18 July 2000
15 May 2000, 8:10 AM
The radio is playing Stone Temple Pilots' "Sour Girl."
It's a sunny Monday morning in May, and I'm actually a few minutes ahead of schedule as I pass through the toll gates at Hunter Mill Road on my way to my client's site in Bethesda. I use public transit to get there when I can, but today I need my car. There's some congestion -- nothing out of the ordinary -- as I merge into the right lane of four on the Dulles Toll Road. The far left lane is a diamond lane, designated for car pools of two or more (High Occupancy Vehicles, HOV-2) during this morning inbound rush. The economist and ecologist in me believes strongly in car pool lanes, but today (as usual) I'm riding solo, so I work make my way over to the left center lane, the leftmost unrestricted lane.
My mind is centered on flipping a pen back into my glove compartment when it's convenient.
Traffic begins to pick up speed, and then abruptly slows again. There's a state trooper on the left shoulder, probably doing HOV enforcement.
Seconds later, I hear one burst of a siren behind me. I move to the right center lane, and the the trooper is behind me, his code lights flashing. What does he want with me? Are my taillights out? I move over one more lane and then onto the shoulder. We are a mile from where I'd entered the expressway.
Trooper Carl I. Jenkins immediately asks me whether I am familiar with the HOV restrictions at this time of day. Yes, I reply, but I wasn't in the HOV lane. Then he says that he saw me traveling in the HOV lane, and that I then moved sharply two lanes to the right.
Now, to anybody who knows me, this is preposterous. I would no sooner change lanes twice, quickly, in rush hour traffic than I would lay a patch of rubber at a stop sign. If I had been in the car pool lane and I'd seen a cop, I would most likely lay my foot off the gas, thinking that the gesture conferred momentary invisibility.
Sir, I say, I was not in the HOV lane. He pauses for less than an instant, and then says that he's going to write the summons anyway.
Minutes later, badly rattled, summons in hand, I merge back onto the highway from a section of shoulder that runs out quickly. "Sour Girl" is still playing on WHFS. There's no way I'm going to just pay the fine and forget about this. I want my day in court. I spend the drive trying to figure out what happened. Did my wheels touch the lane markings while I leaned over to put the pen away? Did the officer see another green Explorer and lose it in the crush? Did I suffer a 15-second hallucination?
I make it to work, on time even, and I have a court date for two months later, per Virginia Uniform Summons #0011316618.
18 July 2000, 9:02 AM
I clear security at the county judicial center in Fairfax City. I've forgotten to leave behind the Leatherman Micra that I carry on my key ring, so I receive a tag that I can use to claim it when I leave. I find my name on a list printed on green bar paper and find courtroom 1C. General District Court, Traffic Division, County of Fairfax, Commonwealth of Virginia, convenes at 9:30.
The lighting and my fellow citizens are subdued as we wait in the courtroom. There are eleven benches, each with a capacity of about ten; a guy with a frizzy gray ponytail leans on the back of one of the benches and I realize that they're arranged like church pews. There's no way to get out from the center without banging the knees of several people.
At the front of the courtroom, a large octagonal ceiling fixture gives light. There are three blond wood podiums, at left, center, and right; two lawyers' tables between. I can see the back of a workstation monitor, grubby with use, and what is probably an inkjet printer. A microphone at the judge's bench, a green chalkboard at the right. No TV cameras.
Two guys are talking about commuting to local airports, like BWI, which used to be called Friendship Airport, one of them says. Someone picks up a pink form from one of the podiums: a list of the cases to be heard in order? No, just a form to fill out if you have an attorney.
The room begins to fill. We are about 75% men, dressed in suits, sport coats, business casual, work clothes, T-shirts. No one is dressed better than the prosecutor, young and clean cut, who sits at the right-side table. I'm wearing a slightly rumpled twill buttondown, a brown paisley tie, olive khakis, and a tweed jacket. The jacket is too warm for July, but it fits me, and the room is comfortable. I hope I look respectful but sincere.
A clerk appears, a 30ish Asian woman who sits at the workstation. A bailiff-type comes in, in an ugly brown jacket with a star embroidered on the breast pocket. He's in his twenties and doesn't look too authoritative. I notice three uniformed officers, but I don't recognize my officer Jenkins.
A second clerk appears, a 60ish woman with stenography equipment. Like in the movies! She goes away, to return briefly later in the morning but never to actually record anything.
My insides are pulsing. A lawyer is explaining to his client that the case order is up to the judge, but that generally he will hear pleas first, grouped by arresting officer. He disposes of the guilty pleas, then returns to try the not-guilty cases.
The bailiff tells us to turn off our cell phones and pagers (like in the theatre!) and to put away all reading material not case-related while court is in session. I hope that my jots on my PDA aren't taken for playing Tetris. The clerk quickly mumbles through explaining where to pay fines -- I can't hear her clearly, for there are several conversations at the back of the room.
Judge John Cassidy convenes the court. [The bailiff's all-rise announcement was rushed, and I hope I got the name right.] The judge is 40ish with a combover, and he gets right to work.
He dispatches a stream of cases with numbing speed. Nearly half of the names he calls are no-shows. For these, he assesses a fine -- "$40 for the inspection" -- and goes on to the next case in about fifteen seconds.
Half, probably more, of the cases, are for speeding, generally between 75 and 85 mph (there's no place in Fairfax County that is empty enough that you can go any faster). If the charge involves possible jail time, he makes sure that the accused understands that he has a right to counsel. His clerk brings in an interpreter for four or five Hispanic men who need this explained to them in Spanish.
After a while, I recognize the judge's formula, "other than the speed, anything unusual?" that he asks of the arresting officer. There are some $100 fines, and some ten-day license suspensions. $50 seems to be the going rate for a guilty plea to an HOV violation.
The judge calls my name to hear my "not guilty, your honor." I have figured out that he's working through Jenkins' cases alphabetically, and my heart has been pounding in my throat as he goes through the E's, F's, and G's.
I sit down and wait for my case to come around again for trial.
Judge Cassidy begins entertaining motions from the prosecutor, generally on cases continued from previous sessions. The benches are two-thirds emptied out now. The most complicated case involves a kid from Anne Arundel County, Maryland, who is to be referred to something called the ASAP program. He's got a marijuana charge to go with the usual reckless driving, and he ends up with 120 days of jail time, all but 12 days of that suspended, and he can serve it on weekends.
For some of the cases, there is a motion to "nully prosh," which is my misheard Latin for "don't prosecute." The prosecutor talks to trooper Jenkins, but my name doesn't come up. This officer doesn't seem to resemble the one that stopped me. Maybe I did hallucinate everything.
The real trials begin, raise-your-right-hand all that. There is a kid from Virginia Tech who tries his best to fight a speeding ticket. He was stopped a couple of miles from where the trooper got hit radar gun on him, and he tries to sell the idea that his car was misidentified in the twilight. His claim that his Lexus 4-door sedan is very common looking isn't working, and he keeps talking, digging himself in a bigger hole, it seems to me. The judge finds him guilty. I'm doubtful of my own chances.
There is a pair of cases. She stopped dead on the expressway to join a backed-up line of cars on an exit ramp; he plowed into her. I know this stretch of road, and this accident must happen there once a week. Judge Cassidy shows some leniency, remarking that the rules get bent a little in rush hour, and lets them both off with a warning. There are less than a dozen of us on the benches now.
The judge calls my name: he pronounces it correctly this time. The officer and I swear in. (Here it's "the truth, under penalty of law," not "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.") I keep my eyes on the judge. The officer tells his story, and I listen. I tell my story: I've been rehearsing it in my head for two months. I leave out the part about Stone Temple Pilots.
The judge asks how far away the officer was when he saw the infraction (100 yards is the answer) and asks him about a bus crossover. There is a slip ramp so that buses can use the inner Dulles Airport Access Road, but it's west of where our adventure took place. I fight off the impulse to offer any information about Reston geography.
And then the judge says, I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt. He adds something about it being an expensive ticket, and that they are making it more expensive. The judge says, you are free to go.
I say, thank you. (This is more dignified than " A Daniel come to judgment! yea, a Daniel!")
I am walking out of the courtroom. My trial must have taken all of three minutes, five at the most.
I exit the parking garage, deprived of $1.75 and 4 hours of leave. But I have come back with a story to tell. My driving is a little more self-conscious, for the time being; I'm not so keen to scamper through a yellow light. And I got my five minutes in court.
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