusola kept saying “Your Honor I am sorry, Your Honor I am sorry”. And so the judge sharply pushed his case to the back of the pile and ordered him to go and sit at the back of the courtroom. There were a lot of cases for the judge to attend to this morning, and anyone can tell he clearly didn’t like the idea of people wasting the court’s time. Maybe at the end of the exercise, he’ll try once again to see if Mr Olusola understands HOW to plead. I really felt like walking over to him and explaining things better, but I was not sure that sort of thing would have been permitted.
Finally my name was called. I answered “Present, your honor” as I started walking from my place in the audience to the front table. The Judge noted that my witness was not around and asked how I pled while I was still walking up to the stand. I answered confidently “Not Guilty”. He told me that he also found me not guilty and that I should have a great day as I was free to leave. I shot back a hasty “Thanks your Honor”. And so even before reaching the table to stand before the judge, I turned around, and walked out of the courtroom with the points on my license dropped and with the $100 fine automatically dropped as well.
I daresay, I am having a good day indeed.