“Guilty With Explanation, Your Honor.”
It’s a long and winding road to explain how I ended up saying those words in a courtroom, and the only style of narrative writing I’ve ever known is to start at the beginning.
Chapter 1 – Home Depot
Chapter 2 – I got hit by a truck
Chapter 3 – The police arrive
Chapter 4 – Court
Chapter 5 – Sentence
I left the military a year ago and honestly didn’t think anything exciting would happen for a while that would be worth blogging about. Despite my hopes, here I am at a Subway with my laptop and free Diet Coke refills.
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It’s mid-September 2019 as I write this (which inevitably bled into October), but our story begins earlier this year in May. It all started when I needed a shovel.
I have a lot of lower back problems that have crept up on me in the last couple years. I try not to let it rule my life, but it absolutely does. I left the military very voluntarily, but even if I had wanted to stay, I probably would have been forcefully separated for medical reasons within the year. Financially, I probably should have played the game and pretended to want to reenlist in order to get forced out with a pension, but I didn’t want to risk the chance that anything would heal.
The cause of all this is unknown and probably unknowable, but the result is that I cannot stand upright for more than 10-15 minutes without extreme lower back pain. I’ll spare you the diagnosis (or lack thereof; nobody really knows anything concrete despite the X-Rays and MRIs), but just know that it sucks. It’s hard to take a long shower. It’s hard to mop the floor. It’s hard to cook dinner. A couple of shifts at McDonald’s would probably put me in the hospital.
Before I knew my back problems were here to stay for a while, I had planned on starting a lawn mowing and landscaping business for myself to make some pocket cash after the military. Now my lawn is dead and I couldn’t be happier about it because I sure as shit can’t mow anything.
For the first 8-9 months living here (northern California) I had to hire someone to mow my lawn for me. Cool guy; did a good job. But it was frustrating that the very task I was planning on doing for other people to make money was now so difficult for me that I had to pay someone else.
He would dump the grass clippings from his lawnmower bag into my green garbage can. There’s a blue one for recycling, gray one for regular trash, and a green bin for “solid waste” which is for branches, grass, and weeds, not poop. And then I’d leave it out Monday morning to be picked up with the rest of the trash.
Only one week the grass clippings were so heavy in the can (my yard gets as bushy and thick as my eyebrows) that when the garbage people dumped it in the bed with the mechanical arm thing, only about 20% of it actually fell out. The rest stayed stuck in the plastic can.
And then the following week, the garbage truck just never showed up. I don’t know. That or the same thing happened again and it was all stuck to the inside of the can and now it’s NEVER coming out.
So it was like three weeks that this huge collection of organic yard waste was sitting in this plastic canister in the hot Californian sun. It STANK.
This was now A Problem. And like a strangely large number of practical problems in life I’ve experienced so far, I found myself going to Home Depot for the answer. I grew up sheltered, religious, and basically gay, so I just have absolutely no earthly idea what I’m doing when it comes to tools. Like I can probably fix your toilet tank, but I’m winging it the whole time. I open up the cabinet under a kitchen sink and stare in wonder at all the pipes and nozzles with no idea how any of it works.
I figured a shovel would do the trick. And it did. I tipped the can upside down and let all the contents fall out into the yard. And IT REALLY stank now. At the bottom of the can there was this considerable cube of blackish-brown goop that had the consistency of a brick of poop. As the grass and weeds continued to die, dry up, and decay over those three weeks, all of the water and residue flowed out and gathered at the bottom.
I plunged the shovel into the biomass of bullshit and broke it up into chunks and pieces, allowing it a day or so of soaking up sun to dry it out. Laid the green can on its side next to my aborted plant monster, and shoveled it all back into the womb from which it was birthed. Put the can out the next Monday, and the problem was solved.
I wanted to get the yardwork stuff out of the way before I take us on another story tangent. Something HAPPENED on my way back from Home Depot.
My bicycle is my only form of transportation; it’s been this way basically since like 2010. Cheaper, better for the environment, reasonable amount of exercise — all the reasons. I didn’t feel like paying $20-30 for an Uber trip, so I biked to Home Depot. It’s about an hourish ride, which is not a problem at all (in Germany I biked 45 minutes one-way to work every single day it wasn’t raining). But I had to do it early in the morning to avoid the heat I ironically moved to this area of California to avoid. Since the military made me a “morning person” against my constitutional right as a procrastinator, I set off at around 6:30 am and enjoyed a nice cool breeze the whole way there.
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Home Depot itself was uneventful. I bought a fuckin shovel, the end.
On my way back home, it had begun to warm up a bit, but probably still only a few degrees over 20C/70F. It was a Saturday, so the 8:00 AM traffic wasn’t as bustling as small-city-life would be during a weekday.
About four or five city blocks from my house, there’s a hill that is just steep enough to be annoying to ride up, but not too steep that I need to walk. So when I gear-shift down and ride up, I feel exhausted; but when I dismount and walk my bike up the hill, I feel like a pussy. I was carrying a shovel, so I walked.
Got to the top of the hill and knew I needed to make a left turn in two blocks, so I stayed on the left side, on the sidewalk, instead of on the right side and/or in the street. This detail will be important for the entire remainder of this story. If that didn’t make any sense: I was on the southern sidewalk of an east-west street, traveling westward. If THAT didn’t make any sense, go back to that first sentence and forget the cardinal directions.
One more block to go. I can see my turn up ahead; I just needed to cross this next intersection.
I wasn’t the only one.
She was driving a red pickup truck; not one of those enormous monstrosities people drove during the Iraq War because patriotism, but certainly not small in size. I could see in her window that she was looking to her left, waiting for a break in the oncoming traffic before making a right turn. I was on her right, and while she probably had no idea I was there, I ASSUMED someone would look both ways before gunning it into the intersection.
And that assumption came metaphorically crashing down on me as the truck non-metaphorically crashed into me and my expensive German bicycle, flinging me onto the hood of her vehicle. Adrenaline took over, and I had that weird slow-motion thing where it feels like everything lasts a lot longer than it actually does. I was on the hood for a good 2-3 seconds while she frantically tried to even comprehend what was happening enough to hit the brakes.
I can’t blame her for hitting the brakes, specifically, but it did mean that I got flung off the hood and into oncoming traffic, where a white four-door car squealed its tires as it braked and swerved to avoid being the second vehicle that day to use my skeleton as a crash dummy.
My very first conscious thought while I was picking myself up off the street: “So this is how the rest of my day is gonna go, huh?”
Physically speaking, it was a good fall. I work well under pressure, and the conscious and subconscious halves of my brain have always had a wartime pact that results in quick action without having to deliberate in various internal committees about what to do. I rarely freeze up.
I allowed my body to roll up onto the hood without resistance and without tensing up my body, and I tumbled into the street without directly landing on any part of my body one might consider expensive, like my head, or joints, or testicles. None of this was conscious; my body just kinda… did. I was at the mercy of God for the oncoming cars to avoid me though: unless I’d brought my go-go-gadget traffic cone, there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot I could do. All in all, I walked away with a couple minor scrapes on my hands and one of my knees. I may have aged about 15 years in my mid-20s and have a debilitating disability that makes stovetop cooking a painful experience, but I’m still vaguely resilient enough that hitting the pavement from a few feet up isn’t gonna kill me.
So we can get that out of the way right now — none of this story involves me in a hospital. That actually might have been overall less annoying now that I’m really reconsidering everything in order to write this story.
I heard her before I looked over. “Are you okay?”
“Just FUCK OFF.”
The combination of adrenaline and frustration at human stupidity had stripped me of social etiquette. Not that humans are generally expected to be polite to someone who just hit you with their truck.
Her response passively trailed off: “I… uhhhh…. oh…”
Just wanted to go home and forget this even happened.
The woman who hit me (who I am having trouble coming with a blog-nickname for that isn’t heavily pejorative and/or sexist) was blabbering about being sorry, offering to give me a ride home, and other stuff that I was trying my best to block out of my mind because I just wanted to go home. Tellingly, she didn’t offer to call an ambulance or the police, because obviously she had just hit someone with her truck.
When I picked up my bike, I realized that it was absolutely fucked. The whole front tire was bent like a banana to the point where it wouldn’t even roll anymore. I had to lift the bike up in the air like The Hulk and carry it off the street to avoid the third and fourth vehicle that were already drifting into the turning lane to avoid smacking into me. Only I’m already basically disabled and I just got hit by a truck, so I looked less like The Hulk and more like little-kid Brucey Banner trying to push a lawnmower.
Then I remembered WHY my bike is like this.
“Actually yeah. You’re going to pay for my bike repairs.”
She agreed; though I didn’t phrase it as a question. But first things first
[i’m the realest] “I’d like to see your insurance information.”
She got a piece of paper out of her glovebox that was the size of a permission slip you’d bring home from school to give your parents. She handed it to me and said something, but I really wasn’t listening to the words coming out of her face and thus don’t remember most of what she said. (Anything in quotes is what I distinctly remember. Any paraphrased paragraphs are as accurate as I can remember while trying to be as fair/charitable as I reasonably can be.)
“I’m taking a picture of your information with my phone in case I need to find you.” Okay so WHAT I MEANT WAS if she decides to drive off I can still report her to the police. In hindsight, those were a poor choice of words. Legal or no, if I were intentionally threatening her, I wouldn’t be ashamed to say it here. As if I give a shit about painting myself in the best light on this blog.
And then, in the most awkward exchange ever, I gave her back her insurance paper, loaded my bicycle into the back/bed of her pickup truck, and got in the passenger seat. The woman who hit me in traffic was giving me a ride to the bike repair shop.
She was trying to make small talk, but I ignored her or gave curt responses. I don’t wanna fucking chit chat, you dumb bitch.
I had taken my bike there before for some minor issue I was having when I first moved from Germany to California, but it’s not like I knew any of them by name or anything. The guy who I spoke to was being professional and everything, but I could see it in his eyes that he knew SOMETHING was going on. In an attempt to not drag any of them into my bullshit, I kept using phrases like “My bike was hit by a vehicle” instead of “Yeah this person right next to me hit me with her fuckin truck.”
They gave an estimate of $200 for the repair. More than I was expecting, but it’s not like I was paying for it. I said nothing and just looked directly at her. She didn’t want to make eye contact with me for some reason, but she agreed to the payment.
Only she didn’t have that much cash on her, so we went on yet ANOTHER field trip together to her house. I deliberately had to prevent my mind from learning her address or even what street she lives on. Sometimes you just gotta leave zero room for temptation.
She wouldn’t shut the fuck up the whole way to her place and back.
“I didn’t even realize what I hit; I thought it might have been a sign at first because all I heard was this loud sound.”
“I suppose you don’t really want to talk.”
“I hope the rest of your day isn’t ruined by this.”
This one I responded to. “The rest of my day? I could have been killed by oncoming traffic.”
That shut her up for a few blocks at least.
I was busy texting Amanda the whole time. She works in insurance, and besides “write down their information” I didn’t know the first thing about what to do. She’s also my sister, for however relevant that is.
We arrived back at the repair shop, and as we were getting out of the vehicle, I told her “hold off on paying them for now.” If we’re opting out of law enforcement involvement, then yeah you’re gonna pay for my shit. But if I’m calling the cops, I figure it’s ‘fair’ to not take her money. I would later come to immensely regret this decision, but here we are.
I walked to the other end of the small-ish parking lot to call Amanda. We had an extended conversation about what to do, but the bottom line is that it might be a couple days or even longer before I can determine whether I’ve sustained any injuries. And if it comes to it, insurance companies and/or courts will want to see a police record.
So I called the police. And then waited for an eternity for them to show up; understandably so given that this was a low-priority call, but my city is NOT a large one. Roughly the same size as Fargo.
The woman went to the middle of the parking lot at some point — I guess it had become the defacto no-mans-land — and gestured for my attention. I kept the phone up to my ear but moved the bottom away from my mouth (I was still on the phone with Amanda).
“Can I ask why you told me to not pay them?”
“I called the police and they’re on the way.”
“Oh good, I called the police too.”
I never did figure out WHY she also opted to call the police.
(My best guess is that she felt threatened. She had no idea who I was calling on the phone, I had been showing zero small-town politeness toward her, and the ‘in case I need to find you’ comment could reasonably be interpreted as a threat. All she knew about me is that I was wearing loose-fitting sporting clothing and I was carrying a shovel on a bicycle. So maybe she was just relieved to hear I wasn’t calling my gang hitman friend or whatever.)
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For the remainder of this story, I’m going to editorialize my inner monologue as little as I am narcissistically and emotionally capable, and just state what happened. Plus this story is already a million words long and my publisher is gonna kill me.
A police SUV pulled into the parking lot and parked next to the red truck belonging to the woman who hit me. A lone police officer exited the vehicle and began speaking to the woman. Both of them are women, so instead of confusing pronoun sentences like “she spoke to her” I’ll refer to them as The Officer and The Truck Owner.
The two of them were talking for probably 20-30 seconds before I started feeling a bit left out. I found it ODD that the first person being spoken to was the suspect and not the victim. But what do I know, I’ve just seen literally every SVU episode ever.
I approached them, and the officer asked if I was the other party in the accident. I think she asked me if I was “the one who was hit” and I responded in the affirmative and stated that I had indeed been hit and that I called the police.
She waved her hand dismissively at me and told me to “go wait over there for now, okay?”
Okay I said I wasn’t gonna editorialize, but here’s the thing. At the scene, a police officer is God. They have complete control over everything. Whether you’re in the right or not doesn’t matter. Sometimes an officer will say some dumb shit to you just to get you riled up to see if you’ll react to their provocation and change your story. Just do what they tell you. And I’m not even talking about the fact that they have a gun, though that is certainly relevant, especially if you’re black; they can ruin your day/month on a whim if they want to. If they dream up some trumped-up bullshit (this president has really ruined that phrase, hasn’t he?) then yeah it might not stick when it goes in front of a judge, but at that point you’re already hundreds of dollars in the hole in legal fees and possibly lost your job if you were enough of a dick to get yourself arrested for a while. They’ll get a finger wave from their boss as a penalty, and you have to pick up the pieces of your lower-middle-class life that just got fucked up because you decided to have a self-righteous big mouth. “Being Right” literally doesn’t matter at all in a police state shakedown.
So anyway, I waited over there.
After a minute or two the officer beckoned for me to come over. I walked to where their two trucks were parked, waited to speak until spoken to, and dutifully explained exactly what happened. I was riding my bike, and while riding through the crosswalk-area of an intersection, I was hit by her vehicle because she did not look both ways.
The cop only asked me a couple questions: Which side of the street I was riding on (with vehicle traffic or against the traffic) and whether I was riding on the sidewalk or the street. I felt a small temptation to lie, but (1) that never ends well ever, and (2) I had already explained all of this to the dispatcher, who had asked me even more specific questions about which cross street I was hit at, what time, etc.
I factly stated that I had been cycling on the lefthand sidewalk, and that was all she needed to hear.
Officer “Okay, well I’m just gonna let you know that you ARE at fault for this.”
Me “Why is that?”
She said that I was on the wrong side of the road, and that I’m not supposed to be riding on the sidewalk in the first place. We went back and forth for a little bit. “I researched this specifically and there are no California or _______ County laws forbidding cyclists from being on the sidewalk.” She responded with “You need to look at CDO3491.4” or whatever the number was.
Whether I was specifically correct about an ordinance or not was NOT going to matter. I’m not about to get into a legal debate with a police officer no matter how confident I felt in my four-minute Google search. So I took a different approach.
“Okay, but I think we’re missing the bigger picture here.” I went in front of the truck that hit me and pantomimed out a short three-act play where I walked in front of the vehicle.
“I was riding my bicycle, and I could see through the window that she was not looking before accelerating forward.” I walked in front of the vehicle where I was hit and addressed my next sentence to the truck owner. “If I had been a pedestrian, you still would have hit me, because you were not looking both ways.”
Officer “Okay, I’m not gonna stand here and listen to you lecture her.”
That is what she said to me. As if I had been verbally abusing a personal friend of hers.
At that point, this was strike two and I kinda lost it. I definitely violated my “don’t get a big mouth” principle, but it was obvious to me now that this was not going to turn out as I had expected. (The truck owner did not look directly at me even once the entire time the officer was on the scene.)
I didn’t get belligerent; I just dropped the politeness. “OKAY, let’s just file the police report then.”
There was a bit more arguing, but I basically just shut up. All I wanted from the officer was for a police report to be filed. My questions from then on were limited to how and when I can get access to the police report itself for any medical or insurance needs. The officer at one point asked me if I needed to go to the hospital, and commented that I seemed unharmed. I said that I don’t believe I need hospitalization at this time, and that my back definitely hurts, but that I can’t know for certain whether that was from the accident. She asked me whether I have a pre-existing back condition, and I said yes, and that it was due to prior military service.
The officer at one point mentioned that I would not be receiving a ticket, and I honestly just kinda laughed to myself. That short chuckle you make to yourself when you’re just in complete disbelief at the audacity of the situation you’ve found yourself in. Like, OF COURSE I’m not gonna get a ticket: That would be outrageous.
The officer went into the bike shop to photograph my bicycle for her report. When she came back outside a couple minutes later, her attitude was remarkably different. I don’t really care if a cop wants to be a dickhead to me. I do care that she was deciding all of this on a technicality, but her shitty attitude didn’t itself bother me. I just definitely noticed a shift.
Officer “Okay, I had a look at your bike inside, and it’s obvious you’re not some tweaker out here causing trouble.”
I still don’t know what the fuck a tweaker even is.
Don’t remember everything she and I talked about after that, but I just sat on the bike rack and didn’t move or have much to say. I remember she at one point specifically said “We don’t really give a shit if you ride your bike on the sidewalk, but it has to be [on the side with traffic, not against traffic].” NOTE: Any of the parts in brackets are paraphrased; i’m trynna be all journalistic and shit.
When she was finished gathering information or whatever the fuck she considered the previous 20 minutes of her policeday to be, she left. The truck owner got in her truck, pulled out of her parking spot, and slowly drove off with that guilty puppy look on her face. Never looked at me once. I just sat there leaning against the bike rack, shaking my head and rolling my eyes amidst my complete lack of agency to change my current situation. I was hit by a fucking truck, and all I got was a $200 bike repair bill.
The shop workers expressed their sympathy for my situation, but it didn’t really make me feel better. I knew that literally any human being I ever told about this situation was going to take my side because it was all obviously bullshit.
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As I already mentioned, I was rather comically told at the scene that I would not be receiving a ticket. As far as I could tell, neither was the truck owner. But when it was obvious that the cop had some stick-up-her-ass bias from the beginning, I was just glad to escape the situation with a police report. Chalk it all up to a wash.
So you can imagine my fucking surprise a few months later when I received a citation in my mailbox for $390. I wish I was joking.
I had 29 days to decide what I was going to do, knowing that shredding it and deciding they can shove it up their asses was not a reasonable option no matter how justified I felt. I called a couple legal experts in the city who work for various veterans’ help programs; while none of them were strictly lawyers providing me legal advice, they were still able to guide me as to my options and what people typically do. We commiserated about stories we’d heard of various police bullshit we’ve heard around town, like a woman who was given a citation by the police for fighting off a homeless guy who was very clearly threatening her because he technically didn’t strike her first. As if she’s supposed to wait for him to stab her before she lays hands on him.
I also called a real-ass lawyer for a free consultation, and he said basically the same thing as the other people said: that I should contest it in court, that the officer’s behavior was unusual and unprofessional, and that I didn’t really need a lawyer to represent myself. Especially since he was straight-up about the fact that even a couple hours of his representation of me would cost more than the ticket itself (hooray). Since my “crime” did not rise to the level of a misdemeanor, I was not legally entitled to a court-appointed attorney; not that I really wanted one given all the horror stories I hear about public defenders — useless at best, actively working with the courts against you at worst.
After a couple weeks of deliberation, I went to the courthouse and filed the necessary statement stating that I would be contesting the citation. I cannot stress enough that I had no idea what I was doing, where I was supposed to go, who I was supposed to talk to, or what I was supposed to say. I had to ask the person working the desk at this courthouse office so many dumb questions like “This says that failure to take action could result in a warrant for my arrest; is that going to happen now that I’ve applied for a court hearing?” They assured me that requesting to contest the ticket constitutes action, and that a warrant would not be issued for my arrest.
ALL BECAUSE I GOT HIT BY A FUCKING TRUCK WHAT EVEN IS REAL LIFE ANYMORE
I waited until a few days before the court hearing to pull the police report for two important reasons: (1) I wanted the officer to have as little notice as possible that I was planning on using the information in the police report to challenge the ticket, and (2) I am a professional procrastinator and believe that I am such a genius that I don’t need much preparation.
I was mostly correct, but I wasn’t wrong in the ways you might expect. Or alternatively, if you’ve had more experience than me in traffic court (which is to say, any) then maybe you already know exactly how this is going to play out with my dumbass naive North Dakota white boy self.
The fundamental problem is that I knew all the right answers as to what was going to happen, but it was all in the wrong order. Like an incomplete puzzle, I knew the answer because I’d studied the box, but I didn’t know whether you’re supposed to start with the middle pieces or the edge pieces. I’m a legal amateur, and all I had was Google and a couple over-the-phone legal consultations.
However it was going to shake out in court, I was determined to be the most prepared motherfucker in the history of traffic court.
– I prepared a full statement. I narrowed it down from 8 minutes to about 2-4 minutes of speaking, but had additional notes for each section in case I needed to speak more about the subject.
– I had my copy of the police report with me.
– I brought a full receipt of the shovel in case I was questioned as to why I was carrying one.
– I brought a copy of a letter that Samaritan’s Purse sent me, thanking me for my volunteer charity work the previous year.
– I brought a statement showing that I had recently withdrawn a small amount of money from my 401k/TSP account to show financial hardship. (Yes I know there’s a tax penalty, don’t fuckin @ me.)
– I had multiple copies of my statement just in case there was an opportunity to file it manually (in addition to *OR as opposed to* speaking it).
– I practiced it with the same method I used to study in college: Type it out, record myself speaking it out loud, transfer the audio recording to my phone, and play it back at 2x speed for several hours until it’s burned into my brain. I wanted to be able to give the bulk of it from memory while still having it in front of me.
– I even fucking prepared cross-examination questions to ask the police officer to show that her report was full of holes and her behavior at the scene was full of shit and clearly showing of some sort of strange bias from the start.
…As I’ve hinted at, that’s not how it actually went down in court. I knew I was overpreparing, and that that’s always better than being underprepared, but it REALLY did not go as I expected.
For starters, I’m not really sure as to which one I was supposed to choose between Not Guilty, Guilty, or Guilty With Explanation. I wanted my ticket dismissed or reduced; that was my only goal. I don’t give a shit about “points toward my driver’s license” or whatever because I don’t even own a car.
I just really didn’t want to pay $390 at all, regardless of the bullshittiness of the citation. So whatever I need to do to get the charge reduced or thrown out, that’s what I needed to do.
Googling this kind of stuff is tricky. You obviously never want to fall into those sovereign citizen internet rabbit holes. But even within the normal range of advice you can find online about “how to beat a traffic ticket” there are just so many unknowns and gray areas. For starters, it all depends on the judge and how reasonable they are, and even how they’re feeling that particular morning. Also my situation was a bit different than most (though, maybe not really depending on how you look at it). I wasn’t contesting a speedometer reading, or disputing whether I ran a red light or not. I did commit the “crimes” I’m being accused of, namely operating my bicycle on a sidewalk, and operating my bicycle on the wrong side of traffic. I didn’t have any evidence to present in any order to dispute the charges; all the facts of the case were basically agreed upon.
What I was hoping for was that the judge would see what the citation was for, see the outrageous financial penalty being levied against me, and basically just see reason like a normal fucking human being.
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I woke up that morning at like 4:00 AM because the military turned me into a morning person against the will of my Creator who put me on this earth. I spent a couple hours laying in bed and watching more YouTube videos about traffic court. Some of it is helpful, even if only to give me a vague sense of what to expect. I showered, put on my kinda-nice-but-not-too-nice clothes that straddled the line between ‘obviously poor’ and ‘respectful military veteran’ as best as I could figure out.
I rode my bike to the courthouse — YES ON THE STREET — and opted not to bring my walking cane with me. Some days I need it and some I don’t, and since today felt like a “good back day” I just decided to be real and not bring it in some misguided ploy to gain sympathy points.
I got there a bit early but not much, at least according to typical military social standards. (If you’re early, you’re on time; if you’re on time, you’re late. If your shift starts at 9:00, and you show up at 8:50, you’re late.) I was the only person there. One other guy showed up after a bit, but it wasn’t until like 10 minutes before it was scheduled to start that the vast majority of everyone showed up.
Besides the one lawyer who was there for literally like 12 different traffic court cases, I was the best dressed out of all the men. (Kinda hard to compare myself to the women who were there since that’s kinda apples-oranges). I was also one of like three people (out of about 20-30) who addressed the judge as “Your Honor.” I did accidentally call him “sir” once — old habits die hard.
The room itself looked more like a community college night class, with 12 chairs raised up on a platform on the left (presumably for a jury), the judge in the far right corner, and a couple clerks on either side organizing and typing things in computers.
There was a podium in the center of the room that was reminiscent of my time in high school debate club. It had a small microphone snaking out of the front that I wasn’t sure was even on, though we were instructed to speak in/toward it.
Before the judge entered the room, we all watched a video on a projector screen (idk) about the differences between Not Guilty, Guilty, Guilty With Explanation, and No Contest. It was a bit lawyerly to be honest. I like to think I have a vaguely better understanding of the legal system than the average person, and I really had to pay attention to translate the mild legalese into English.
The list seemed to be vaguely alphabetical, so I very fortunately had some time to just sit there and judge the judge. Gauge his character, his mood, his affect, his sense of justice, etc. I found him to be a difficult person to read directly, but he seemed to be a reasonable person based on the leniency he was handing out to the people who went before me.
It was quite the show.
The judge presiding over all our cases was technically the county commissioner, not a JUDGE judge; though the difference doesn’t really matter for all/most legal purposes as far as I can tell.
The very first person to approach the stand didn’t know she needed current registration for her vehicle. Seriously. And she wanted to plead not guilty. The two of them got in a polite argument because the judge was kinda trying to convince her that she should probably plead Guilty. She seemed a little nervous.
Normally I’m right there in agreement with the activists who preach about how the court’s systems unfairly push everyone toward pleading Guilty to reduce court strain at the expense of citizens’ financial wellbeing, but he was completely right on this. She was driving around without registration. Pleading Not Guilty isn’t going to work. What possible legal argument would she be able to make? It was also her second offense, so if she were to plead Not Guilty and request that the citation be taken to full trial, and then subsequently lose that trial, she’d owe $2,300 instead of the $25 fine the judge was offering her. She ended up pleading No Contest, which I literally know nothing about other than that one Lifetime movie I saw like 17 years ago.
A second person had been cited for failing to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk, and it turns out that she does not own a license and has never had one. Due to the fact that she was temporarily staying with her grandmother due to being homeless, the commissioner ruled that she was under financial hardship and reduced her fines in half, and gave her a deadline to get a license.
One guy was driving a motorcycle without an M-Class license. The judge gave him a deadline of two months to procure the proper license and it seemed he would not receive a penalty if he did so. GOOD TO KNOW that I can just drive a motorcycle with no penalty but God forbid I ride my bike on the fuckin sidewalk.
The guy didn’t really understand the difference between Not Guilty, Guilty, and what it means to request a trial. I can definitely relate, but he made the wrooooong decision here. He requested a full trial instead of just taking the Guilty plea. Maybe he had a bunch of penalty points on his license already and didn’t want to risk it, but again, what legal argument are you gonna give in your favor? He was given a $0 fine and he’s like “Nah. I can do better than that. I want a trial.”
This pattern kept continuing. He kept reducing fines of hundreds of dollars down to $25 basically regardless of what the offense was or how confused the defendant seemed. One guy who had windows that were tinted too tintey? $25. Person who was at a red light on their phone? $25. The setting felt overall very informal. One woman couldn’t pay her fine that day because her credit card was in the freezer, and the judge made a joke about politicians hiding cash.
At a certain point, I “knew” that I was next. I gathered my papers and such next to me and held them in my hand when someone seemed about halfway through their ordeal. And I was right. I was called on next to approach the stand.
(…This has happened to me often in life, and it always creeps me out and makes me question my disbelief in the supernatural. I believe God exists, but I consider that part of the natural order in congruence with the accepted scientific explanation for the origins of the universe; not technically supernatural by my definition. ANYWAY.)
I had decided to plead “Guilty With Explanation.” As far as I can tell, this is legally the same as pleading Guilty except you get to make a statement to the court, which is what I intended to do. That video we watched at the beginning of the morning said if your explanation is longer than about 30 seconds, to inform the judge as such so you can be moved to the end of the docket. Mine was only a few minutes, but I’m nothing if not a person who follows directions, so I did.
The judge instructed the clerk to move my name to the end, and I sat down and waited for the rest of the circus to conclude.
One guy was looking at Facebook on his phone in the front row. A clerk shot him a dirty look and forcefully asked “Sir, please put your cell phone away,” and he slapped it down on the windowsill next to him. Didn’t even apologize. I started to think maybe I was doing court wrong by being respectful and well-dressed; maybe they’ll think I’m too rich and classy for “financial hardship” considerations.
Someone described their driving incident as a “California Stop” as if that was supposed to explain away the fact that they didn’t stop for the red light before turning right (or whatever it was).
One guy’s name was Osiris Knowledge. I just think that’s a fuckin awesome name and I wish him the best.
Eventually everyone in the courtroom had received their $25 fine, and it was my turn.
I approached the bench/podium or whatever it’s called. I had my full statement ready to go, but it didn’t play out that way.
The first thing the judge did was ask me how to pronounce my last name (my legal surname is Desautel). I opted not to whip out my usual jokes: “I haven’t cared how it’s pronounced since about the eighth grade” or “Nobody really knows; ask the French.” There was a brief back and forth with him attempting to pronounce it, failing slightly, and then me telling him anyway that he got it right.
But then the judge immediately moved into asking me questions about the case. He never asked for a statement; just jumped straight into what he wanted to ask. Yo judge, I got this! Lemme do my thing!
He first asked about what exactly I was doing that made me get these bicycle traffic citations. I don’t remember the exact wording of hardly any of this because I wasn’t exactly writing down what he was saying while I was up on the stand.
I informed him of the brief story (slightly shorter than this 9,500 word mini-novel you’ve been reading), and he asked like 3-4 questions about whether I was on the sidewalk, or in the crosswalk, and it almost felt like we were arguing about whether a crosswalk is part of the sidewalk. Just like the police dispatch and the arriving officer. What is with these people?
The judge was VERY surprised to learn that I was involved in an accident at all. The citation information the police department sent to the court made zero mention of the fact that I was hit by a truck. Big fuckin surprise — the police report also glossed over it pretty sneakily.
He asked the clerk to confirm whether or not they were given any information about this, because there’s a specific checkbox for “collision/accident” and the police did not check that box.
The judge asked me about my monthly income, and I informed him that I live off my military disability pension. He immediately determined that I do qualify for financial hardship consideration, and offered to reduce the fine to $190 total.
I kinda froze up. This wasn’t in the plan. I had only gotten out maybe 20% of the topics I had planned to discuss from my statement, and based on the judge’s tone of voice and body language, this was it. This is my offer.
I took it.
At the time, it kinda felt like I was bitching out. But in hindsight, I do believe I made the right choice. I only had seconds to consider my options, and I don’t think that blurting out “The cop called me a tweaker!” would have changed anything. The judge now knew I was hit by a truck and flung into oncoming traffic, and he had handed out many $25 fines that day, many of which were reduced down from original amounts much higher than my $380.
Me asking the judge to reduce it even lower didn’t feel appropriate. He is obviously fully aware of how much he lowered most everyone else’s. He knows I got hit by a truck being driven by a driver who wasn’t looking both ways, because I had already told him. Me launching into some sort of “A Few Good Men” indictment speech about the misbehaviors of the responding police officer was unlikely to change my situation.
(My best theory as to what exactly happened and why I didn’t get $25 is that I would have if I’d just pled Guilty without trying to explain myself. The court looks more favorably upon people who waste less time. But I’m not confident in that assessment.)
Philosophically, I’ll never know whether I truly chickened out, or whether my subconscious instincts properly guided me to drop it. My overdeveloped sense of justice and clinical narcissism would just have to suck it up. I read the room and made my decision.
If you’re interested, here’s a picture of the statement I was planning on making.
I did opt for the “work program” though, which allows you to participate in community service to work off your fine instead of paying it.
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= = = = = = =
God bless California. My “community service” was a fuckin joke. The clerk pulled out a literal calculator and divided 190 by the hourly rate, which was $22 an hour. So with each hour of community service served, $22 of my fine would disappear. They don’t round down, so the 8.63636363636 turned into 9 hours total.
Sounds good to me. I currently live like a poor college student on purpose so that I don’t have to get a real job. So I really really didn’t wanna pay $190 for getting hit by a fucking truck. But the one thing I have an abundance of is time. I would have to pay a “court processing fee” of $39, but whatever. It’s inevitable in this country that the police will occasionally fine you for something stupid, because local law enforcement is a racketeering scheme designed solely to perpetuate its own racketeering scheme. (THAT you can @ me for.) One single $39 fine in a year of living as a civilian was something I decided I was just going to live with. Not as if I had a choice.
I was instructed to enroll with the county probation department, which made me cock my head to the side like a confused dog, but I was assured that I was NOT on probation in any way whatsoever. Good, because ya girl likes her edibles.
The building in question was across the street, so I just went straight there after I was done signing papers. In all, I got out of court around 10:00 AM, having arrived shortly before 8:00. I told the attractive late-20s desk clerk that I was disabled with debilitating lower back problems (yeah I got game) and she assured me there were options that didn’t involve physical labor.
That message apparently didn’t get to the right person, because when I showed up the next Friday morning, it was clear pretty quickly that I was going to be doing yardwork for my nine hours.
Not that I ever had any intention of backing out or making a fuss over it. I’m already here, and I ain’t no bitch. I’ll tough it out. I informed the supervisor that I am pretty disabled even though I don’t look like it (“a couple shifts at McDonald’s would probably put me in the hospital,” and so on.) He was cool about it and told me to take more breaks if I needed to. I said that wasn’t necessary, and that if he looked over and I was crouching like I was shitting in the woods, holding my hand on my lower back with a wince on my face, that I was fine and not to worry about me.
“If I’m actually in danger and need to stop because my back is about to completely give out, I’ll stop working; trust me.” I could tell that he could tell that I was here to work, not slack off and skimp the system.
Surprisingly, my back behaved a lot better than I thought it would, which is really good news given that I’ve had no idea since leaving the military as to how permanent this condition is going to be. This gives me hope that given more strengthening exercise, general weight loss (to reduce the physical load on my back), and just fuckin’ chilling, maybe this’ll get better!
The job was to clean up a mini-park area that some sort of police/county ceremony was going to use the following day. Our assignment was basically to make the place look prettier.
Seriously. That’s not the way he phrased it, but I know a military “cleaners” task when I see it. (Anytime some important captain may or may not walk through an area of the building/ship, junior personnel are assigned the task of making sure everything looks absolutely spotless. Even at the expense of doing their actual jobs they ostensibly are in the military for in the first place.)
I spent the first half of the day raking autumn leaves out of dirt paths and out from under bushes. I found that it was actually more time-efficient to just pick them up with my hands, though my back certainly didn’t enjoy the constant bending over.
After like 20 minutes of leaf management, I popped a bluetooth earbud in and listened to politics podcasts while I worked. Given the brownie points I’d already saved up from showing I was here to rock, I figured nobody would say anything. And I was right.
For the second half of the day, I was given a pressure washer to clean dirt off the pavement. It wasn’t especially filthy or anything, there were just vague hints of tire tracks from the nearby dirt road. As I said, we were here to make everything look pretty.
I’d never used a pressure washer before, because why would I?
Lemme tell you; it was a lot of fun. It shot out water like a flamethrower — never used one of those either but I play a lot of video games. I asked a few questions to make sure I understood what we were and weren’t washing, and then I got to work. As long as I keep moving around, my back gets less angry at me than if I’m standing stationary.
There was a rhythm to it. There was a real kick, and after a couple hours my hand started to get a tiny bit sore. I loved it. No idea if I was doing it right, but I figured out how the dirt ‘wanted’ to be moved off the cement and the particular way to wave the pressure washer water over the dirt to make it happen.
…That’s pretty much it. Eventually my time was done and I went home. I can now officially say that I have done community service.
I went to the courthouse to pay my “court processing fee” and it was waived for some unknown reason, and I ain’t gonna argue about it, so my total fine was $0 and a single day of cleaning up leaves and dirt for some fancy-pants ceremony. Playing around with a pressure washer itself almost made the whole ordeal worth it.
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There was no Chapter 6 in my “table of contents” for a reason. You can close this browser window now.
I spent so much effort preparing for my court date that completely went to waste. Especially the cross-ex lines of questioning I had ready for the police officer.
So in an unabashed attempt to emotionally jerk myself off and internally vindicate my own narcissism: I present to you the following excerpts from the fanfiction I wrote about how I *imagined* it was all gonna shake out.
— — — — — — —
“How do you plead?”
“Not guilty, Your Honor.”
[The courtroom whispers begin. “Can he do that?” “What if he loses?” “What if the officer shows up?”]
I turn around and look straight at that person and say confidently, “I HOPE she shows up.”
— — — — — — —
“Mr. Desau… erhm. Sir, you have the floor. Please address the court as you see fit.”
I pause for dramatic effect. I look down and close my eyes, knowing these may be my final moments before I am assassinated.
“I believe the actions of the police department in charging me are egregious and adding insult to injury. It is my hope that citizens are not discouraged from calling the police for fear of not being taken seriously, or even being charged with a crime as a victim, as I was. Furthermore…”
— — — — — — —
“Officer, do you normally stop any cyclist you see operating a bicycle on the incorrect sidewalk?”
“No, we do not.”
“Why not? For such a high fee levied against offenders, this seems to be considered an incredibly important traffic violation. Why don’t officers stop cyclists more often?”
“In fact, isn’t it true that you stated ‘We don’t really give a shit if you ride your bike on the sidewalk?’ at the scene?”
[Audible gasps from the courtroom]
“Objection! The defendant is not allowing the witness to answer the question.”
“Sustained. Watch it, Mr. Desauhhh, umm. One more misstep and I will hold you in contempt. Please answer the question, officer.”
— — — — — — —
“I’ve seen speeding tickets given out for less than $100. Sometimes less than $50. Surely improperly operating a motor vehicle weighing thousands of pounds is more dangerous than operating a bicycle in any way whatsoever, don’t you agree?”
— — — — — — —
“At the scene, you told me you believed I was a ‘tweaker.’ Could you clarify for the court what you meant by that?”
“What? That’s not the truth!”
“YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH”
“May I remind the officer that she is under oath. You stated the following at the scene: ‘I saw your bike in the shop, and it’s obvious you’re not a tweaker, or someone else out here causing trouble.'”
“I wasn’t calling you a tweaker, I was implying you were NOT one.”
“That’s not how the rules of logic work, officer. This was after you took both our statements and had made your judgment. Your statement indicates you did previously believe me to be a tweaker. Can you tell me what that means?”
“[Something about meth I think; idk what it really means]”
“Did I show visible signs of being on meth?”
“Did I show visible signs of being under the influence of any drugs, legal or illegal?”
“No, you did not.”
— — — — — — —
“In light of your volunteer service to the community during California’s wildfires, which are undoubtedly caused by the government’s environmental mismanagement, your obvious efforts to follow the law, general handsomeness, and the atrocious actions of the police department which warrant further investigation, I hereby dismiss your case and award you financial reparations.”
“Thank you, Your Honor. I am glad to see justice was served today.”