Littering Is Not For Sissies!
My Witless Fall Into and Harrowing Adventure Inside the Kafkaesque Nightmare that is our Court System
by C.R. Hayne
I am a middle class white guy. (The reason for pointing that out will become obvious during the course of this story.) I live in a major American metropolis that I will discreetly identify only by its initials: L.A.
It was the summer of 2007. I had just bought a used car. There was a brake light out, though I didn't know it. And there was no ash tray, but I hadn't done anything about it yet.
One afternoon, driving home from work, I was in the left lane of Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park heading South, right across from American Apparell. I dropped a cigarette butt out the window. (I know, I know, I'm a bad person. I won't argue with that. But rest assured, dear reader, that I have paid my debt to society, and that I have not littered again since that fateful day.)
Cue flashing lights. I was being pulled over.
The cop seemed seriously offended. And he told me-- in a loud, authoritative voice that gave the message, "Otherwise I will kill you"-- to NOT get out of my car.
You bet, officer! (I try not to argue with beefy young men dressed in tight black uniforms and with shaved heads who are packing heat. But that's just me.)
I received a two-infraction ticket-- littering and "fix it." The cop explained to me that when I went to Court they'd give me a piece of paper that I could show to any policeman, Sheriff, or California Highway Patrol officer, and they'd verify that I'd fixed the problem, and I could then give that piece of paper to the Court, thus taking care of the "fix it" part, but that I'd have to see the Judge about the littering. The ticket had a you-must-appear-by date in September. Division 63.
Within days, I got a letter from the Court that told me to call the Court and make an appointment, or show up by that same you-must-appear-by date. I called the number. I was offered appointments months in the future.
Why put off the inevitable? I decided instead to show up at Court before that you-must-appear-by date.
I arrived at the courthouse very early one morning, paid $7 to park, and was first in a long, long line to enter the building. I hustled upstairs and waited a long time at the head of a long line to enter the courtroom of Division 63. Eventually a Sheriff came out to get paperwork or IDs from everyone standing in line, then went back in. A while later he came out and told me I had to go down to Window Number Whatever.
It turned out that the you-must-appear-by date was actually a you-must-make-an-appointment-by date.
Ha ha, I thought. You got me. And I can only assume that every day some not insignificant number of people make the same mistake I did.
So I waited in a long line at Window Number Whatever. I got an appointment to see the Judge in January.
One day and seven bucks wasted. No big deal, though it might have been for someone else...
I went back on my appointed date in January. I took the bus. (Clever me: $7 to park, only $2.50 to ride the bus both ways, and much more ecological.) I waited in a long, long line to get into the building, waited in a long line to be allowed to sit in the courtroom. Then I got called to the front by one of the Sheriffs and told that I needed to go "next door" (a separate building) with my car to pass inspection first, and then come back. (Never mind what the ticketing cop had said about the way it works.)
Ha ha. You got me again. What a riot!
The Sheriff gave me a photocopy of my ticket, which had been taken from me when I was in line. I explained that I had not driven there that day, and he told me I could come back any day that week.
Now, on this day I had been in the middle of the line to get into the courtroom, so I had the opportunity to see that there were lots of people in that line holding photocopies of their tickets. Evidently, I wasn't the only one who had fallen for this trick. Ha ha.
But wait. There's more. If you leave the parking lot to go get your car inspected right next door, you have to pay the $7 again in order to park again. Boy those folks really know how to pull a practical joke!
I had taken the bus. So I went home, got my car, and went to the inspection place. I figured I'd get that part done, since I'd already taken the day off work, then I would come to Court a third time on another day.
Luckily I had $15-- cash only!-- to pay the surprise fee for the inspection. But I'll bet there are a lot of hilarious scenes with folks who don't happen to have it, or the cash-- cash only!-- to get back into the parking lot five minutes later. I can just see the poor suckers ripping their hair out as they realize they are totally screwed, and will now have to ask their bosses for another day off without pay.
But I had plenty of sick and vacation time to use. I'm a middle class white guy, remember.
I went back to Court again two days later. I waited in a long line to get in the door, a long line to get into the courtroom, and a long time to go before the Judge, where I encountered an industrial, assembly line, kind of operation. "Plea? Traffic school? Don't tell me anything else!" Seriously.
I pled guilty, of course. So I was off to the cashier, and another long wait in line.
I had already looked up the relevant law on the internet and saw that the penalty for littering was a $100 fine and one day of community service. That seemed reasonable. But with all the associated fees the charge came to $381. Ouch. I paid with a credit card.
(As an aside here, the people who write our laws refuse to properly fund the courts, so the courts make up all sorts of fees in order to squeeze the cost of running the courts out of the people who have to appear there. Ha ha.)
I was given a piece of paper labeled "ALTERNATIVE SENTENCING PROGRAM, COURT REFERRAL FORM" with about twenty locations on it, and told to "go to any one" of them. I had to complete my service by April 10, and then return to the cashier at Division 63.
I'm not positive when I first heard the word “CalTrans”-- I think the Judge herself said it—- but I knew by the time I left the cashier that I was going to CalTrans. (CalTrans is the agency that maintains California's roads.)
(Another aside: there is a sign in the cashier area that says lawyers should go right to the front of the line. I guess we others in line are guilty, and the lawyers are innocent, and the Court is sort of admitting that the long lines are part of the punishment. But still, if you are wealthy enough that you can have a lawyer appear for you on a traffic violation, you also are excused from paying for that lawyer to wait in that line. I would guess that rich people with lawyers are also given alternatives to CalTrans.)
I left. I got on the bus. On the way home I looked over the referral form and saw that one of those locations I could go to was in the very same building that I'd just left. Ha ha. Tricked again. Damn, these people are good!
Three days of work missed.
One day the next week I went to sign up for community service through a "Volunteer Center" closer to my home which was, oddly enough, also located in a Court building.
There was a surprise $20 fee-- cash only!-- which I fortunately had with me. (Those who show up without twenty in cash that they can immediately part with just have to try again another day, I suppose.) They scanned my retina (wow!), and took a finger print. I guess you never know when the retina scan and fingerprint of a confessed litterer could come in handy.
I filled out a form. Do I have any skills? Well, sure I do. I'm a middle aged professional. I wrote some down: computer skills, and so on. But they knew, and I knew, and they knew that I knew that I was going to CalTrans. So it was just a formality. At the time I didn't even wonder why.
I was given a list of CalTrans locations, and told that I had to register within ten days. "6:30am-3:30pm Mon-Fri, 5:30am-2:30pm Sat & Sun," was written in big letters across the top of the list, but I was told that in fact I needed to be there fifteen minutes early to do paper work, and that the eight hours all had to be done in one day, which must be the same day that I registered.
I was also told that I could go to the Volunteer Center office in the same building as Division 63 when I was done, to get the paperwork I'd need to take back to the cashier at Division 63. Thanks!, I thought. That'll save me some trouble.
Four days of work missed. So far.
A few days later I went to the nearest CalTrans location at 6:15am. I waited in a long line. At 6:30 the CalTrans employees showed up. After a while one of them called for anyone who had paperwork. I went over to him. He told me I couldn't work because I didn't have "hard-toed shoes." Ha ha. Tricked again. I didn't even own any. I'd have to go buy a pair, and come back another day.
Five days of work missed, and it's still not over.
I went back two days later, in hard-toed shoes. I waited in line. It was 7:30 by the time I got to the front and could see the small hand-written sign that says "You must have ID, work boots, and a lunch to work." I had ID, and I was in long pants so they couldn't see that my hard-toed shoes were not actually work boots. But I hadn't brought a lunch. Ha ha.
However, there was one other guy without a lunch, so I went ahead and signed in, hoping they wouldn't notice. I knew I'd be in bad shape by the end of the day if I didn't have lunch, but I decided to deal with it. I didn't want to have to come back yet again.
In case you were wondering, most of the people there for their community service were Black or Latino.
Eight of us-- six men, two women-- piled into a van. Someone came up to the van and took the two women to "clean the building." The two guys behind me in the van complained about them "taking our bitches." Kids these days.
We were taken to a couple of freeway off ramps where we hoed weeds. We were allowed to buy lunch at a local Mexican food stand (whew!). Some of the guys got beers, and snuck away to drink them. The guy who had no lunch just slept for the hour.
We didn't work a full eight hours, and thank goodness, because as it was I had a sore back and arms, and was dirty and exhausted.
We went back to the CalTrans yard. I asked for proof that I had worked, and was told that it had been faxed over to the office.
Six days of work missed, but I was nearly done.
On April 9 I went back to the courthouse. I waited in the back of a long line to get in. I didn't know where to find the Volunteer Center (the paper had the street address of the courthouse, but no room or window number). I was directed to Window 9 on the second floor.
On this day there were hundreds of people waiting for the few elevators, some of which waited inexplicably at the upper floors for minutes on end. What was going on up there?
Now, before I go on, I must admit that by this time I was feeling like I had been deliberately messed with. Probably it's just never occured to anyone to change "you must appear by" to "you must make an appointment by." Probably it's just never occurred to a single person ever in the entire Court system that they could tell people to save time by going to the official inspection station before their initial Court date. Probably the woman at Window Number Whatever had simply never been instructed to mention to people that one of the Volunteer Center locations on that long list happened to be right down the hall, and open right now. Probably the woman at the Volunteer Center somehow didn't know that work boots and a lunch were required to do the work for CalTrans that she was directing people to. And so on. But it felt like I was being abused and taunted, like I had been subjected to a long series of sadistic practical jokes, and like I was simply helpless to do anything about it.
I was in line at Window 9 (Volunteer Center) for proof that I'd done my community service (CalTrans), that I could then take back to Division 63 at another window, when I spotted an electronic sign explaining that it isn't the Volunteer Center's responsibility if I don't have paperwork showing that I had done the CalTrans community service.
I had no paperwork. I thought Window 9 had the paperwork and that they were going to give it to me. I nearly wept in frustration. They had saved the best trick for last.
But then I heard a guy at the window say, "They faxed it over" and I breathed a great big sigh of relief. I said the same thing when it was my turn.
But CalTrans had faxed my paperwork over to the other Volunteer Center location, where I had signed up. Ha ha. And they don't answer the phone over there until 10am. "Take a seat."
An hour later they called my name. I got my papers, and I headed for the cashier at Division 63. The line wasn't long. A cashier stamped my papers, and said, "You're done."
Finally it was over. A few hundred dollars and seven days of work missed.
I guess the moral of this story is: Littering is not for sissies!-- but maybe you can find other ones. (Hint: imagine what a nightmare this ordeal would have been for someone with less money, or less ability to miss work.)
A few days after it was all over, I got to thinking: I had gone from A (the Court) to B (the Volunteer Center) to C (CalTrans), then back to B, then back to A. ABCBA.
It looks like the Volunteer Center is acting as a "cutout," only involved in order to disguise the relationship between the Court and CalTrans.
Volunteer Center? I didn't volunteer. I got sentenced. To CalTrans. Like everyone else. Or so it sure seemed.
Is the Volunteer Center acting as a cutout because the State isn't actually allowed to use forced hard labor as part of the punishment for a crime? (And if you don't think it is hard labor, I can only suggest that you go ahead and hoe weeds in the hot sun for a day so you'll be sure.) Do they use the Volunteer Center as a cutout so that offenders can be sentenced to “community service” and then plausibly be said to have "volunteered" for hard labor?
But what would be in it for the Court? Why would they be involved in a scam like that?
Maybe there is no legitimate place to put all the people that get "community service," not enough schools, hospitals, and other social welfare organizations that can use some help. Maybe without CalTrans the Court would have precious little to do with all those people.
Maybe. But not likely. Everyone was funneled right through. As far as I could tell no one is asked if they have any skills before it has already been determined that they are going to CalTrans. Perhaps you can do something else if you lie to the Judge when she asks if you're healthy and if there's anything wrong with you. I don't know. I didn't think of doing that.
A final thought: There were probably a hundred people at my CalTrans location. How many locations are there state-wide? Ten? A hundred? Are there thousands of "volunteers" laboring for CalTrans every day? How many people do not have jobs because CalTrans has all that free labor?