Have you ever done something and then had that thing come back to haunt you months later? (Of course you have, my use of a rhetorical question is merely an example of a sloppy—not to mention lazy—segue way into my story, but I digress.)
I recently had the pleasure of experiencing this exact phenomenon this past Friday when, much to the amusement of my friends and family, I made an appearance at court.
What, might you ask, was someone as devoted to not getting caught as me doing in a court of law?
Well, to make a long story exceptionally short, I was appealing a speeding ticket I received in—wait for it—March. Saint Patrick’s Day to be precise.
Since I believed that the $210 fine that the upstanding state policeman had given me was slightly…high, I decided to enact my right as a citizen and protest the establishment—well not quite, but who’s counting?
The day after this incidence, I mailed in the part of the ticket that stated I wanted an appeal (along with the subsequent $25 court fee) and waited for my date with destiny.
The reply letter from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts informed me that my presence was requested for September 14 at 9 a.m. in Greenfield County Court.
And so, with pencil in hand, I marked my calendar and moved on with my life. Throughout the summer, the shadow of my court date loomed in the background until, lo and behold, it was here.
On Friday morning I woke up bright and early, eager to finally be rid of this issue and hopeful that the judge would lean my way. If she or he didn’t wave it, I was convinced through hearing about my friends’ experiences that it would at least be reduced.
I got to the courthouse at 8:55 a.m. and—being a person who insists on being early—was slightly panicked.
The courthouse was, of course, difficult to find and the correct entrance for non-employees, even harder.
As I bustled through security I was surprised at the large amount of people waiting in the hallway.
I took my court issued document stating my assigned time and marched over to someone who looked like they belonged to the justice system—the side that got paid for it, that is.
I asked where I was supposed to go and the woman replied, “Just grab a sit on the bench.”
The bench was packed with people and one screaming baby.
I sighed and chose to stand slightly apart from the group, hoping to differentiate myself from the other criminals who occupied the area.
At 9:20, a court employee stepped out of a side room and ushered all of us in. The magistrate, an old white man—surprise, surprise—was sitting upon his throne and looked down at us as we entered.
We proceeded to recite the whole bit about telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth and then were informed that we would be called in individually and could debate our case against the representative for the state police—someone who, “May or may not have been the officer on patrol on the alleged date.”
And so the waiting game began. With 12 people arguing their innocence, I imagined I would be the unlucky last pick and, against all odds, I was.
It was roughly 10:15 (an hour and a half after my scheduled “time of hearing”) when the door opened and the bailiff directed me back inside.
What occurred then did not shock me, but merely confirmed the suspicion I had harbored all along. I was actually dealing with the Vogon from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”—you know, those horribly fat aliens whose bureaucracy has made them incapable of empathy, or poetic guile.
The magistrate asked the police officer to read the incidence report and then turned to me. “Do you have any questions?” he asked. “Um, no,” I replied.
He blinked a couple times and then said, “Well, what’s your case?” I then spewed out the rehearsed story I had been practicing all morning.
It was late, I was trying to get home, and I’ve never even been pulled over so the fine was…excessive.
Perhaps my choice of words was lacking or maybe my tone was not sufficiently apologetic, but whatever the case the magistrate interjected, “Well it says you were going 86, so I believe it was your speed that was a little excessive.”
Touché, old man on a power trip, I was in the wrong. I donned the appropriate I’m-so-sorry-I’m-just-an-irresponsible-college-student-whose-liberal-politics-might-be-your-downfall and he began to ask me the standard questions. Did I go to school? Yes. How old was I? 20.
What did I study? Political science and women studies (there he paused). Was I going to pursue a career in criminal justice? Um, no.
He looked down at his notes, clearly lost in the complexity of my case.
A pregnant pause and then, “I’m going to postpone this matter until February.”
What? “If, by that time you have had No Further Problems, I will consider this fine waived.”
What? “Do you think you can place this bet on yourself?”
At those words I shook myself out of the shock of having this matter remain unresolved and said, “I’ll take my chances.” With that I stood up and walked out, still fuming.
And so, if by February 22, 2013 (precisely 11 months or 345 days after the alleged incidence) I have proven my good behavior, I will finally be able to put this matter to rest.
I suppose, throughout this experience, I have been able to see firsthand some of the issues in our current judicial system, ranging from the slightly annoying—inconsideration of someone’s time—to the outright frustrating—assuming a condescending stance in dealing with young women.
Although my little story has provided a source of laughs for people I tell, it cannot be overlooked that there are marginalized people who, in their own dealings with the court system, are routinely harassed, detained illegally, and even beaten.
Every system has its flaws, but I would be hopeful that in a place where individual liberty and human rights is seen as paramount to any government interest, that we would expect more from, and actively fight against, a branch of the government that is expected to be impartial and a watchdog of justice.
Unfortunately, however, it would appear that, to the criminal justice system, the iconic phrase “innocent until proven guilty” looks better on paper than it does in action.
Hannah Walker can be contacted at