I fought the law, and I won. Yesterday was my court date for my alleged moving violation, in which I allegedly disobeyed a stop sign. I opted to appeal to the court about the ticket because (a) I was already driving on a ticket and didn't want another one on my record and (b) I wanted to defend my reputation as a driver to my friends and family. So, filled with righteous indignation, I sped from my house to the county courthouse for my 8:30 am court appointment.
I got there at 8:20 to discover that my 8:30 appointment was shared with about two hundred alleged traffic code violators. We herded ourselves into a white room with no ventilation and lots of fluorescent lighting, where we sat in silence under the stern watch of one security guard and one translator. On each wall (in English only) were the rules of the room: NO check in, gum chewing, reading materials, electronics, talking or hats. I didn't even say hello to the people who sat next to me, out of fear that the security guard or the translator would hold me in contempt of court.
As you might imagine, a room filled with about two hundred alleged traffic code violators gets a bit gamey. The woman who couldn't come up with childcare during her 8:30 scheduled court appearance ultimately had to ask for a continuance so her infant wouldn't suffer heat exhaustion. The rest of us took our chances.
At 8:30 we all rose to welcome the judge, and the bailiff started calling our names. We were mocked and derided as a group whenever someone didn't verbally respond to the bailiff, as though an alleged traffic code violation is the clearest evidence of gross stupidity. The judge worked with remarkable efficiency moving people through the line, so that once I was called to stand in line, I quickly made my way to the bench.
"Good morning, Mr. Zimmerman."
"Good morning, your honor."
"Mr. Zimmerman, you're charged with disobeying a stop sign. How do you plead?"
"Not guilty, your honor."
"Have a seat."
I sat back down to wait another forty-five minutes for the processing of all the guilty folks. Somewhere along the way my ticketing officer showed up, which gave me some worry: police officers are not accusers in such cases; they're witnesses. I had come to dispute my accuser, but he had come to offer his eyewitness account. The police were in full uniform, which made me sad for them, since the room was unbearably hot. But they were also sitting right next to the only fan in the place, so I think they were all going to be OK.
While the hundreds of other accused were streaming through the bureaucracy, I once again heard my name being called, this time by an assistant state's attorney, who offered me a deal: court supervision (keeping my ticket off my record) in return for a morning of driving school, a slightly increased fine and a second court date. Tempting, especially since the big mean police officer had driven all the way across the county to sit in a stiflingly hot and gamey room in full uniform just to nail my butt to the wall. But I--I was convinced of the righteousness of my cause. I had not only been misjudged, I had been wronged. The state of Illinois had been wronged. Justice had been misserved. So I declined the deal and took my stinky seat.
Barely a minute had passed before the assistant state's attorney called my name again. As it turns out, the ticketing officer didn't remember me, and memory is a key element in an eyewitness testimony. I was mildly offended, since he's ticketed me twice for the same offense--I thought we were becoming friends, in a cat-and-mouse sort of way--although in the officer's defense, I've recently grown a beard and so no longer resemble the picture on my driver's license or the mental image he might have of me whimpering bald-faced in my driver's seat. All this to say, the state was dropping its case.
I was mildly disappointed, as this meant I wouldn't get my chance to rage against the machine, to point out the inherent hypocricy and systemic flaws I observed in my ticketing experience. But at least my insurance wouldn't go up. I was advised to get back in line, so that the judge could officially close my case and I could get my license back.
By this point the room was still hot, sticky and stinky, but the line had slowed down considerably. The judge had dispensed with all the quick decisions and had now taken the throne of Solomon, mustering up as much wisdom as he could while sitting in a heavy robe in a hot, sticky and stinky room and adjudicating the complaints and pleas for mercy and terms of punishment for the no-longer-alleged traffic code violaters ahead of me. I occasionally stole a glance at my accuser, trying to determine if he would have a last-moment resurgence of memory before I made it to the front of the line, or whether he would follow me out into the parking lot to trail me back to the scene of my alleged crime. But finally the judge called my name, closed my case and directed me to the bailiff, who handed me my license and told me to have a nice day. Which I did.
That night I went to our church's elder session meeting, which involved a similar amount of bureaucracy but considerably less gameyness. And while I am mildly disappointed that I didn't get to voice my rage at the system that had stolen my reputation for a month, I am appreciative that I live in a country governed by the rule of law and guided by the presumption of innocence, and I am thankful that I live in a culture that sees encounter and dialogue as an effective means of settling disputes, and that strives to settle those disputes decently and in order.
I'm also thankful for my friends hovering around Loud Time, who gave me advice and encouragement about how to proceed when I wanted to dispute this traffic code violation. I owe my exoneration in no small part to you.