the law

I was in court this month, for a speeding ticket. For my fifth speeding ticket in five years, actually. Go ahead, judge my driving. I can explain two of them.

Ticket #1: It was dark and stormy night in the middle of nowhere Alabama. I was by myself in a state that hates Hispanic people, specifically Mexicans. I had no cell reception and I was lost on my way to Columbus, Georgia. For some reason, I thought it would be a good idea to take country roads. It was not. So I sped. I sped to try to find highway lights; I sped to find cell phone reception; I sped because I thought the faster I drove the less likely I would be to get caught in a situation with locals. And then a cop pulled me over. I was nervous, not because I was speeding but because I was in Alabama. Thankfully, the cop didn’t harass me though he gave me a scolding and ticket. So yes, I sped, but isn’t it totally messed up that I was afraid I was going to be assaulted, discriminated against, hurt? I’ll take the ticket.

Ticket #5: It was Memorial Day weekend and I had woken up early to get on the road in Augusta to Marietta (I think). I pulled out of the parking lot of my hotel and directly on to the highway. I was in a rental Fiat 500 and when I looked down at the speedometer, it read 80 miles and hour. “Man,” I thought to myself, “this car picks up and you don’t even feel it.” Not a second after I finished my thought and was decelerating, a cop pulled me over (between the highway and the off ramp, no less. Really?). I explained to him that I didn’t realize the speed I was traveling until I looked at the speedometer and adjusted my speed. He took no pity on me; it was Memorial Day weekend after all.

Unfamiliar with the law, —how do you learn these things?— I heard some kind of something about 5 in 5. Meaning, something more serious than a ticket happens when you’ve received 5 tickets in 5 years. I was scared. I need to drive for my job and I couldn’t have my license suspended and that’s what I thought was going to happen.I flew to Augusta, Georgia Sunday night and was in court Monday morning. I noticed immediately that there were far more black men in the courtroom than any other race/gender combination. Of all the people in the courtroom 75% were black men, 5% were black women, 5% were Hispanic (1 of the 4 Hispanic people was a woman (me)), and 5% were white men.

Shocker, right? I know you’re not shocked, but I assure you it is one thing to know this cognitively and see it in real life. It made me really sad and really angry.

I observed also that of the three Hispanic men in the room, two didn’t speak English. I watched the staff ask one of them, “do you speak English?” He stared at her. She asked his friend, “Does he speak English?” His friend said yes, but in the way that you know he didn’t understand what she was saying. She reviewed a few pieces of information with him and though he didn’t speak English, he did understand a little. And I mean a tiny bit. After he answered one of her questions incorrectly because he didn’t understand her, I stepped in. I repeated what she said to him in Spanish and both the staffer and the man looked at me in relief. There was no translator in court that day so the man would have to return at a later date.

This happened one more time. The staff called a man’s name and he didn’t hear her. I tapped her on the shoulder pointing him out to here and she asked me to translate the simple instructions that she was sharing. Because they were simple I was able to help, but I wouldn’t be able to help much more. Again, because there was no translator in court the second Hispanic man would need to return at a later date.

The first Hispanic man waved me over to him and asked me if I could translate for him. I told him no, that my Spanish was limited and it would be safer for him to return when there was a translator in court. He looked at me willing me to speak Spanish better, but it didn’t work.

He and his friend left the courtroom and I asked myself if I should go to law school. Why was there no translator? It is asking quite a lot of people to come to court. I know, you can argue that people should do things that wouldn’t require them to come to court if they didn’t want to be inconvenienced. This is true. But what I am saying is, these people, these two Mexican men were poor. They didn’t live in Augusta and now they’ll have to not work at whatever low wage job they have and come to court again.

I am an educated person and I didn’t understand half of the things one of the staffers was explaining. I can’t image what it must feel like in a foreign language. What were they thinking the whole time?

The staff cleared the court pretty efficiently, issuing fines. I had to stay and speak to the judge because of my charge. There were about 10 of us left. The first man called up also had been charged with speeding (99 in a 55) and this was his fifth ticket in five years. He received fines and fees of nearly $1,000 and probation. Though I didn’t understand what probation meant, he didn’t get his license suspended and I began to breathe a little easier.

I was the second to last person called up and the judge issued me a $400 fine and no probation. My last ticket was for going 80 in a 55 (I thought the limit was 70, but no matter). I got a different sentence for a very similar charge as the first guy.

I was relieved but I wondered why. I can’t say for certain, but I wonder if the differences in our sentences had anything to do with the fact that I was female, light skinned, and was wearing a suit. The other guy was black and in a t-shirt and baggy jeans. Did it make a difference?

Out of the corner of my eye, again, I can’t be certain, when the judge called my name and I stood, I thought I saw her look me up and down and observe that I was put together, carrying a leather bag and laptop implying education. I thought her look said, “what the… why are you here?”

Maybe it’s the truth. I don’t know. To the judge’s credit I will say that, outside of my example, I thought her sentencing compassionate and fair. She took care to explain things and she spoke in simple language and asked careful questions.

So I left the courtroom, paid my fine and thanked God I could still drive. Does anyone else notice these things?

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