Pay the Bailiff

imageLast 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.

What’s this?

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, imageWashington. 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. imageThere’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.

Your honor…?

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.

27 thoughts on “Pay the Bailiff

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    1. Thanks Kate. I’m not sure I thought of it as paying it forward at the time, it was more an acceptable bit of punishment. But the fact that I had $45 and this man couldn’t see a point in the near-term did put things in perspective.


  1. Wonderful example of Random Acts of Kindness!
    My friend True had to pay $500 in fines, after she was arrested on a bench warrant for a ticket she swears she paid years ago. It was quite a trauma. Should I ever get a ticket, I will be paying it in person!


    1. And keep your receipt! Thanks. This guy didn’t seem to be messing with the judge, I heard all of his explanations and they were just sad. The guy just didn’t have the money.


  2. Great story, I can relate to problems with the DMV. I was 2nd in line one time, but didn’t get out for 4 hours! It was the last day for boat registration, so all the clerks were moved over to that line!! I couldn’t believe it!


    1. That’s awful. I’ve since spent hours in line but usually I started further back than #2. At least in CT, if you get into line before closing time, they will stay and process you. Thanks!


  3. Your story holds the elements of a great story: diverse characters and setting, suspense, humor, and emotions. Gosh, there is even The Boss. You showed a lot of maturity and heart with Bob, so that totally made up for your less mature attitude from before, which honestly is very common when we are young, regardless of gender. DMV is also a place where none of us likes to waste time.
    You’re also making a valid and important point with fines bringing people to jail. Going to jail for crime is fair punishment. For povery reasons and failure to negociate payment is unacceptable.


    1. Thank you so much, that makes me feel good. The news report went on to say that there are court districts in Washington that are funding their entire operations from fines. The practice is not only unacceptable, it’s illegal according to the Supreme Court. I was actually more deserving of punishment than Bob. It took me a while to realize that though. The appearance by The Boss was most unexpected, but also most welcome.


  4. Dan, I love your honesty and how you are willing to take the mask off to reveal the naked Truth. I really enjoyed your story and how it all ended. I think you paid back in full more then you know. The world needs more people like you, who are willing to extend kindness to someone in need, and someone who admits truthfully his own shortcomings. Bless you on all counts. Love, Amy


    1. Thanks Amy. The further I get (in age) from this story the more meaning it has for me. It’s so easy to ignore our responsibilities but it’s also easy to ignore people in need.


      1. I understand totally. When we are young, we are well, rather foolish at times. As I age gracefully, I have acquired Wisdom and the unshakable determination to stand up for what is right and true. Too many turn the other way or are so into themselves, wouldn’t even think of extending a hand in help. I have a post up called “Respectfully, Clematis” that shows how ignorant and selfish some people are (that was harshly said, but truthfully as I struggled to put it more nicely, I just couldn’t think of any other words). I can only hope that being an example of doing what is right and living my life in that way as well, the dawn will arrive for some. I can only hope. xx Amy


  5. Was that Bob guy real? Aha! That’s a hilarious story. Couldn’t afford $5 biweekly! And the first cop, that was a good cop! I don’t know about there but interrupting a judge itself like that around here would certainly land you in jail. And no cop would ever ask you which album you are playing.


    1. “Bob” was real and the cops were both real. Bob was a sad story, and while I’m sure he had some money, it was obvious from the story that he was very poor. I would never try offering anything to a cop, but when he asked, it seemed like it might work. I had heard stories at the time of people that kept their license wrapped in a $20 bill, just in case.


    1. I’m not nearly as good as you are with fiction. I couldn’t make that up. It wasn’t my intention at the time to be helpful but my perspective has changed over time. Thanks again.


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