Faster Than A Speeding Bullet

by Sola Osofisan

Court buildings in America tend to be rather old. That may just be an indication of how long justice has been around in this part of the world? In Africa, we believe the aged are so much wiser. That would be applicable to the US, right?

You wonder what business I had with a court? No, I’m not getting deported. Not yet (ha ha!). I got another traffic ticket. My third in this year that also saw my first and second. Makes you want to go nuts, right? I made an effortless transition from Mr. Clean Record to Prof Long Rap Sheet! Well, not quite. I didn’t succeed in crossing over to the criminal category of those traffic violations yet. I don’t plan to.

My first ticket was right on my street, under an overpass that I soon found out is a notorious hiding place of pen-finger itchy cops in unpainted cars waiting for unwitting nine-to-fivers like me rushing to get to work on time. I was doing 45 in a 25 area. I was very contrite about that ticket, as I was as guilty as sin. The 4 points that would have come with the offense were knocked down to 2 in court as I’d spoken with the Prosecutor in advance (as advised by more experienced people). I paid the hefty fine and still bear the 2 points on my insurance like a stain. That was in Union, largely considered a middle of the road kind of town peacefully peopled by all shades of colors.

I got this second ticket in Newark. Now, poor old Newark has been called all sorts of names in the media. The first thing I heard about the town when I arrived the US in ’97 is that all the white folks who have any reason to do any work in the buzzing Newark downtown area always go scooting back into their safe enclave as soon as it is 4pm. It’s like they have that line from a song or poem storming after them like a hurricane, howling, “night, don’t meet me here…” It is also said that the cops in Newark only respond to your calls when you say someone has been shot and he’s dying or already dead.

Don’t quote me. I’m just a stupid alien who doesn’t know anything. But I pass through Newark a couple of times a week. I see things, but those things never get in my way or bother me. Besides, a Nigerian born and bred in Lagos has seen all that the world has to offer. There is no level of thuggery or dangerous tendencies that can stunt you anymore. If it gets too crazy, drive like hell out of there. Nigerians consider self-preservation a worthier thing than curiousity.

I got the second ticket for “not stopping at a stop sign”. Please note those words are in quotation marks. I have always come to a complete stop at that sign and no car has ever come out of the connecting street. The one time I decided to slow down to a crawl, then move on without stopping was the day a policeman in a squad car just happened to be packed around the corner waiting for buggers like me. He got me and no explanation was going to get me off. I was going to get my day in court!

7 weeks or so later, I was in court…a scary courtroom, folks. Unlike my Union experience where most of the cops who gave out tickets did not bother to show up, leaving the court to punish you appropriately and the case go away, the cops in Newark were mostly in court to support their accusations. The courtroom was swarming with them…and more than a 100 offenders like me. I didn’t think I was ever going to leave the place that evening!

“Officer in court” reverberated in the old courtroom as we who were about to be crucified shouted “here” in response to the court clerk’s call. The cops wore the intimidating visage they been trained so well to wear, guns on hips, male and female, separated by a waist high divider from the offenders hanging all over the inadequate chairs.

We were urged to switch of all cell phones or it would be confiscated if it rang during the session. No caps on. You gotta respect the law fella!

We were too many in this courtroom so there was no chance for everyone to see the Prosecutor before the session began. That was going to be my saving grace. Now, I wasn’t so sure anymore… I wasn’t familiar with the clockwork process the Newark system had evolved over many years of such sessions. The Prosecutor also sat in front by the clerk and the moment your offence is read out loud, he pitches you with a guilty plea offer for a lesser sentence. And then the judge asks you how you want to plead, considering the offer that’s been placed before you, ensuring you fully understand the implications (mostly a lesser charge, no points and heftier sum of money as fine). You quickly say yes if you’re not ready to contest the case, especially when you know you blatantly committed the violation. Judgment! And the court moves on to the next case, saving everybody’s time, while ensuring justice is served. Fascinating!

I was laughing quietly long before it was my turn to do the dance. The offenses ranged from the ridiculous to the most absurd. Under-aged boy riding a stolen motorbike, a tough looking mug had several outstanding tickets from 1995 and was now here for using false plates, an unlicensed driver had an open container of alcohol in the car, a guy was driving with a suspended license, another was in court for driving an overweight vehicle that had not been inspected or registered (he got a $532 fine). A guy had a child in the car without child restraints on and a case was dismissed because the officer hadn’t shown up on the 2 occasions the case had been scheduled. I found out for the first time that you could get a ticket for parking your car in a bus stop. A lady was vindicated by her pictures of a stop sign covered by trees, which she explained was her reason for not obeying her stop sign. There were many Hispanic offenders there on that day. Some of them couldn’t speak English and a capable interpreter was the only way forward. I could go on.

I think the judge saw the amusement on my face when it was my turn to stand before her. I don’t know what a typical offender looks like, but I was in my literate mode and probably didn’t look like one. I had a book I’d been reading in hand and my bag of documents slung across my shoulder. I was a first time offender and you had to cut through the stop signs more than twice to have the points stick. Not likely to happen! I was fined $132, just about the same thing others were fined on that day for an assortment of violations. I gladly wrote a check on the spot, happy to know nothing from that end was going to impact on my insurance.

That appearance was last week. I have another date with another court at the end of this October. This time, I have to drive all the way to the Parsippany/Denville area. Yeah, I was in one of those primarily white neighborhoods where the cops have been known to be rather itchy when you’re not one of their own. My wife and I had been driving around for almost 2 hours trying to find an address, bounced back and forth by clowns who didn’t have a clue, yet wouldn’t just say so and let us move on to someone who knew. We were tired and grouchy and were just about to give up when tires screeched behind us. Thinking I was blocking the road while driving slowly, eyes darting all over, I turned into a street directly to my right, trying to get out of the truck’s way. It was one of those one-way roads that had a dual exit and if you didn’t look at the sign – or you were a stranger in town as I was – you could easily miss it.

Trust a cop to be passing at that instant.

He made a rapid turn, smelling fresh meat. I pulled over and gave him all my papers. Everything checked out of course (thank God we left the stolen car at home! Oh, and we don’t carry our unlicensed guns in unknown territory!). I also explained to him what happened. He saw the paper with the screwed up description we were following. Another policeman would have understood and let us go with a warning as nothing really happened. Instead, the cop gave me a ticket for “careless driving”. He even tried to accuse me of driving without buckling up. I fought that vehemently and he dropped it. Careless driving. The whole mess happened because I was driving too carefully in an unknown neighborhood. What careless driving? He obviously couldn’t find a compartment to fit me into and he needed to give this dude in the attire from outer space or someplace a ticket.

Well, I’ll see him at the end of this month. I plan to fight this.


Wish me luck.

Postscript 10/29/02: Male judge. Had a chance to settle with the prosecutor before appearance. Didn’t fight after all. Paid $183 and walked out, slate clean. I never want to see another American courtroom again!

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