The American judicial system, it has been frequently noted, leaves much to be desired, and yet... It is probably the best in the world, which many would call a very frightening observation, and I would not be inclined to disagree.
Any observations about the American judicial system as a whole, however, must be taken with a grain of salt until one has the opportunity to individually evaluate a number of the smaller Municipal and County courts across the nation, as these are really the elements that make up the whole of our court system.
Yours truly has had the unfortunate honour to be able to evaluate on a first-hand basis the merits of our glorious little La Plata County Courthouse, in Durango Colorado.
No, I didn't rob, kill, or even slightly maim anyone. My offense? 'Following too closely.' It's a simple story, really: I was on my way home from work one night, cruising right along at about 75 mph in a 60 mph section of road, and was coming up on this one guy to pass him, but then had to abruptly slow down because of an oncoming car. Of course, just my luck, the oncoming vehicle was a Bayfield Marshal.
At the time the guy passed me, I wasn't terribly worried, because I hadn't been speeding when he passed, and he was out of his jurisdiction, as I was no longer in Bayfield, in fact I was about ten miles outside of the Bayfield city limits. So imagine my surprise when I looked in my rearview mirror a few minutes later and saw the b*****d pulling me over!
Well, he pulled me over and started to write me a ticket for having one of my brake lights out. I asked him which bulb was out, and when he went back and checked, guess what: None of my brake lights were out. So he changed his tune and wrote me a ticket for following too closely. Did I argue the ticket at the time? Hell no. I try to make a point of never arguing with a guy carrying a gun unless I've got a bigger gun and I can legally shoot him, which, in the case of a police officer, is clearly out. So I took the ticket.
For several weeks, I considered paying the ticket, just to get it out of the way, but if I had, I would have lost points off my driver's license. In the state of Colorado, you are given 12 points on your license, and those points are all you get before it's revoked. If I had paid this ticket ($39.00 US) within twenty days, I would have only had 2 points taken off my license, but if I paid after twenty days, I would have 4 points taken off! That would only leave me with 8 points, and that was a disturbing thought, so I was really going to go pay it within twenty days and be done with it.
The more I thought about it, though, the angrier I became... After all, the guy was out of his jurisdiction, and the only reason he pulled me over at all was because it was the end of the month and he needed to make his quota - at least, that's what I believe to be the case.
So I ended up deciding to take my chances and go to court with the ticket... I knew, of course, that it could be decided against me and I would have to pay the ticket, lose the 4 points off my driver's license, and have to pay court costs to boot, but it was worth the risk to me, simply due to how very pissed off I was and how undeserved the ticket was.
On Thursday, November 29, 2001 at 1:30 pm, I entered the La Plata County Courthouse with a feeling of great apprehension. At that point, I wasn't worried so much about the ticket as whether or not I was going to make it back out of the courthouse... I mean, I'm not a master criminal or anything, but I do have my... issues with the law, and I'd never been in a courthouse before, and it was kind of freaky. There's signs all over the place saying you had better leave any weapons or such outside the building (I had fortunately had the forethought to leave my butterfly knife, which is questionably legal at best, in my car), and that you and/or your belongings may or may not be subject to searches at any point after you have entered the building. I find that such notices tend to make me nervous, even if I have absolutely nothing illegal on my person, it's still just one of those situations where you know they could surely find something to hold you for if they really wanted to. It's a feeling that makes my skin crawl, and I have always suspected that the crawling of the skin is the precise effect that the people who put up the signs were hoping for.
Getting back to the story, I walked into the courthouse approximately 15 minutes early, which proved to be a very good thing, as I spent the next 10 minutes wandering around the place looking for the County courtroom before finally coming to the conclusion that it was on the second floor. So I went up the stairs, opened the door to the second floor, and found myself immediately confronted by three La Plata County Sheriffs, who were all looking highly unfriendly and unamused and in serious need of some doughnuts. They were guarding a walk-through metal detector which, as I was to find out, was extremely sensitive.
To pass successfully through the metal detector, I had to empty my pockets, take off my coat (which one of the sheriffs then searched thoroughly), remove all three of my necklaces, my three rings, one earring, my watch, my cell-phone, my glasses, and, finally, my belt. During the process of ridding myself of all these accoutrements, the sheriffs actually warmed up a little bit - they were laughing and joking and, when one of them informed me that I was to go into Courtroom 3A with Judge Allison, they even laughed when I made a crack about walking into her courtroom semi-naked, as I had my belt off and such.
After I had finally put all my belongings back in their places, I at last walked into the courtroom the sheriffs had told me was the correct one. I strolled in, took a seat on one of those incredibly uncomfortable wooden benches, and sat waiting.
I remained in place when five guys chained together in bright orange jump suits were escorted into the room. I remained in place when attorneys started filing in en masse. I even remained seated and silent through several of the orange people's cases - charges like Grand Theft Auto, Assault and Battery, Breaking and Entering, and the like - all while I was just here for a traffic infraction.
Finally though, after about 30 minutes of this, I couldn't take it anymore. I stood hesitantly and raised my hand (I didn't know what else to do - how are you supposed to get a judge's attention in court????) and said in a very small voice
'Erm... your Honour? Um... I'm sort of wondering if I'm supposed to be here... erm... the Sheriffs sent me in here, you know, but I'm just here for a traffic infraction... Um... Is this the right courtroom?'
At which point the judge looked at me like I was the dumbest bleeper she had ever encountered and shook her head.
'Go back out and tell them they sent you to the wrong room.'
So I did, of course. I marched right back out the door, found the Sheriffs, and told them the news. One of the guys took my ticket and looked at it, discovered that my case wasn't even on the court docket, and sent me downstairs to the clerk to find out what had happened to my case. The clerk looked for several minutes, then came back and told me to go back upstairs and tell the Sheriffs that I needed to see the Magistrate. That scared me - I think its just the sound of the word - it just sounds evil and jail-inviting to me... Magistrate, you know?
So I went back upstairs and told the guys what the clerk had said. They figured that made sense, so they pointed me to the room he was in, and I started toward it.
'Wait a minute!'
came the authoritative shout. Suddenly nervous, I stopped dead in my tracks and looked around, wondering what the problem was, but then I understood. I had to go through the metal detector again.
I had to do the whole thing again - empty pockets, take off coat (which was again thoroughly searched), etc. By the time I had everything back in it's place, the time was about 2:30 pm, almost exactly one hour later than I was supposed to be presenting my case.
Finally, though, I made it into the correct courtroom, and took a seat once more on an extremely uncomfortable wooden bench, wincing in some pain, as my buttocks had not yet fully recovered from the seats in the last courtroom. Within five minutes, the Magistrate looked at me and asked what I wanted. I explained the situation and he asked to see the ticket. I brought it to him and he studied it for a brief second, snickered, and crossed it out.
he pronounced, and I thanked him and walked out of the horrid place, got to my car, drove home, and smoked a big, fat join... oh wait, I might not be able to say that here... Well, let's just say that I celebrated my victory quite thoroughly, how's that?
In retrospect, I would have to say that, in spite of all my bashing of American ways and our judicial system and whatnot, it still worked for me... I didn't deserve a ticket, and as such the ticket that I didn't deserve was dismissed. That is fair, and that''s really the way our system is supposed to work... although getting sent to the wrong courtroom and all was highly unentertaining, I still came out with a good result, and I guess that's all that really matters, when you think about it.
So what's the moral of the story? Well, there's a few:
First: Be polite to men wearing guns who have the legal right to shoot you.
Second: Never trust a sheriff.
Third: As much as I hate to say it, our court system isn't ALL that bad - you just have to treat it with a great deal of delicacy.