I got a ticket a few months ago because I didn’t have my updated insurance card in my car; it had expired two days prior and I forgot to include the new one in the glove compartment. The cop who gave me the ticket assured me all I would have to do is go in and show him the updated card. When I received a court summons in the mail, I was confused by the formality but played along. I thought I’d arrive like I was picking up my car from being towed or paying for a parking ticket. Instead, I arrived at a full-on court!
After I wandered the poorly labeled hallways searching for Room 6, I arrived at a security checkpoint stricter than at JFK Airport. I almost passed it before the first officer yelled at me to “Hold Back!” A few minutes later I stood, with my arms outstretched to either side, my legs spread apart as the male officer followed the contours of my body with the metal-detecting wand. I was cleared to go into the court. I was greeted by an officer yelling, “Next Officer.” I walked to him and he grabbed my summons and directed me to sit in the third row – all the way down. No “hello” or “please” or “thank you.”
I take my seat and continue to watch the Gestapo, gum-chewing officer. The epitome of a bully cop with a buzz cut, a dark tan, and piercing eyes, he barks orders in one frequency: mean. He is just a Fort Lee, NJ traffic officer yet he is channeling his inner Marine and somehow thinks his police academy training earned him basic training stripes.
He talks to us like we’re hardcore criminals and yells at us to put away our cell phones. “No Facebook status updates, no google searches, no texts, nothing!” When the judge arrives he informs us this is the first night they are using this courtroom and two of the computers don’t work and that’s why we are starting 15 minutes late. He goes over the rules, remind us no cell phones. He informs us we are presumed innocent and we have a right to an attorney or to postpone with a valid reason. He explains we will speak to the prosecutor to see what he recommends; they accept payment via cash, check, Visa or MasterCard (no American Express).
An elderly man sits at the end of the row instead of sliding down like instructed. The cop yells at him to move and the older man says he has a hurt knee. The bully cop contorts his face like he’s making fun of Robert DeNiro, and in a mocking voice says, “Oh my knee hurts. I bet everybody has a hurt knee and would like an aisle seat. What makes you so special?” The man doesn’t move.
I feel tears building and a lump in my throat forming. Why does he have to be so mean? No one is convicted yet but we are treated like guilty animals.
Bully cop makes an announcement: “If you brought someone with you for moral support, they will owe you a nice dinner.”
The man with the hurt knee, who turns out to be chatty with anyone who will listen, asks “What kind of dinner?”
“A steak dinner!” the cop answers without skipping a beat and smiles, satisfied with his comeback.
“Here’s how it’s going to work,” the cop tells us. “The guys with lawyers will go first, then those with translators.Then the rest of you. If you came early, it just means you’ll wait later.” He resumes his role standing guard at the back of the room, a mean teacher proctoring an exam. He sees someone with a cell phone and threatens to confiscate it.
The longer I sit, the angrier I get. The police officer who gave me the ticket knew exactly what ring of hell he was sending me to.
When it’s my turn to meet with the prosecutor, he says, “Only one ticket, I’ll dismiss it and you just have to pay the court fee. Sign here.”
I looked at him. “I only didn’t have the updated card with me – I always had current insurance; why do I have to pay the court fee?
He looked back at me, as if I was the biggest bother in the world, and says, “You want to go to trial and risk a $160 ticket plus the same court fee of $33? You just admitted you didn’t have it on you.”
I looked down at the piece of paper, the offering in front of me and signed my name as he directed.
“Go back to the exact seat you were sitting in,” he says and moves on to the next victim.
I listen as the judge calls about 100 case numbers and after every person confirms their name and address and 99% of the time said “Guilty” and happily accepted the fine and walked off within 30 seconds.
Everyone is charged a $33 court fee, even if the ticket was dismissed, like mine.
The judge yells at a man who approaches the bench with hands in his pocket. The guy next to me didn’t silence his cell phone and his notification sound is a train and he shuts it off mid-choo-choo five times in a row. After two hours my bladder is about to burst open.
By the time my name is called the sun is setting behind the judge. I am blinded by what seems like a flashlight from the divine shining on me. My stance in front of the judge lasts ten seconds.
“$33 court fee; pay at the window.”
I wait 45 minutes to pay.
I feel confused; a bit like I’ve been assaulted, passive aggressively. The police officers supposedly work to serve and protect us. I’m not sure if respect is anywhere in their code, but it felt obviously missing. They are supposed to be in the same community with us, doing their part, because we all do as fellow-humans and yet it feels like they’re the bad guys.
I’m sorry if they have to see the ugliness of humanity and have to develop a callous edge to keep it together when the shit goes down. But why is the default setting mean, angry, yelling, and commanding? Why can’t the officers be there to guide us through an experience which is already unpleasant? If he wasn’t wearing his uniform, he would be my neighbor, another citizen at the supermarket. A uniform does not entitle you to disrespect fellow humans, to disregard compassion and manners and treat them with disgust? A uniform does not make you exempt from human decency.
I lost $33 and 2 1/2 hours of my time at Traffic Municipal Court, but beyond that, I lost a tremendous respect for police officers and the system that is meant to protect us all.