Last week, NPR ran a series about people who are being prosecuted and sometimes put in jail because they can’t pay court fines – a practice reminiscent of Debtors Prison which was made illegal and confirmed as being illegal by the Supreme Court in 1970, 71 and 83. In between two of those rulings, I had a chance to experience this up close. My story starts in New York, in 1977.
I had just begun my first real job. I was living in NY, working in New Jersey but my car was registered in Pennsylvania. My employer gave me one ‘personal’ day to take care of things like opening a bank account and getting my car registered. When I arrived at DMV, the line was out the door. I waited. I waited. I waited until the office was closing, at which point I was given a numbered ticket.
“That’s your number for tomorrow morning.”
I didn’t have a tomorrow morning, and the thought of spending a Saturday at DMV was anathema in my irresponsible 23 year-old male mind.
I decided to roll the dice; after all, there really wasn’t anything on my PA license plate indicating when it expired.
The first indication that that was a bad idea came when I was stopped for speeding on the Hutchinson River Parkway:
“License and registration please…”
Several minutes later the NY State policeman returned.
“Are you aware that your registration is expired?”
I told him the story of my day at DMV. He laughed. His next question came as a bit of a surprise, but I answered it correctly:
“Was that the new Springsteen album (tape) I heard playing?”
“Yes. Would you like to borrow it?”
“I would, thanks. And, either get your car registered or stay closer to the speed limit.”
In 1978 I moved from New York City to Seattle, Washington. I had every intention of getting a Washington State driver’s license and getting my car registered. Every intention. But, once again, I didn’t have any vacation time and I was still too irresponsible to “waste” a Saturday at DMV. I had better things to do like hiking in the Cascades, exploring the coast, visiting Coulee Dam and skiing. Skiing at Steven’s Pass brought me to the second and most significant indication that my approach was flawed.
After a day of skiing, a friend and I headed back to Seattle. There’s only one road, and I was tucked in with a few hundred other cars, adorned with ski racks and snaking our way down Rt-2 a.k.a. the Steven’s Pass Highway, toward the apply named town of Startup, WA. Suddenly, flashing lights lit up the night and I was pulled out of the stream. The conversation had a familiar sound:
“License and registration please…”
This time, there wasn’t any waiting.
“Are you aware that both your license and registration are expired?”
Since it was obvious that I was returning from a Saturday on the slopes, I realized that it would be impossible to argue that I hadn’t had time to get my car registered. Several minutes later, the officer returned with a pile of tickets and a deal.
“Get your license and get this car registered before your court date and I’ll walk out without testifying. Otherwise, bring enough cash to cover all these fines.”
There wasn’t enough cash. Those. Fines. Were. Huge.
Three weeks later, I left work early, Washington State license and registration in hand, headed toward the courthouse in Monroe, WA. I had never been in court before and I was unprepared for how long it took to resolve simple matters. Around 4:00, the last man on the docket ahead of me took the stand, and my attending officer arrived. The judge was well acquainted with the man on the stand (let’s call him Bob).
“Bob, I am disappointed. You still have $45 remaining from that $50 fine.”
“I just don’t have the money judge.”
“Well then, we need to set up a payment plan.”
“Can you afford $10 a week?”
“$10 a week? No. There’s no way I can afford that. I don’t have that kind of money.”
This negotiation went on and on. Shortly after 4:30, they were debating $5 biweekly payments but Bob remained recalcitrant. I was running out of time. I wasn’t going to be able to leave early on another day. I couldn’t afford to get a number to use the next morning. I had to act.
I stood up, drawing the attention of the judge, the Bailiff, Bob and my attending officer.
“Yes young man, do you have some interest in this case?”
“No, not really, but the court will be closing soon and I was wondering…Can I pay his fine?”
“You want to pay the entire $45 fine?”
“Yes. I mean no, but if that will move things along so I can get my case resolved, I’d be willing to pay the fine, so yes; I’d be willing…”
“Pay the Bailiff.”
Bob practically danced out of the courtroom, thanking me, thanking Jesus, thanking the judge and thanking me again. The officer left the room laughing.
The Bailiff told me that Bob had been fined $50 for being in contempt during a previous proceeding and claimed to only have $5 the day he was fined. Today, Bob might end up in jail for that. Actually, today, Bob and I might be sharing a cell. If nothing else, penalties and interest would likely turn the $45 into an amount some dumb kid couldn’t afford to pay on his behalf.