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My Day in Court

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Or, how “the Man” puts a gun to your head while he picks your pocket, just to keep you down.

During a busy week in July, when I was planning to renew my expired automobile registration, but hadn’t had time yet, I got pulled over by a Travis County sheriff’s deputy. I hadn’t done anything amiss, but he spotted my expired sticker and decided he had no real criminals to pursue, so he pulled me over. In an ironic turn of events, I had just put my new insurance card in the car, but to my chagrin I discovered that the new card didn’t take effect until the start of the next month — the day after I got pulled over — and without the old card I had thrown away I couldn’t prove I was insured to his rather picky satisfaction. It was the first time I had ever received a ticket from the county, and I was not yet aware that chiseling and nitpicking are county policy. So the end result was a ticket for expired registration and another for “failure to maintain financial responsibility” — a far more sweeping condemnation than just not having an insurance card in my car.

The fines for these two tickets added up to $330, but theoretically I could reduce the costs by renewing my registration within the next 10 days and providing proof of insurance — which would be that same card that wasn’t good enough for the deputy, but would be just fine a week later. As it was explained to me, this would reduce my cost to the $10 fee for renewing the registration, plus $15 in court fees and nothing else. So, like a good little citizen I went and renewed my registration and then mailed my registration receipt, a copy of my insurance card, and a check for $25 to the court as instructed on my copy of the ticket. I mailed all of this the day after getting my ticket, giving it 9 days to travel by U.S. mail to the County Clerk’s office halfway across town.

I happily went about my business for the next two months assuming everything had been taken care of. Then I got a letter from the local Justice of the Peace’s office, which included my various papers and my $25 check along with a letter notifying that since I had failed to appear for my court date for the ticket — a date I had never been notified of — I now owed not only the original $330 but an additional $260 for two counts of “failure to appear”, all of this apparently because my payment and paperwork had failed to reach them by the 10 day deadline, despite being mailed with more than a week to get there. Of course, I’d never been notified that they had not received the payment and paperwork or that there was a court date or that the whole business was anything other than resolved.

Somewhat put out by this situation, I called the office of the Justice of the Peace who was handling the ticket and asked them what I needed to do to resolve the situation at this point. They weren’t exactly understanding and told me that I had only one option. I would have to go before a judge and explain my situation and throw myself on the mercy of the court. In addition, just to see a judge I would have to put up $600 in bond money which they would hold until the court date.

I bit the bullet and went in to the JP’s court to post my bond, at which point they informed me that even though I had cash to pay it, they insisted on separate money orders for each ticket, which only cost $3, but then the court charged me an additional $10 fee for each money order given to them. How can they insist on a money order and then charge a penalty for giving them what they ask for? For that matter, whatever happened to “legal tender for all debts, public and private” on the back of our money? Aren’t they required by federal law to accept cash? Everyone else is.

I paid my $630. And then, much to my surprise, was told my court date would be six months away. Six months during which they would hold on to my money, earn interest on it, and do absolutely nothing for me. That seemed like a hell of a long time for them to hold my money, even if I would eventually get all but the $30 in gratuitous fines back in court.

Six months later, I showed up at the JP’s court for the second time, paperwork in hand, eager to see a judge, get the situation resolved, and get back my money. My first surprise on this visit was when I was informed right off that there was no way I could see the actual judge on my appointed court date which had been set six months before. Apparently the court was overbooked and my reservation had no meaning.

I could either see a junior DA and adjudicate the matter, or I could put off my court date for several more months and still have no guarantee of seeing an actual judge. The catch was that only a judge could waive the “failure to appear” fines. With the DA I could get immediate service but would only be able to get the penalties on the actual tickets waived. Ultimately, I decided it was worth $230 not to have to wait any longer.

So I sat down with an officious young lady in a cheap Steinmart suit and began filling out paperwork. She accepted my proof of insurance and auto registration paperwork and waived those fines, except for $30 in court costs on each ticket and the basic fine on the expired registration. In the end my total cost for the actual tickets ended up being $130. Add to that the $230 for the failure to appear charges and the total was $360. But wait, then there were the “collection” fees. Even though no collection agency ever contacted me, I had to pay $30 on each ticket as their fee despite the fact that Texas state law limits collection fees to a maximum of $27.50. The total ended up being $420.

As I headed to the cashier, I had the silly notion in my mind that since they had a cashier there to collect fees, they’d just deduct the $420 from my $600 bond and give me back the difference or at the very least mail it to me. How naive I was. In fact, they got to hold my bond money even longer and I had to pay them the additional $420 up front and then wait another month to get the bond money back by mail.

Why on earth can’t they take the fines out of the bond money on the spot? I expected to have to wait to get my bond money back, but the money is in their coffers at no risk and in no question. Can’t they trust their court clerks to do a little simple math and just apply the money from the bond to my fines and mail me the rest? Well, maybe not, because while sitting waiting to get my paperwork back I discovered that the clerk had added the fines and fees up wrong — in my favor, ironically — and I had to give the paperwork back to her so she could add it all up again.

All in all, a time-consuming, expensive hassle for me, but something irritating which I could deal with. On the other hand, imagine someone who had to live on a limited or fixed income in this same situation. They could hardly afford to leave that $600 bond — likely more than a month’s rent or three car payments — tied up for six months. And then they’d be expected to pay an additional $420 in fines and fees and wait over a month for the county treasurer to cut a check to send their bond money back, leaving them out over $1000 for an extended period. That’s enough money to bring a person who lives paycheck-to-paycheck to the brink of disaster or push them over the edge.

Is the lesson of this to be a good little boy and make sure you renew your car registration and follow up to make sure the court got your check? Or is it that the greed of local government, which substantially underwrites its costs with exorbitant fees for traffic fines, is out of control? Or maybe I’m just a cranky middle-aged dude who should pay his fines and be glad government isn’t oppressing him even more? Better that than a granny on Social Security who loses her apartment and ends up on the street because she gets a ticket.

But you know, in the end I don’t mind the fines I paid nearly as much as the time wasted pointlessly and the crushing, inhumane, and unresponsively bureaucratic nature of the experience. When your government gives you worse customer service than the returns desk at Wal-Mart something is seriously wrong.

About Dave Nalle

  • http://www.educateddoubt.com lori

    Wow. The Peter Principle meets Kafka.

    So tell me, what’s proper etiquette? Do you bend over and grab your ankles on the way IN or on the way OUT of the courthouse?

    Maybe it’s both.

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    So long as your wallet is open and extended I think the formal position you assume only matters if you get to see an actual judge.

    Dave

  • http://desicritics.org Aaman

    In India, this would have been a quick Rs 200 at the site, no questions asked:)

  • http://www.morethings.com/log Al Barger

    People, I’m not sure if Blogcritics should be associating with a scofflaw like this Dave Nalle. He’s obviously some kind of police character, part of the criminal element that threatens our nation.

    Dave Nalle, have you rehabilitated yourself?

  • RedTard

    Good post, that’s the system here in Texas. Just about any violation ends up costing $200 or more, not much for some but devastating for others especially when you get more than one violation.

    Traffic enforcement, including the new cameras which are going up everywhere, have ceased to be about safety and have become just another way to generate revenue. I believe there is a law that limits the amount cities can earn from fines to 30% of their budget or so but they need to go even farther. Some villages in north Texas have a couple hundred residents with 4 or 5 police cars. Locals joke that everyone in the place is a deputy, but it’s not funny to outsiders who stumble into the hornets nest and leave with hundreds of dollars in fines.

    The money from traffic violations should not be allowed to go anywhere near the organizations that collect them. They should go into some far off state or national fund where they could not be touched or absorbed into the regular budget. There would be little incentive to hand out fines except where the officer felt it would actually produce better safety.

  • http://www.magicjunk.com/blog Mark Sahm

    This post gave me some bad flashbacks about our traffic system, Dave. But if nothing else, it made me glad that I chose a quick and painless defensive driving course instead of fighting my ticket in court.

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    dave’s big adventure reminds me of that crazy stuff that can happen whenever you have to deal with any sort of ‘dug in’ organization, government or not:

    one time i signed up for a credit card over the phone. it was one of those, get this and the rate will be tiny sort of things. fine.

    so the woman at the other end of the line was clearly a rookie as i could hear her being coached.

    at one point she asked me about balance transfers and how they can transfer up to $5000.

    no thank you, sez i….since my other account with them had a balance of something like $750, which i’d planned to pay off in full for the next cycle.

    i get my bill for the old account and at first notice there there’s no minimum payment. then i see why: the current balance was $-4250! that’s right, a negative balance.

    then i get the bill for the new account and it’s $5000.

    cripes.

    i won’t go into any more details except for the say that the customer service lines at these gigantic credit companies are NOT set up to deal with this kind of mistake. it took many, many phone calls to clear it up.

    and actually, i had to clear it up myself by transferring the five grand back in the other direction. duh! wish i’d a thought of that in the first place.

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    Dave Nalle, have you rehabilitated yourself?

    Apparently in this modern equivalent of the ancient Anglo-Saxon system of Wergeld all I have to do is pay enough money and I’m clean and wholesome again.

    Dave

  • http://www.magicjunk.com/blog Mark Sahm

    I’ll also add I was really rooting for this tale to end with Nalle winning an argument with the Justice of the Peace over the inconvenience of all the silly fees. But I guess such a story is something you’d see on TV… not in reality.

    Oh well. I hope you got Uncle Sam back at tax time, Dave.

  • Nancy

    Congratulations on an up-close & personal meeting with your local government’s new system of taxation without representation. Here in the East, it’s called Interstate 81.

  • http://www.ryanclarkholiday.com ryan

    And people were shocked that the government handled Katrina poorly…

  • lumpy

    I wonder what would happen if we privatized the police and courts. might be interesting. could be a nightmare.

  • http://somethingaboutchelsea.blogspot.com Chelsea Snyder

    Makes me glad that I live in the bumpkin hills of Indiana where the county judge just tells me to “be good, ya hear?” and send his best my my folks.

  • Arch Conservative

    Nancy, it sounds like you live in the mid-Atlantic region. I also live in the east but a little further north and up here we call taxation without representation as well as everything else wrong government “Massachusetts.”

    I kid you not. Your story sucks Dave but I would tell you and every other American citizen with the exception of Californians that no matter how bad things get in your state at least you can still say “well at least I don’t live in Massachusetts.”

  • http://www.thebluesmokeband.com Brian Sorrell

    Never drive on the last day of the month Dave: it’s quota day across the country.

    This reminds me that some bullshit neighbor complained about parking on our street and a bunch of us got tons of parking tickets IN FRONT OF OUR HOUSES — every Sunday for about 6 weeks. My wife got one for not having a front license place. A friend got one for being more than 15″ from the curb, even though he wasn’t. A neighbor got one for dropping his handicapped wife off in front of his house — but he was facing the wrong way on the street. Etc.

    We called the ticket-maid’s sergeant and he came out to our house so that we could chit-chat about why we were obviously being targeted. We “philosophized” with him a bit and the madness stopped.

    This is how I use my philosophy degree :) Woot.

  • Howard

    Dave, did you ever consider the fact that the bureaucracy of Travis County and Austin hate your political philosophy? Maybe “they went after” you to encourage you to leave the area.

    Howard

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    Perhaps it was my bumper sticker which says “Tyrrany Does Not Provide Security”.

    You do have a point insofar as Austin itself is a haven of unreasoning socialism, but the county as a whole is much more diverse, and I live outside of the city in a community with a nice balance of political perspectives.

    And it was the country sheriff who ticketed me in this case, and they tend to be pretty sensible folks and mostly live in the small communities around Austin and scoff at the leftist elite in the city along with the rest of us.

    Dave

  • Arch Conservative

    I have never been to Texas and do not know very much about the local culture but from what little I do know it sounds as if the city of Austin is “messin with Texas.”

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    Austin is certainly an anomaly in Texas. The other large cities are also democrat dominated, but in the normal way which big cities everywhere are. Austin on the other hand, is dominated by an extremely wealthy very far-left elite with a big hollywood element. There are more millionaires per capita than any other city in the nation, mostly young and having made their millions from tech businesses, and they like to throw their weight around. You end up with a LOT of money for causes that get only lip service in other cities like the ‘living wage’ farce and extreme environmental policies.

    Case in point, they just passed an ordinance against ‘McMansions’ – houses built on city lots which are larger than the house originally built there. So now, if you buy a downtown lot with a tiny 600 square foot shack on it, you’re limited to building a new house no bigger than the original. Great way to stifle natural growth.

    Dave

  • http://midtopia.blogspot.com Sean Aqui

    Dang, Dave. Tough break.

    Usually after an experience like that I go out and rent “Brazil”, specifically for the scene when they blow up the ministry. It’s really cathartic.

    When I lived in Florida I’d run into that sort of behavior a lot. Here in high-tax Minnesota, it doesn’t happen much. I’ve occasionally wondered if being chiseled for fees is part of the price people pay for living in states without an income tax. States don’t run for free, so if they’re not getting it one way, they’ll do whatever they have to do to get it another.

  • Dave Nalle

    Texas does indeed have no income tax, but in Travis County they do have whopping big sales and property taxes and you’d think that would be enough for the greedy bastards. But yes, it is certainly a kind of hidden tax. The hunger for money of the mindless bureaucracy is without limits.

    Dave

  • Arch Conservative

    I live in New Hampshire and we have neither an income tax nor sales tax. We do have very high porperty taxes though. We also have a lot of state liquor stores right on our borders so that we can make money off of all the assholes from Massachusetts that want to come up here and buy thier ciggarettes and booze cheaper.

    Just to give you a rough example of our state property taxes…I was recently speaking to a woman who had purchased a Colonial (just about every new house in new england is a boring cookie cutter colonial) that I’d say was about 3000 square feet on a lot that was maybe 3/4 acre in a residential neighborhood. She pays nearly $8000 a year in property taxes. Not all towns and properties in new hampshire are this expensive but many are and many are even more.

    NH was just voted as the country’s most livable state by some magazine or something and it is a really nice place if you don’t mind living next door to the people’s republic of Massachusetts and the cold, long winters.

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    New Hampshire is also the state chosen to be taken over by the Free State Project, a group of libertarians who are moving there en masse – as many as 50,000 of them by 2010, to make it a model state for liberty-oriented political reforms. Kind of a cool idea. The goal was to move to an already libertarian-leaning state with a small enough population that they could influence statewide politics significantly.

    Dave

  • Ebony Ghost

    Dave, your subtitle indicates that you already knew that you were being just plain flat out robbed. I know Mark was; unless there is a significant difference between a speed trap at the bottom of a hill and armed robbery.

    Let’s not forget the indignity of being herded through the metal detector on the way to your butchering. I know, some people take comfort in the “safety” they provide. But, keep in mind, the frustrated individual they deter would not be in there gunning for John Q. Public.

    For my money; always get a trial, always get a jury and always appeal. I just happen to know that in Texas, an appeal bond is a fill in the blank form that you can find in any law library (if you can find the library). While there, also find the affidavit of paupership. It’s another fill in the blank form and has the qualifying guidelines listed right there.

  • Dave Nalle

    Interestingly our JP courts down here don’t have metal detectors or even prominently posted guards.

    As for getting a trial and a jury, I have to confess that the paperwork and the time in court that would involve are more onerous to me than shelling out the money. I was barely patient enough to talk to the ADA and get the fines reduced. Any more time in that place and I probably would have just thrown my wallet at them and run screaming.

    Dave

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy in Jerusalem

    ‘Bout 24 years ago in late October, I drove away from my ex’s apt. with a divorce decree that gave her the apt. and me the streets, an old AMC station wagon and about $85 in the bank. A day after the decree went into effect, I had parked the station wagon on a street in Mineapolis, while I lay in a friend’s house a few feet away dealing with a bout of pneumonmia.

    A snow storm struck on Halloween – a doozy, it lasted two days – and I couldn’t get my car started for nothing. So that was the end of the AMC. I didn’t have the money to repair it, much less get it towed to a shop.

    Of course the city didn’t look at it that way. They gave me a ticket, and when no one showed to even pick up the ticket, they towed my car, and started sending notices out how the charges were piling up on it. The wind up was that my car was sold at auction and I had an arrest warrant on my head.

    I knew how to keep my head down and when I was back on my feet with a job and an apartment a year later, I took the bus to the Hennepin Couty Courthouse and paid up the warrant.

    That was the end of the story – so I thought.

    One Friday four years later, I was speeding down a street in St. Paul on errands for the Burger King I managed. It was close to the lunch rush. A cop hauled me over. I told him that I knew I had a ticket coming but if he could let me off with warning – and I launched into my tale of woe as to why I was driving 20 mph above the speed limit. Remarkably, it worked. He said that he would check to see if I had had violations in the past year and if I didn’t he’d let me off with a warning.

    He came back, a very unsmiling fellow, telling me that I had no violations in the previous year, but that I had an arrest warrant out on my head.

    I briefly told the cop the story relayed above about the arrest warrant, and that I had the paperwork in my apartment to prove I had paid off the warrant. He tried radioing people on his car radio, but gave up in frustration, and said that if I didn’t go to the Ramsey County sheriff’s office that afternoon to clear up the matter, he’d be at my door Monday morning.

    That afternoon, I went to the sheriff’s office to find out what the hell was going on. Some clerk showed me a document that wrongly identified my old AMC Spirit wagon as having no insurance, and that therefore, an warrant had been issued for my arrest. Apparently the fellow who had bought the car had never gotten car insurance, and that therefore the car was still in my name. I told this fellow the same story i told the cop, and he said I had a week to prove my story. He said that the fine to pay off the warrant would be $44.00, but that could be taken care of if I couldn’t prove my innocence. The next Tuesday I took off from work and drove to Minneapolis to get a letter from the impound lot that they had sold my car at auction. It turned out that the company that had towed the car had been taken over by the city for corrupt practices. They said at the Minneapolis Impound Lot that it would cost $43.00 for them to find the original letter proving the car had been sold. I asked them if they could type up a letter indicating that according to their records the car had been sold. Thta didn’t cost me anything.

    That day, I went with the letter to the Sheriff’s Office which accepted it. I was “excused.” It wasn;t the last traffic ticket I got in Minnesota – I don’t drive here. But I walked out on arrest warrant twice.

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    Your story is actually kind of positive, Ruvy, because it shows them being at least reasonable and responsive rather than rigidly bureaucratic. The cop who could have taken you in gave you time to solve the problem. The clerks gave you a chance to dig up your proof. I’m guessing this was a few years ago. From what I hear in today’s world when you showed up to resolve the warrant they would have arrested you on the spot if you didn’t pay.

    Dave

  • dcg

    Travis county drives me nuts also. About once every three years or so I get your basic speeding citation. With the implementation of the “points system” I’m pretty careful to take Defense Driving to avoid the insurance penalties.
    The last ticket I got, I was told that I had 30 days to take care of the the ticket. Two days after getting it, I went down to the local JP’s office, as indicated on my ticket.
    There was a huge line. I took a number.
    Literally, I waited 2.5 hours before getting called. I was told that I could not sign up for defensive driving as the ticket was not in their system.
    They were kind enough, but told me to come back after 10 days from the date of issue.
    So I waited another 8 days. I returned to the office.
    Same procedure. This time it was a 2 hour wait. I was flabbergasted when I was told – AGAIN – that the ticket was not in their system and that I should wait 2-3 weeks before appearing again. At this point I’ve burned substantially more time off work than the ticket is worth. I offered to plead guilty or simply deposit money with the county so that I could apply that to my ticket. They would not accept payment.

    Mind you, the ticket gives you 30 days to appear. If tickets take 2-3 weeks to get into the system, the reality is that you’ve got a window of 10-15 days to “appear”… Even after you’ve appeared.

    After going back a 3rd time, I was able to sign up for defensive driving.
    Total time spent – with travel and waiting at the JP’s office: 7.5 hours. That’s time off work, time unpaid.
    RIDICULOUS.