We see lots of courtroom scenes on TV, but we never know what it's really like until we've been there.
The other day I was there.
In early February I got a ticket in Pasadena for running a red light. Inadvertently. I signed the ticket and got my copy, which said that in a few days I would receive instructions for posting bail by mail. I waited anxiously for the notice.
Several days later it came. It said bail was $64. I could pay it by placing a check in the enclosed addressed envelope and mailing it.
I wrote a check for $64, put it in the envelope, sealed it, and put it out on our mail box for the postman to pick up, as usual.
Then, several weeks later, on April 1, I received another letter from the Pasadena Municipal Court. It said I had failed to post bail. A warrant had been issued for my arrest. Bail was now $178. If I wanted a hearing I would have to present myself at the Pasadena Municipal Court before 8:30 a.m. on any weekday.
I asked my wife if she remembered my writing the check. She did. She looked it up in her checkbook. It had been entered on Feb. 13--$64 to the Clerk of the Pasadena Municipal Court. My wife made a copy of that page on our machine.
The next morning I was at the Pasadena courthouse at 8:10 a.m., armed with the evidence.
There was a line of about 80 people at the bail window. I got in it. About 8:20 a young woman came down the line asking for anyone who wanted a court hearing. I gave her my notice. She said to go into the court when it opened and wait for my name to be called.
At 8:30 the doors opened and I went in and sat down. The room began to fill. Nothing happened until 9 a.m. Then the bailiff made a talk, telling us what to expect and what our rights were, and the public defender told those who wanted his services what to do. He made it plain that he did not take traffic cases.
A woman sitting next to me said, "He looks like he hates his job."
A 19-inch TV set stood in front of the court, facing the crowd of defendants. The bailiff turned it on. It was a video talk by the judge--Commissioner Kevil Martin, actually--explaining the procedures of the court and our options. He said if we failed to keep any appointments to appear in court, "the next time you come in here you will be in handcuffs."
I was intimidated.
At 9:17 the commissioner came in.
The bailiff said, "Please rise. This court is now in session."
The commissioner ran through several cases, dealing with each rapidly and with occasional jocularity.
He called my name at 9:45. I walked through the gate to the counsel table. I told him that I was not there to contest the citation, but to say that I had paid the fine by mail.
"I wrote the check on March 13," I told him. "I have a record of it here. In my wife's checkbook."
He looked at my file. He said I was supposed to have paid it by March 3.
I was baffled. I told him I had sent the check the day after I had received the notice.
He said, "Well, we're not responsible for the U.S. mails."
He noted that the original fine had been $64; he added $50 for failure to appear, and a couple of other charges I didn't hear. It came to $156.
He told me to sit down and wait. I sat down, wondering how I had blown it. I looked at the copy of the page from my wife's checkbook. I saw what the problem was. I had told the court I'd written the check on March 13. Actually, I had written it on Feb. 13.
I stood and said, "Your honor, may I say something?"
He looked startled by this breach of decorum. He blinked. Before he could admonish me I said, "I have just checked my record. I wrote that check on Feb. 13, not March 13. So there was plenty of time."
His judgment had already been rendered. He said, "Well, we didn't get it. We are not responsible for the U.S. mails."
Out in the hall I waited for my name to be called at a bail window. At 10:17 I was called. I made out a check for $156 to the court and the young woman gave me a machine receipt. It was unreadable. She penned in the figures and told me that in 72 hours the warrant would be out of the system. Meanwhile, I had to drive the Pasadena streets, knowing they were looking for me, with handcuffs.
Considering my blunder on the date, I can't blame the commissioner. He hears a lot of liars. But he didn't even ask to see the page from my wife's checkbook. Certainly he wouldn't have disbelieved her.
Also, I think he was wrong to assume that my check went astray in the U.S. mails. What about the court clerk's office?
I think he believed that I wrote the check. If so, it proved good faith. I deserved at least a dismissal of the $50 fine for failure to respond.
I haven't told my wife about my blunder yet.
I'd almost rather be handcuffed.