This week I attended the last of three court dates to deal with some misdemeanor charges I incurred last May concerning how I had secured our dog so that he wouldn’t jump the fence and get out while we were away from the house. Our dog was confiscated by Animal Control and we were unable to get him back due to the high fees incurred from his confiscation, vaccinations (which he already had been given by us), registration, and boarding fees for one night since they picked him up after their office was already closed.
The first court date in July, I was assigned a public defender who tried to get a plea deal with the D.A, but the D.A. was unwilling to drop any charges and wanted me to plead guilty to two misdemeanor charges of illegal tethering. My public defender didn’t think my crime warranted that harsh of a sentence so he advised me to try for another court date with a judge that might be more willing to bargain. My second court date in September brought a judge that was willing to drop my charges to infractions if I would attend a Responsible Pet Ownership class. I finished that class and at my third and final court date this week, my charges were reduced to one infraction of Disturbing the Peace with no animal connection to the charges. My fine of $283 was waived if I can keep out of trouble for a year and I have to pay $100 in court fees at $25 per month until it is paid in full.
If you have never been to court to face charges before, let me walk you through my experience. You are given a ticket with a date and time to show up. When you get to court you have to go through a metal detector and put your belongings through the bag screening conveyor belt. Then you have to line up in front of the department you need to check in to, in my case it was criminal court. You wait until your name is called and then you are handed a copy of your constitutional rights and a financial form to fill out in the event that you are in need of a public defender which you handed to the bailiff for review by the court. Then you wait to see if you qualify for a public defender. If you do, the public defender will take you out of the courtroom and discuss your case with you and advise you of the District Attorney’s willingness to bargain or not. Then they go back in and speak to the judge and D.A. and come back out to talk over the outcome with you, let you know if there are any requirements or the plea deal that is reached. At this point you either enter your plea or another court date is set to come back and do this all over again. There is a lot of waiting as each public defender is usually representing 4-8 clients at one time in court and each attorney presents all of their clients cases one after another at one time. Then they have to discuss one at a time with clients, then go back and hash out, then come back and talk and so on and so forth. Once everything as been hashed out as far is it can be, you go into the courtroom and either enter your plea or request a trial. Luckily my case did not need to go to trial and I was able to waive my constitutional rights and enter a plea of guilty to a much lesser crime than I had been accused of committing.
During all of the waiting time between talking to the lawyer and being in the courtroom, I listened, I watched, and sometimes I chatted with the people around me. A lot of the folks that were sitting and waiting with me were there for charges of driving with a suspended license and/or driving while intoxicated. One man even laughingly bragged to a friend that he was there for his 10th incident of driving under the influence. A few of the people that were there did not speak English as their first language and I was pleased to see that court appointed interpreters of many languages were there and were utilized often by public defenders to make sure their clients fully understood the court process, their constitutional rights, and the choices they faced about their charges. Two ladies I talked to were facing domestic violence charges, one because she poured a beer over her husband’s head and broke his sunglasses (charged with assault and vandalism) and another because she had pushed her boyfriend out of her personal space during a verbal argument and when the police arrived the officer told her, “Well I’m going to be taking someone to jail tonight!”
I share all of this because I have some things I’ve been pondering over during this whole experience. I have wondered so many times what would have happened if, instead of calling animal control, our neighbor had come over and shared and explained to us their concerns about how our dog was tied up? I like to think of myself as a fairly civil person who takes constructive criticism to heart and really thinks over and weighs concerns that people bring to me. What if they had explained to me how to properly secure our dog on a home made trolley system with supplies we had visibly lying around in our backyard? The same backyard that they looked into to see how our dog was tied up before they called the authorities. What if that aunt who had overheard the loud fight of the quarreling boyfriend and girlfriend had instead walked over to see who was quarreling and tried to help solve the problem or encourage them to go to separate places until they cooled down instead of calling the police? What if the neighbor’s of the married couple had befriended them and offered to lend an ear or a place for one of them to cool off instead of calling the police? What if friends and family of the man with 10 DUIs had, instead of laughing at and encouraging his behavior, stepped in and took his keys or took him to a treatment center or offered to listen to and help him problem solve what he was so desperately trying to drown in alcohol?
I know my questions are completely idealistic and the reality could be quite different from a utopia where everyone behaves perfectly and responds perfectly to intervention. Still, I wonder if we took it upon ourselves to be involved in our neighborhood, in our community and to intervene ourselves instead of relying on the police to intervene, how different would things be?
It’s so uncomfortable to introduce ourselves to our neighbors. It’s so inconvenient to take the time out of our busy schedules to get involved in anything outside of our own circle of interests and friends. It is so annoying and scary when people have loud verbal arguments and confrontations. It’s so hard and complicated to confront someone and bring accountability to a situation that is spiraling out of control. There are a lot of legitimate excuses to pass responsibility to the authorities who have been drafted and are being paid to govern the affairs of the populace and make sure everyone plays nice.
I don’t have answers to all of this, really. I have a lot a questions. I have a lot to think about.