My Day in Court
By Jon Melegrito
Letter from Washington
The Department of Justice recently released a scathing report exposing the police and court system in Ferguson, MO. for grave violations of the civil rights of Black residents. It details how they have been routinely harassed by police and punished by the courts into crippling financial debt for low-level citations, like traffic violations, as a way to fill the city's coffers.
In other words, Ferguson was more interested in aggressively raising funds instead of maintaining the peace. These financially driven policies led to widespread discrimination and abusive conduct by the police and the courts.
According to federal investigators, as black residents then moved through the courts system, they were bombarded with fines and tickets, while white figures – including the municipal judge, court clerk and senior police officers – were found "assisting friends, acquaintances, and themselves in eliminating fines, and fees."
One example cited was that of a 62-year-old disabled military veteran who was jailed for three days after trying to pay the $100 monthly installment for his outstanding traffic fines on the second day of the month rather than the first, when it was due. While living in "constant fear" he was arrested and jailed three more times in the following years when he was unable to pay the monthly charge.
This disturbing story was playing out in my mind when I had my own day in court recently. I had chosen to fight a $25 parking ticket. By disputing the citation issued by a Maryland police officer, I opted to appear in court personally. By just showing up, I thought, the judge just might dismiss the fine.
That was back in September. In February, I was notified of a March 11 court date, a week after the DOJ report's release.
I drove from my home in Kensington to the Prince George's County District Court in Upper Marlboro – a drive that took me an hour and a half. Shortly before 1 o'clock, a large group of people was ushered into a large courtroom. All 100 seats filled up quickly. Like me, they were there to make their case with hopes of getting off scot free.
Several thoughts ran through my mind as we waited for the judge: Given the long list in the docket, I could be here for hours. Should I plead "not guilty" and hope for dismissal? What if the officer who issued the ticket showed up? But if I plead "guilty," would the judge show compassion and mercy? At this point I started rehearsing what I should say in either scenario. "Your Honor, I am here to appeal for dismissal of a parking penalty. I swear I put enough coins for two hours, and while my meeting was still going on, I walked back to the car to feed more coins to the meter. However, as I approached the car, I saw the officer already issuing a ticket so I pleaded with her but she politely told me to tell it to the judge, so that's why I'm here today to appeal for compassion and mercy."
Judge Patrice Lewis promptly appeared at 1:30, said something funny to break the tension in the room. She's got a good sense of humor, I said to myself. Maybe she'd give us all a fair shake.
The crowd was mostly people of color – African Americans, Latinos, a couple of Chinese Americans and one Filipino. Me.
One man charged with speeding 40 miles over the limit had his fine reduced from $100 to $25. Judge Lewis told him to slow down next time. A young woman, charged with texting while driving, brought along her counsel, an older woman. When the judge noted they had the same surnames, the lawyer said the defendant is her daughter. "I know it's a special day because I can tell by the way you sat with each other," the judge quipped, eliciting some laughter. She reduced the fine and told her not to do it again.
Another pleaded "not guilty" to "unlawful use of a historic vehicle." The judge let him go. One not wearing a seatbelt was ordered to pay $25. "It's for your own safety," the judge admonished, adding "Be careful out there," and "please be more cautious," to the defendants who followed. "And tell everybody you know."
By the time the judge called my name an hour later, most of the 40 or so names called were found "not guilty" simply by pleading so.
Now it's my turn. The judge read out my citation then asked if Officer 3721 was present. He was. Right then I decided I couldn't lie. "How do you plead?" the judge asked. "Guilty, your honor, but I am asking for mercy and forgiveness." This must have startled her as she took a double take. She reduced my fine to $2.50, but added $22.50 in court costs. I ended up paying $25 anyway.
Still, my day in court was instructive. The judge's conduct was fair and efficient – a far cry from the financially-driven and racially-motivated policies of Ferguson that led to the arbitrary jailing of poor defendants unable to pay their fines. It was, as DOJ investigators found, a "toxic environment, defined by mistrust and resentment that had been set off like a powder keg" by a white policeman killing an unarmed black youth named Michael Brown.