Tuesday, April 12, 2011

It Was a Bit Like Being in an Episode of 'The Sopranos'

We arrived at the Vilonia City Offices a little after 5:00pm. My date with the judge was scheduled for 5:30pm. But I never saw her.

The courtroom didn't look like any courtroom I'd ever seen before. It was more like a medium sized high school classroom. Entering through large double doors from an office complex hallway, industrial looking chairs were lined up in rows on the right and left sides with a large aisle down the middle. A wooden counter ran nearly the entire width at the head of the room, computer monitors at each end peeking out over the counter and a microphone sitting in the center, apparently where the judge would preside.

In the center pushed against the counter was a cheap metal and faux woodgrain table holding another microphone. In front of that table, two other tables set at angles on either side, two chairs each slid neatly under the table to designate Prosecution v. Defense.

At 5:10pm two women enter the courtroom through the double doors, arms full of files, notebooks and stapled computer printouts. Each woman stationed herself in front of each computer monitor on either side of the long counter. We were about to begin.

The clerk with the dark hair announces to the room: We're going to try to take care of some things and make it easier for when the judge gets here. Those of you with basic traffic tickets....speeding, running a stop sign, proof of insurance, even if you are requesting probation, line up over there, as she points to the blond clerk on the left side of the counter. Those of you who are here for possession of a controlled substance, line up over here, pointing to the counter in front of her.

My line...the traffic ticket line...was longer, but even though Tom and I had taken a seat in the back of the room because, after all, this was court not a classroom, I was 6th in line.

I couldn't hear what transpired between the clerk and each perp until I was about 4th in line. Every fine the clerk quoted and that I was able to overhear was $170. Hmmmm. Every single violation was $170?? Was everyone ticketed for speeding going 15 miles over the speed limit?? That's quite a coincidence, I thought.

And no one was paying their fine. For each person in front of me, the clerk filled out papers for deferred payment plans...for a small fee...some due within 30 days, others making equal payments over six months...with a monthly $5 service charge...and all getting probation. At one point, I heard the clerk say to another perp, probation is automatic.

What? You just ask for probation, the clerk makes a note of it for the judge and the judge automatically gives it to you? Whew, this is going to be easier than I thought.

Then the guy in front of me stepped up to the counter. I listened. Another $170 fine...which you pay even with probation. Deferred payment plan...$25 tacked on to the $170 to be paid in two equal payments, with a $5 charge each month. Oh, you want probation? Okay, that'll be another $25. Hmmmm.

My turn. I'm not feeling so nervous any longer. I kinda have a feel for it, but I'm ready to pay my fine today because when I called a week ago the clerk told me that the judge would ask me if I was prepared to pay my fine immediately, so I thought I should be.

I hand the clerk my drivers license. She finds my name on her computer printout and when she looks up and says, That's $170 and then sees I have my checkbook open on the counter, she asks, You're paying today?

Yes, I replied, but I would like to request probation.

Okay, the clerk says. That's $25, so that's $195. Probation is for 6 months and as long as you don't get any more tickets during that time, it doesn't go on your record.

Yeah, it was a little like dealing with a mob soldier....Don't worry. For a fee I can get you probation...no problem...maybe $25 bucks would do it. Whadda ya say? I say...that was too freakin' easy.

I write my check and hand it to her. She hands me a handwritten receipt. I go back to my chair in the back of the room next to Tom.

Let's go, Tom says.

What? No. Don't I still have to go before the judge to make it official? After all, this is my first ticket ever! I have no idea what I'm supposed to do!

I don't think so. Everyone else before you is leaving, he says.

I went back up to the counter...Can I just ask you a quick question? as I interrupt the deal...er, bargain...er, contract she was making with the girl who was in line behind me. Don't I still have to go before the judge? I asked.

No ma'am. You've paid your fine, probation is automatic. You can leave. Hmmmm. 'Probation is automatic.'??? Well, not really. You don't get it because you ask for it...or even deserve it. You get it automatically if you pay for it.

So, with a knowing wink and slight nod of the head and a small fee of $25, I sold my soul to the mob. And if my check bounces they'll come looking for me, cement boots in hand, and throw me, Terri, "The Hammer", to fishes.

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