“But, Dad, did you get your $50 back?”
“Yes, Sarah,” I began. “I did get my $50 back, but not until I had my day in court—criminal court. And what a day it was!”
Several months earlier, having bonded myself out of jail the day before Thanksgiving—for the egregious crime of presumably allowing my tenant to fail to bring his trash can in behind the sidewalk within twenty-four hours of collection—I was keen to make the court appearance not only to contest the $250 fine but also to retrieve my bond money. My attorney had explained that the $50 bond I’d paid provided a surety to the court, guaranteeing I would not flee and would be sure to appear in court the next time scheduled. I wondered to which state or country the district attorney’s office suspected I was most likely to flee: Mexico, Canada, Brazil, Portugal, or Angola? My daughter thought it most likely Sarajevo so I could brush up on my Bosnian language skills. Oh, how I miss Sarajevo…beautiful city…lovely people…but I do digress…back to the story at hand.
On a crisp Tuesday morning that next February, my day in court finally arrived. Having never been in a courtroom other than civil court to evict a tenant or to answer a confused, distraught dry clean customer’s claim—a story for another time—I was somewhat apprehensive. Not only did I not know what to expect but I was also still struggling to reconcile how these proceedings were applicable to criminal court. In other words, I could not comprehend what my tenant’s supposed trash can infraction had to do with a criminal matter—nor was I pleased that as a property owner my tax payments were funding this misguided criminal case.
As I entered the courtroom, I was shocked to observe over two hundred individuals, all defendants like me, who were standing around waiting for something to happen. Soon, a representative from the marshal’s office called out, “All who are pleading guilty over here. All who are pleading innocent line up here!”
“Okay, that’s the line for me!” I declared. Only, no one in particular noticed my firm pronouncement of innocence in the pandemonium as the mass of defendants moved to form two very long lines. By the time I gathered my wits and aggressively stepped up to the appropriate line, I joined it as it circled around the court room the second time. Eventually, I heard a marshal’s voice above the din speaking directly to a defendant, “I see here that you are charged with possession of illegal drugs with intent to distribute; how do you plead?” As I overheard his words, it suddenly occurred to me there was a rather broad range of alleged infractions being prosecuted in court that day—from illicit drug abuse to trash can abuse.
Having waited more than twenty minutes in the long not guilty line, I finally approached a rectangular cafeteria style table behind which sat several individuals who were passing out paperwork to the parade of alleged criminals. When I approached the first station, an all too businesslike marshal inquired of my identity and efficiently checked my name off the list. At the second station I encountered another marshal who handed me a document and instructed, “Print your name and sign here!” After dutifully annotating my name, I began to examine the document. Although I was only able to confidently decipher approximately 70% of the legal ease, I certainly understood that annotating my name and signature certified that I had been fully briefed and understood my rights by a certain individual. When I asked the marshal if this certain person was available to speak with me and provide the referenced information, he muttered something about being a troublemaker and left me standing open-mouthed as the other alleged criminals elbowed their way past me to the next station.
After several minutes this marshal returned with an older, apparently more experienced, chiseled jawed marshal, who through clenched teeth seethed, “Sir, are you going to sign your name on this affidavit as my marshal has directed or not?” More startled than perplexed, I politely but assertively explained I was not prepared to sign a document that claimed I had been briefed by a person I’d not met. To this the short-fused marshal growled, “Okay, then just move along. We have ways of dealing with troublemakers like you.”
I began to move to the next station but the senior marshal waved me on and threateningly chided, “Just go sit down; we’re going to take ca-a-are of you-u-u!” About that time a general announcement was made: “All those who want representation but cannot afford an attorney proceed this way!” With the watchful eyes of the more than a little irritated marshals staring at me, I jumped up and followed the group of approximately thirty up the stairs and into an auxiliary courtroom.
After a clerical staff member handed out applications for legal representation, I began completing the form but suddenly stopped when I read that a $45 fee was immediately due and payable. I promptly raised my hand like a schoolboy requesting the teacher’s permission to use the restroom. Once recognized, I advised the spokesman for the court-appointed representatives that I was not prepared to pay the $45 fee. An assistant standing by my table literally ripped the form from under my arms and commanded, “Go back down to the courtroom!” Within minutes of my return to the courtroom, the judge entered as a marshal bellowed, “All rise. Judge So-and-so presiding.” As soon as the marshal allowed us to be seated, the judge began issuing brief instructions and expectations. He then asked if there was anyone else who did not yet have representation but wanted it. I immediately raised my hand and was recognized by the judge. I could feel the stares of not only the more than 250 other defendants but also the glare of the senior marshal who stood in the middle of the courtroom as a traffic cop in the middle of an intersection attempting to direct traffic. I made my way around the jeering marshal to the middle of the courtroom in order to address the judge.
Once at the microphone, I explained to the judge that I had gone upstairs as instructed to request court-appointed representation but was surprised to learn there was a $45 administrative fee, which I was not prepared to pay. The judge thoughtfully stroked his clean-shaven chin twice as he nodded in agreement. “You know what,” the judge reflected, “I’ve often thought it doesn’t make sense to require a fee from a defendant who cannot afford representation. Tell you what, you go back up there and tell them Judge So-and-so sent you back for court appointed representation; I am directing them to waive the fee for you.”
As I excitedly spun around to head back upstairs, I again caught the eye of the snarling marshal, who in frustration looked as though he thought I had just flagrantly run a red light and should be ticketed—but alas, he didn’t have proper jurisdiction to issue such a citation.
By the time I reached the auxiliary courtroom, the court appointed attorney and clerks were wrapping up their preparations and packing up their briefcases. The other defendants filled out of the room to descend the stairs. As I attempted to get the staff’s attention, they only half listened until I explained how the judge had waived my administrative fee. The three individuals all simultaneously gasped, promptly turned away from me, and sped back down to the courtroom.
As I huffed to keep up, I called out to the attorney, requesting he stop and speak to me. He in no way acknowledged me. Back inside the courtroom, my name was called first. The senior marshal briskly marched straight up to the judge in an attempt to complain that I had not been cooperative. But the judge simply dismissed him and directed his attention to the prosecutor—the same attorney who had intimidated my property manager three months earlier during the first hearing regarding my tenant and his trash can infraction. As my would-be court appointed attorney approached the bench in frustration, I observed the prosecution, my attorney with whom I’d not even spoken, and the judge all engaged in a hushed, over-the-bench discussion regarding my fate as a trash can abusing criminal.
Finally, after nearly ten minutes of intense discussion, the judge beckoned me to approach the bench. As I stepped forward all eyes were on me, especially the marshal’s eyes, ablaze with angst. The judge forthrightly advised me he had agreed to impose a thirty day prosecutor’s probation. He further explained that as long as there was no recurrence of the trash can being left out overnight after collection day within the next thirty days, the case would be dropped. However, if another violation is committed during the probationary period, I would be liable for both violations.
After confirming I understood the conditions of the probation, I was dismissed by the judge. Greatly relieved, I happily turned to depart the courtroom when I suddenly remembered my $50 bond. I stopped, turned, made eye contact with the judge as I raised my hand with my index finger extended straight up. “One more thing, your Honor,” I pronounced. The judge acknowledged me and nodded. “About my fifty dollars,” I began. “I’m not inclined to leave the courtroom without it.”
The armed supervising marshal glared at me and with intentional exaggeration put his hand on his side arm as he incredulously snarled, “Just get out of this court room and go to the marshal’s office. They’ll take care of you there.”
In disbelieve I considered it outlandish that the marshal had actually signaled he was prepared to use deadly force by placing his hand on his weapon; nevertheless, without another word, I skipped out of the courtroom to the marshal’s office to retrieve my $50.
Proverbs 3:31 Do not envy a man of violence And do not choose any of his ways.
Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.