I arrived first.
I’d driven by this building at least one hundred times but had somehow never noticed it. It was tucked on a side road off the freeway entrance, behind a Ramada Inn. The freeway arced up and over, crossing the skyline above the court building with rushing cars and exhaust fumes. The air was biting. It was two days before Thanksgiving, but we hadn’t had our first snow yet, and I looked forward to the clean white powder falling on the city.
I considered waiting in the car, but I saw a line forming, and I didn’t want to be here any longer than I had to be. I got out and stood in the cold. It was 7:40 am, and the building didn’t open until 8.
My eyes scanned the crowd, the people I would be spending my morning with. I have a habit of giving people names in my brain, at least when I’m focused on them. There was a tall good-looking stoner looking guy, skinny and in baggy dress clothes; I called him Quinn. A haggard-looking white girl with a stained sweatshirt and ripped jeans sagged against a concrete pillar, awake far too early for her; I called her Tina. A large man with an ample stomach stood against the wall, wearing a baggy hoody over his curly grey hair; he kept nodding to everyone who walked up to the building, saying hello with enthusiasm in a Southern accent; I called him Beau. A gorgeous African woman with coal skin and waves of black and golden hair stood looking furious, her back turned to the man who was there with her; his skin was more like cocoa and he stood in a shirt and tie, his hands in his pockets as he looked at the ground; I called them Rose and Robert.
More people gathered and the doors finally opened. I held the door for a few folks, walked in, and somehow still ended up in the front of the line. The court windows opened, and a clerk took the citation number off of my traffic ticket, checked my name, and confirmed that I’d scheduled an appearance today. The ticket had been issued a month ago now. I signed a waiver stating that I was waiving an attorney and agreeing to represent myself, I handed the form to a pair of security guards, and I passed through a metal detector. I was immediately impressed by the multi-cultural representation in the staff here; the clerks, bailiff, guard, and court reporter were white, Hispanic, Polynesian, and Asian, both men and women, and of various ages.
As I waited for everyone to pass through security, I reviewed the facts of my case in my brain. On a Sunday evening, I’d received a ticket for ‘improper left turn’ from an aggressive officer, one who’d been belligerent and sarcastic. The ticket he’d given me had had incorrect information on it, including the wrong penalty and court information. I couldn’t argue that I’d committed the improper turn infraction, but I thought that perhaps the way in which the ticket had been given might nullify it somehow. I thought I could at least try it.
After a few minutes, with everyone in the room, we were instructed to watch a video made by a judge, a Hispanic woman, that explained our rights, including the option of pleading ‘no contest’, ‘not guilty’, or ‘guilty’ to each of the charges. We were instructed to ‘all rise’ and the judge entered in her black robes. Anna Anderson was her name (no relation). Her hair hung long on her shoulders, freshly washed and not yet dry. She carried a plastic cup with something juicy inside, took a sip from her long straw, and took a seat. The prosecutor occupied one table, a friendly man in his mid-20s, handsome, with a scruffy face and glasses. They both opened up their laptops and began to process through the cases.
I was called up first, and I pleaded ‘not guilty’. The judge invited me to speak with the prosecutor after everyone else had entered their pleas, and I agreed, so I took a seat again and prepared to wait an hour.
There were about 20 people in the room, of all shapes, races, ages, and sizes. Many I recognized from outside. Just across the row from me was a skinny Asian man, likely around 50, who was aggressively plucking nose-hairs with tweezers; he did it with such speed and efficiency that I was almost more impressed than I was grossed out. Beau sat next to him, coughing enthusiastically from time to time and apologizing to others in his Southern drawl each time he did. An old man with an oxygen tank walked in, muttering about the bail he’d posted for his ‘god-damn wife’ and about being in ‘fucking court at fucking 8 in the morning’.
My ‘improper left turn’ charge had been called up first. After that, I was shocked with how the cases escalated in severity. A woman with an endangerment to child charge from 2013 made an appearance, having been avoiding court for five years apparently. Other traffic violations, though many of them much more serious, such as major speeding infractions. Judge Anderson worked through the cases efficiently, with respect to each person, explaining things clearly, offering options for counsel, working out payment plans for various fines. Overall, I was pretty impressed.
Quinn got called up after a few minutes, his blonde hair slicked back against his scalp. I noticed his shoes were scuffed. The judge reviewed his charges, which included a DUI, and he pleaded not guilty, but then changed to guilty after realizing he didn’t qualify for court-appointed counsel. The judge explained that he made far too much money for that. He looked at the ground, clearly distressed, and stated that she could go ahead and sentence him because he wasn’t going to ‘pay no attorney’. The judge counseled him to think things through, asking him if he realized that if he pleaded guilty that he could go to jail immediately and for up to six months, right there from the courthouse. At her suggestion, he agreed to at least talk to the prosecutor before he made a decision, and resumed his seat in the back row of the courtroom. My heart went out to him. I had no idea what his life was like, but facing charges like that couldn’t be easy. Anyone could get a DUI in the wrong circumstances.
Rose was called up next. She had a thick accent, but her English was impeccable. The judge explained that she was facing charges of domestic violence in the presence of a minor, and Rose pleaded not guilty, then asked for a court-appointed attorney. Robert, Rose’s boyfriend?/husband? spoke up and stated that he was financially supporting Rose and her child since she had recently lost a job, and Rose shot him a look that let me know that he had been the victim of the violence. Rose muttered something about this being ‘such a joke’ under her breath, and the judge invited her to fill out the application for court-appointed counsel. Rose stormed past Robert on her way out to the lobby.
Tina couldn’t get out of there fast enough. She looked down, muttered lowly into the microphone as she spoke to the judge about multiple traffic infractions. She pleaded guilty, apologized for having missed court before, agreed to pay the fine in full, didn’t want to come back again, and rushed out after hearing that her license could be reinstated. The was a beat of silence, during which I could only hear the intakes of the oxygen machine and the clink of the Tweezers.
Beau went last. As he name was called (his real name wasn’t Beau), he strolled up to the microphone, speaking before he got there. “Well, your honor,” he said in his drawl, “let me just say thank you for all your hard work and service, and can I just say, ‘Go Utes!'” The judge wasn’t amused. She reviewed his assault charges and Beau pleaded not guilty, laughing as he spoke. He asked for a public defender, explaining, “I’m a veteran, and I’m mentally ill! I get disability. $900 per month, and $450 goes to my new truck and the rest goes to my rent and I use public help for the rest, so I’ll need your help. Go Utes!” He was given the proper forms to fill out and he thanked the judge with one final “Go Utes!” before walking away.
All twenty plus cases were processed by the time an hour was up. Then the prosecutor pulled me into a side room to discuss my case. He was shockingly charming, laughing about how I surely wanted to be spending my day somewhere else. He listened patiently as I expressed my concerns, then he listed my options, careful not to give me advice. I quickly realized fighting the charge wasn’t worth it, though I did have some valid concerns. I ended up pleading no contest, getting quickly processed by the judge, and then paying a $120 fine. I’d already filed a professional complaint against the aggressive officer. The rest would be fine as it was.
I left the building with an overwhelming feeling of ‘meh’. A traffic ticket was ultimately inconsequential. But, upon reflection, being there was kind of a cool feeling, sitting next to people from all walks of life, people whose paths I likely wouldn’t cross even though we lived in the same city. Sitting there, we were all equal. The intricacies of the court existed. Those who worked there interacted with each other daily, with a new crowd of people crossing their paths every day. Different judges, different prosecutors, same security guards, bailiffs, and clerks.
“Hey, Janet, hope your dog is feeling better. Guess we better unlock the doors, we got forty cases on the docket this morning.”
“Hey, Georgette, did you see we have four battery charges, three assaults, and two domestic violence cases today? Better not display your last name! You have terrible taste in men.”
“Hey, Charlie, remember when that drunk guy came in last week? I’ve been drinking more lately since my son went to college. I better not ever get a DUI!”
“Hey, Joe, wanna grab a drink after work? Oh, hang on, that crying lady is walking back through.”
Numbers on a docket. Each person had some interaction with the police that led them here. Each would plead innocent, no contest, or guilty. Each would pay a fine, or hire an attorney. Each could face consequences with their jobs and families, but each represented a series of charges and penalties with the court. Did they show up? Check. Did they plead? Check. Did they accept the consequences? Check. Next! Fill up your coffee and finish your doughnut, the next forty people are headed in.
Ninety minutes in the court. My ticket was paid, my charge was over. I couldn’t help but wonder what this meant for the rest.