Culture

7 Lessons Learned Watching People Ahead of Me in Court

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I contested a speeding ticket last week, and I’m at least 40 percent sure I won.

In an effort to drive up that estimate, I have been taking inventory of the countless intangibles I gained from the experience—wisdom gleaned, insights uncovered, dark arts of the law illumined—and am proud to pronounce myself the undisputed envy of anyone who hasn’t been to court lately. To mollify your jealousy, and maybe to toss a rope to my fellow accused (you could be next!), here are seven lessons I plundered from my (alleged) blunder.

1. The Opposition Is an Expert (and a Person).

When the genuinely kind prosecutor cringes at your declining her plea offer, you have chosen poorly. Consider the incident of the optimistic young lady sitting behind me. Like me, she had arrived early (though not as early) and had vicariously watched the pre-session dramaturgy unfold around our compatriots.

First, Madame Prosecutor, separated by a varnished oaken bar, quietly approaches the accused. In hushed tones, with a cadence faintly rising, as though half-declaring, half questioning, she relays a charge. The accused meekly nods. Then the prosecutor’s eyes reach into Everyman’s—your—file and, softened by the mercy found there, return to your pitiful face to offer you less than you want, but more than you deserve, in exchange for your guilty plea. Suddenly the tedious argument you’ve been saving for this moment turns to sand, like your courage. You accept what the gods have meted, and you begin persuading yourself that resistance was folly, what a great deal you got, and that it’s really so much better this way. . . .

I lived the same sequence five times before starring in it. The young lady after me, though, must have thought me spineless (or else a real criminal). When the prosecutor offered to toss one of three charges against her, she doubled down on her case of he-said/she-said. The prosecutor, thrown off-kilter by her effrontery, revised her offer, promising to drop two of the charges. Take it! Take it! we in the gallery silently screamed.

But it was not to be. I admired the youth’s pluck in throwing this, too, to the dogs—the way I admire Hector for answering Achilles’ bellicose taunts, right before he is slaughtered. As the accused returned to her seat, genuine pity swept over the prosecutor’s face, the last mercy the girl would receive.

2. The Gideon Rule Exists for a Reason.

As I studied Madame’s visage, I was transported to the scene of a favorite U.S. Supreme Court case I used to teach: Gideon v. Wainwright (1963). Convicted of petty larceny after poorly representing himself, Clarence Earl Gideon, who could afford no lawyer, petitioned SCOTUS on the grounds that his Sixth Amendment right to counsel had been violated. In the Court’s opinion, Justice Hugo Black argued that the government’s hiring of prosecutors is the strongest indication that “lawyers in criminal court cases are necessities, not luxuries.” Hence, “if you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.” Gideon prevailed at his retrial.

What this means for folks like me, who freely choose to represent themselves, is that even educated laymen are probably fairly ignorant of how to leverage the law in open court against an expert opponent. My case rested on four reasons to doubt the accuracy of my speeding ticket. Nevertheless, thanks to Justice Black, I little trusted myself to beat the rap as a layman. After all, the Gideon Rule exists for a reason.

3. Lawyers > Suits > Lunch.

One thing more about defendants with lawyers: they are served first. If you can’t afford a lawyer, buy a suit. If you can’t afford a suit, cancel the day’s appointments and bring K-rations to share, because you’ll be there all day. When one timid defendant asked counsel why he was still standing up, I overheard him whisper that as long as he stood fidgeting near the bar, the court would think him in a hurry and frontload his case.

Shrewd, Mr. Mason, very shrewd.

Wearing a suit myself, I was initially mistaken by the bailiff for a lawyer, then was queued first in line behind lawyered-up defendants. (The distinction loses glitz when read in print.)

4. To Whom It May Concern: Hydrate.

If you, like a pair sitting to my right, enter the courthouse to self-administer a drug test, drink (water) before you pass through security. All will “go” faster for you than it did for the fair-haired innocents who asked for a water bottle and were politely refused. Next subject, please.

5. Ask for the Red-and-Blue Light Special.

Have yourself a bit of a financial situation? Mention it for her Honor’s consideration. In the first 45 minutes of court, I witnessed forgiveness of fines in the aggregate of $3,000 and jail-time suspensions of more than two years. These concessions almost always followed the judge’s query about the accused’s state of employment.

(In one Walter Mitty-esque moment, I imagined her ordering me to the bench to tell her more about my editing company. After marveling at my fancy business card, she called a recess and summoned the prosecutor and me to chambers, where we sipped Johnny Walker Blue and joked at the bailiff’s expense.)

6. Prepare for a Pyrrhic Victory.

“If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.” – General Pyrrhus of Epirus

If you took a deal, then you practically won. Now pay up. For anyone hoping to follow my upright example of (allegedly) speeding and then arguing about it, wait until I explain my twisted calculus. Had I simply written a check when I was cited, the cost of driving 54 mph in a 40 mph zone would have been $145. But I contested this, hoping for an outright dismissal at no charge (which I’ve enjoyed once before). When no dismissal came, I spliced hands with the prosecutor. The judge blessed the swap of my 54/40 “point violation,” and my dignity, for a 44/40 “no-point violation,” slashing my fine to $50. To this she added $120 in court fees and $10 for the prosecutor’s lunch, bringing my total to $180—a full $35 more than the uncontested ticket.

But even that was good news. Statistics say that had the point violation stuck, my insurance premiums would have increased 16 to 20 percent and stayed there for one to six years. By contesting, I “saved” between $120 and $990.

7. Do What You Know You Should.

Victory is mine. May I never see another like it.

As my wife gently reminds me whenever I brag of my spoils, I would have saved a chunk of change (and time) by getting my head out of the clouds and slowing the heck down. That, I’m afraid, is the unspinnable truth. And although my saying it plays right into the court’s hands: lesson learned. At least, until next time.

*****

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