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I Was a Criminal
I don’t know what I expected, but I was surprised by what the cop was saying. “Now, this is serious," he said, handing me a summons. "If you don’t show up at the hearing on December 10, the court will issue a warrant for your arrest.”
A warrant? For me? I had noirish images of a man on the run, accused of a crime he didn’t commit, searching for the evidence that would clear his name.
“Oh, I’ll be there,” I said, snapping out of my reverie.
It actually didn’t seem like such a big deal; just a pain in the butt. My crime was doing what I had done countless times over the last 40 years: I rode my bike on the upper level of Riverside Park. As I prepared to exit the park at 72nd Street, a police car stopped me and one of the cops in it accused me of riding on the sidewalk. Sidewalk? What sidewalk? This is the park, isn’t it? He disagreed, and as he wrote me a summons, a little old lady rode by on the “sidewalk,” and was quietly ignored.
My girlfriend posted the summons on the refrigerator door, like some Bizarro World trophy. (Actually, I knew it was there so I wouldn’t lose it or forget about it.) As the dreaded date drew closer, she circled the date and attached a piece of paper saying, “DEC. 10” next to it. I didn’t forget.
When I got to the Community Court House on West 54th Street, it was five minutes to 9 and a dozen people were standing in a long line outside, as though we were waiting to see a movie.
I really didn’t have a clue. I had imagined myself standing up in court, delivering a passionate speech about the injustice of the charge, offering evidence of the upper level being park land and not sidewalk (I had actually tried – in vain -- to find such a distinction). I fantasized about cross-examining the officer who had ticketed me, accusing him of trying to fill a quota, and the judge apologizing to me.
What I really thought was going to happen was I show up, plead guilty, and pay a $30 fine.
Neither scenario happened.
I found myself in a tiny courtroom; my fellow criminals were a motley crew: well-dressed women who agreed to community service instead of jail time for shoplifting; yuppies and professorial types, who pled guilty to drug use in return for community service; and black, white, Spanish, and Asian folks who had solicited on the subway, sold cigarettes to a minor, smoked pot, and perpetrated all sorts of what I would call minor crimes. All of them agreed not to fight the charges, opting for a case dismissal and a cleaned up record if they would just agree to community service (I was beginning to understand why it was called Community Court).
My name was finally called, and a chubby young man told me to follow him upstairs. We were in a small room with lots of chairs and a long, rectangular table. People were everywhere, talking constantly. My companion, reviewed the facts of my case with me – I later discovered he was a court-appointed attorney, though he never told me that (nor did he give me his name). He said that I could probably get off if I promised to (what else?) do some community service. He didn’t seem to think the charges were that serious.
Confident that I was home free, I was shocked when, about a half hour later as my lawyer and I were standing before the judge, she cut him off in mid-sentence.
“Your argument has no merit,” she said. Certain that this was all a formality, I hadn’t been listening. “Tell me what happened,” the judge said, turning to me.
I told my story, finishing, rather lamely, with “I thought I was in the park.”
She looked at the summons the police officer had filled out, and then said, not unsympathetically, “Well, even though what you say may be true, this is still a misdemeanor. But the officer hasn’t indicated whether you were a hazard to any pedestrians. He hasn’t written it up correctly. Case dismissed.”
I was relieved. The judge had some final words for me: “This was serious. If he had written it up correctly, you could have been facing 60 days in jail. Do you understand?”
Images of my girlfriend delivering a pie with a hammer and chisel in it flashed through my mind.
“Yes, your honor. Now I know. I won’t do it again.” I shook my nameless lawyer's hand and walked out, passed the shoplifters, pot-smokers, and jaywalkers, holding my head high. I was free. Ah, I breathed the free air of midtiown and walked quietly to my job.
Jail for biking? And if I had a permit I could have carried a concealed handgun. That's America. Isn't it bizarre?
December 10, 2013