A few years ago I was finishing a long drive north when I was pulled over for speeding in the state of New York. I was given a ticket, and then continued on my trip. As I recall, I was on my way home for a visit since we had not moved to Vermont yet. We had the visit, spent a few days, and then drove back to Baltimore again. Over the course of the trip I completely forgot about the ticket and never paid it. I never got another notice about it either and it escaped my attention for almost a year.
The next summer I was visiting my mother in Plattsburgh again when it was decided that my wife and I would get a child rearing break and go out to see a movie. It would be our first night out since Edward was born and we desperately needed it. Thanking my mother profusely, we jumped into the car and headed across town to the theater.
About halfway there I saw the red and blue lights flashing in my rear view mirror, so I pulled over and waited for the officer to come tell me what I did wrong. It seemed I had a headlight out, so he took my license and registration and went to go write me up for it. When he got back, he arrested me, apologizing profusely. As it turns out, because I had not paid that earlier ticket, my license had been suspended in the state of New York. This is a misdemeanor in that state, so he handcuffed me and put me in the back of his car.
We had a nice chat on the way to the courthouse about life, singing, and why he had become a police officer. Good guy, other than the arresting me thing. When we got to court the judge, just gotten out of bed as it was after 10 pm, told me that this actually happens all the time. He gets tons of people with suspended licenses that don’t know it because they never got the letter, but since that is not his problem there was not much he could do about it. He set my bail at $250 and sent me off to jail. If we’d had the cash on us, we could have just paid it there, but my wife had to go find an ATM, so I was hauled away.
My wife went off to find bail money for me, while I went to the slammer. And let me tell you, it was terrifying. The nice officer dropped me off, but he was the last nice face I saw. When I arrived, the people that took me asked him if I had given him any problems, and they asked it almost hopefully, as if they were looking for a reason to mistreat me. He assured them that I was fine and not dangerous or a problem, and so they reluctantly emptied my pockets and put me in a holding cell.
I thought I would be there for five to ten minutes tops, but instead I was there for almost two hours. Which seems like a not so long amount of time to be in jail, but one minute was all I needed to understand that I never wanted to be there again. From the instant they closed the door behind me, a change came over me. I was trapped, and I knew it. There was no handle on my side of the door. Suddenly I wanted some water, but had no way of getting any. I suppose I could have asked the scary guards that looked at me like they wanted to punch me, but that didn’t seem like a good idea. I was locked in a place with no friendly faces around, and it affected me.
They took my phone, so I couldn’t even play Angry Birds or check Facebook. In fact, I could do nothing but think. It certainly made me realize how dependent I am on my phone to get me through moments of boredom. Now I was faced with nothing to do but sit there and wait. As the time passed, I became increasingly more panicked, wondering where my wife was with my bail. I saw other people being brought in, put into orange jumpsuits, and taken away in handcuffs, and I wondered how long it would be before they decided that my wife was not coming and sent me off as well. Sometimes an overactive imagination is a curse rather than a blessing.
When they finally let me out, I was really shaken up. In some ways, I am still shaken up, though it has been almost three years now. The judge gave me a week to get it sorted out, so I paid the ticket, got a letter saying I had paid it, and went back to court. Since I had gotten it all fixed, they downgraded my crime to a traffic violation, so I was never charged with a misdemeanor and have a clean record. This I much appreciated. We also got our bail money back, which we also appreciated.
The whole experience certainly gave me a new healthy respect for our laws and the officers that enforce them. And by respect I mean paralyzing fear. For a long time I wouldn’t drive, and when I did I was terrified every time I saw a police car, sure that they were going to take me back to that terrible place. And that terrible place was not the holding cell. It was captivity. It was a loss of freedom. And I do not want to go back.
I don’t tell this story a lot. It’s kind of embarrassing, and even though it was a mixup it is still generally frowned upon in polite company to discuss your time in prison. But oddly enough, the same thing happened to my mother. And she was told the same thing. It happens all the time. People don’t get the letters, their licenses get suspended, and they get arrested. So I thought I would at least put it out there that if you get a ticket in New York, pay it right away. Believe me; you don’t want to go to jail. Even for a minute.