Wednesday, August 25, 2010

My day in court

Well it turns out I don’t get to join the hallowed ranks of the misdemeans, dug, Elden, and Brandon. I got a ticket a few weeks ago for driving with revoked registration. Sounds worse than it is, though at its worst, I’m still not even sure it’s a misdemeanor. I hadn’t switched my auto insurance from Idaho to Utah, so even though I was insured, the Utah DMV didn’t think I was.

I was fortunate at the time I got the ticket not to have my car impounded—I had just enough valid paperwork to avoid getting impounded, but not enough to get out of the ticket. After a quick trip to the DMV where the clerk was amazingly kind and patient even though it was 10 minutes to six on a Friday, I had adequate paperwork and decided to take that to court in order to try and avoid the $70 fine.

When I called the courts in South Salt Lake, they told me to come in on the 25th at 8:30. When I arrived this morning for my appointment, I realized that “appointment” is a term they use pretty fast and loose, as I would actually be waiting in line with all these people.

Courtroom And there were that many again more waiting on the other side of the room for their turn to see the judge. Or perhaps it was that I didn’t have an appointment at all and only thought I did because I’m used to a life of convenience and ease, not the hardships of being a criminal.

After passing through the metal detector and pretending to turn off my phone, I sat in the courtroom while the prosecutor read through all the cases and asked whether we would be pleading guilty or whether we wanted to talk with him before entering a not-guilty plea. I should have responded “not-guilty” just for dramatic effect, but when he called my name, I just said “I’d like to speak with you.”

Of course, I had to take my turn to speak with him, as I wasn’t the only one trying to get off with a reduced charge. So while I waited, I got to listen to all the other cases being heard.

The first thing I learned is that if you want to get to the front of the line, hire a lawyer. It turns out that the courts are respectful of the fact that lawyers get paid by the hour and that lawyers bill for the entire time that they’re in court, whether they’re arguing the case or twiddling their thumbs awaiting the chance to do so.

The kid in the dress shirt and tie with the lawyer at his side and his dad anxiously watching in the peanut gallery got to go first. And I’m guessing the $600+ he has to pay in fines for his drug possession charge are only the half of it, and that he’s got at least that much more to pay the attorney. But the attorney spared him jail time and perhaps greater fines, so in the end, everybody won.

I learned that the fine for driving without a license, a charge highly correlated with those who needed an interpreter when speaking to the judge, is much lower than the fine for driving with a suspended license. And that the judge has a lot less sympathy for the suspended license cases. I also learned that if you are charged with driving without a license, you ought not to drive yourself to court, as one of the morning’s defendants had chosen to do. He said he didn’t have any other way to get there, but the judge reminded him that he could walk. In his case, she had no sympathy.

When my turn came with the city attorney, I explained what had happened, showed him my insurance cards and valid registration, and waited, wondering what my fate would be and whether this was still going to cost me $70 as well as a wasted morning in court. He spent what was for me an anxious ten seconds looking things over and said “OK, we’ll dismiss the charges then.”

I still had to return to the courtroom and wait for the judge to actually tell me the charges were dismissed. So I sat down (this is when I heard the guy tell her he had driven to court without a license, so it was totally worth it) and waited.

As it happens, the judge is also respectful of those whose charges are dismissed, as she called my name next. I stood, and she said “charges are dismissed, you can go.” I never even turned towards the bench, I just said “thank you” and walked out of the room.

Before I left, I glanced back to notice that every single person there had a facial expression indicating they really wanted to be me at that moment. I was also relieved when I got to the parking lot to find that Elwood was not waiting for me in an old cop car, and I could just drive myself to work.


  1. I had court last month and was suprised to find that people think it is a good idea to show up to court drunk or with a mohawk or with a shirt with a pot plant on it or in some cases half dressed (shorts and half shirt, and it was a dude). People who take the time to wear a suit usually seem to do better than those without one. Wonder why???

  2. Forrest: An inability to link cause and effect seems to be what landed most of these folks in court in the first place.

  3. That sounds like some GOOD people watching. All you needed was some popcorn

  4. Nate, I think if I went back without the anxiety of having to be there, it would have been that much more fun. Not sure I'd spend my free time there, but maybe if I were sufficiently bored.

  5. So the insurance thing didn't work, what are you going to try next to get the coveted misdemeanor? All the cool kids are misdemeans.

  6. Kris: After hearing what the fines are for real misdemeanors (I'm talking about real crimes, not trundling), I think I can live without being one of the cool kids.

  7. I am really glad that our fee was reduced to the $60 instead of the maximum $3000 or $500+ that the US Attorney wanted to give us.