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Looking for justice within Austin city limits

I walked into the court house and immediately made eye contact with a police officer, who may or may not be the reason I’m here. He looked vaguely familiar. Neither of us smiled. Our stare lasted longer than it should have, and I thought, He remembers me, which fueled my rage over the 10-minute traffic stop that had grown into a three-month ordeal. I thought about it all the time. I wasn’t going to back down. As I locked eyes with the officer, I knew my preoccupation had become unhealthy: I was giving him the stink eye.

* * * * *

My journey through the maze of small-town justice began late one night in September as I left the home of a friend, where I had been watching her baby while she finished her homework.

Other than our jobs waiting tables at a burger joint in Cabot, Luci and I might never have met. Our lives were so different.

I spent my cash on weekend visits to my boyfriend in Missouri. Luci spent hers on diapers.

I pondered all of this on my drive home. I was five months into an unfruitful job hunt, journalism degree practically stapled to my shirt, throwing a pity-party-for-one each time a rejection dropped into to my email inbox. In the meantime, I made myself comfortable in my parents’ home rent-free.

I waited tables to build a savings. Luci waited tables to provide for her son.

In an earnest effort to keep life in perspective, I decided to drive the pity party home the back way, a decision with much greater consequence than adding a few miles to my route.

I crossed from Cabot into Austin and approached the four-way stop in the middle of town, right across from city hall.

A police officer was parked at the gas station, his squad car nose to nose with a pickup. A man ~ the owner of the truck, I assumed ~ was leaning into the window on the driver’s side.

How quaint. Small-town life on this late-night drive home.

I glanced at my dash to see that I was well within the speed limit, relieved that I didn’t have to slam on my brakes at the sight of a police officer.

I stopped at the stop sign, a full complete stop. I’m sure of it. Then I turned left, and as I turned, I looked to my left. The officer and the window-leaner were staring me down, which made me uneasy, but I shrugged it off.

Then the officer drove out of the gas station parking lot.

I wasn’t speeding. Maybe one of my tail lights was out. Maybe he was trolling for drunk drivers.

I kept driving.

A minute later, his blue lights lit up my rearview mirror.

It was 10:45 p.m., the road was deserted, and I have seen too many scary movies.

I called my dad.

“Hey, will you just stay on speaker phone?” I asked him. “A cop is pulling me over, and I have no idea why.”

I dropped the phone into my lap. My heart raced.

I squinted out the window. The officer’s spotlight hit my mirrors, and I couldn’t see anything. I opened my window a crack.

When I saw that he was a real police officer, my fear turned to frustration.

“Why did you pull me over?” I blurted in a tone that wasn’t exactly respectful.

“You didn’t stop at that intersection back there, ma’am. You did more of a yield. Not a complete stop.”

Didn’t stop! I knew I stopped. Maybe on another day, I wouldn’t have stopped completely, but on this night, I was fully aware that a police officer was watching me carefully. I could see him plainly, and I assumed he could see me. Of course, I stopped.

And who is this cop to stop me in my own hometown? I’m sure I’ve lived here longer than he has. My mom and dad taught me how to drive on these roads. I drove my old black Chevy Blazer to high school along these windy roads every morning for two years.

I know the curves. I know which cop cars are decoys, and which ones are manned. I know my neighbors. I know the speed limits. I know the intersections. I know the shortcuts and the long ways home.

And I absolutely know better than to coast through a stop sign with a police officer watching.

I handed over my license and registration. I was driving my parents’ car, however, and the insurance papers in the glove box all were expired. I searched the console and every nook and cranny for what seemed like 10 minutes. From the phone in my lap, I could hear my parents’ voices.

“I’ll email you the digital version,” my dad said.

But it never came.

So the officer added that to my ticket ~ I gripped the steering wheel tighter.

The next day, we found the digital policy email in the spam folder.

Hot tears rolled down my cheeks as I drove home. My face burned. I was angry and embarrassed.

* * * * *

As soon as I arrived home, my mother and I began to plot my defense. There was no chance I was going to pull $160 from my savings to pay this ticket. I could use that money for a car payment, a few trips to Missouri, or, my boyfriend reminded me, a couple pairs of really nice jeans.

I dreamed of wowing the judge with giant Google Earth images of the intersection pasted onto poster boards, matchbox cars glued to the images to prove there was no way the officer could have seen whether or not I had stopped. I pictured myself in front of a jury, the mistaken and disgraced police officer shrinking into a corner, sorry that he messed with me.

I would leave the court house victorious and greet reporters on the street. “It was nothing,” I would tell them. “I’m just your average girl-next-door with a hunger for justice.”

I’d smile for a few cameras, then slide into the back seat of a black town car, and ride down the street to Johnson’s Tasty Freeze where they’d already named a milkshake after me.

My original court date fell during the second week of October, the first week of my new job and a month after the traffic stop. (I’d finally landed a journalism job.)

So I asked for a later date, and a clerk at the courthouse pushed it back to November. Suddenly this pitiful late-night drive in September had nosed its way into a quarter of my year.

On November 15 at 10 in the morning, I showed up to plead my case, birds-eye Google Earth shots of the intersection in hand. My big dreams of pantsuits and a jury had shrunk to two sheets of computer paper with big red arrows I’d drawn with a Sharpie.

But even those efforts were for nothing at this appearance. This wasn’t the trial. The judge told me to plead guilty or not guilty. I pleaded not guilty, crammed the papers into my purse, and went home, scheduled to return and defend myself on December 12.

* * * * *

Three months after the alleged yield, and there I was, sitting in what passed for Austin’s court house. It’s a room with about 20 chairs, two rectangular tables, a judge, and two clerks.

Court was scheduled to start at 5 p.m. My boss wished me luck as I left. He knew all the details. I’d been complaining about the ticket for as long as he’d known me.

I arrived at 4:15, sat in the car until 4:30, then I tried the doors to the courthouse.

“You here for court, ma’am?” a public works employee asked me. “Those doors are still locked. You can go sit inside the office. Kinda boring in there, but at least it’s warm.”

“I’ll just sit in my car. Thank you, sir.”

I got back in my Chevy and cranked up the heater. I pulled out the printed screen shots I had shoved into my purse back in November. I smoothed the wrinkled paper and rehearsed my speech:

Your honor, the officer’s car was facing the other direction and there was a man leaning in his window. I don’t understand how he could have seen whether I stopped at the intersection.

This is the Google Earth image I printed and on which I painstakingly marked with my red Sharpie the approximate location of the police car and my car at the intersection where I allegedly failed to stop. This image, I was certain, would clear my reputation.

I was nervous, but determined to leave the court room with a clean record and an affordable car-insurance premium.

Four-forty-fivish, I wiped my clammy hands on my jeans and walked toward the building again. I walked through the unlocked doors, and that’s where I stunk-eyed the cop ~ he needed to know I meant business. I sat in the row of chairs closest to the judge.

My dad and sister, who had come along for support, sat behind me.

“It’s better than TV,” my dad said and laughed.

The courtroom was freezing. Maybe it was my nerves.

The heater in the tiny bathroom was the only refuge from the cold, but the heater fan provided no cover for the noises that emanated from inside. At least half of us took a turn, and emerged red-faced and shoe-gazing, avoiding contact with all eyes.

By the end of the session, we all knew each other a little better

As the short hand creeped closer to the five, the room filled up.

About 20 people packed into the court room, and most of them looked more worried than a hundred-sixty-dollar ticket.

Some clearly were first timers, and others clearly were not. Almost everyone had brought a parent, a child, or a friend.

Three lawyers walked in and out of the courtroom. The two defense attorneys wore suits that were too big and poorly pressed. All three wore black, crocodile-skin cowboy boots.

The Bad Suits talked too loudly about things I didn’t want to know, such as dog-washing schedules. They laughed raucously, not seeming to care that anyone else was in the room.

The third man was the city attorney. His suit fit well, and he looked purposed. He was handsome and seemed busy, not pausing for small talk with the other lawyers.

He worked his way down the docket sheet, calling each of the accused over to him. They spoke in whispers, and he listened intently to each story, nodding reassuringly, occasionally patting one on the back.

I didn’t have to strain my ears to hear every word.

By the time Handsome had called all the names on the docket, it was well past 5. But Handsome never called my name.

My hands were sweating again.

“Are you sure today is your date?” my dad whispered.

I checked my paperwork. Yep.

The judge walked in, and we all stood. He chuckled a little. I’m not sure why.

Everyone in the room took his turn in front of the judge, who seemed fair and somewhat lenient. I was hopeful.

Finally, Handsome approached me and whisper-asked me for my name.

I told him and showed him my ticket. Like me and everyone else who had tried to decipher the handwriting, he declared the officer’s name illegible.

“A few officers have left the department,” Handsome whispered. “The one who wrote you this ticket may not work here anymore.”

I had heard of turmoil in the Austin police department. The mayor had recently fired the police chief, a few officers had quit.

Handsome went to the front of the room and spoke to two officers, including the victim of my stink-eye. (For the record, I completely respect police officers, including the one who stopped me. I just knew that, this time, he was mistaken.)

They shook their heads and chuckled.

“There ya go,” my dad whispered. “He’s gone.”

Handsome came back.

“This officer is no longer with the department. I’ll recommend to the judge that we drop the ticket.”

So there I was, standing in front of Judge Joe O’Brian with Handsome speaking on my behalf.

The city was not interested, Handsome told the judge, in pursuing my case.

The judge nodded and dismissed my ticket. I thanked Handsome, signed the paperwork, and walked out into the cold December night, slightly deflated.

I had been ready to rumble, and my opponent had forfeited. I wasn’t even on the docket.

What a waste of worry.

This worry that had run through my head every day for the last three months had been so insignificant to my accusers that they had forgotten it. it had been forgotten.

* * * * *

The night of the ticket I called Luci and told her all about it. She was almost as mad as I was, like any good friend out to be.

Since we both have quit the burger joint we rarely talk.

We have a dinner planned for this weekend and I’ll tell her about my noble fight that never was. I imagine she’ll laugh hard until she has to lean back on the couch and take a deep breath.

And then we’ll watch TV and play with her son and worry about the real stuff.

Not stink eyes or traffic tickets or handsome attorneys.

But, seriously, the judge at least could have looked at my diagrams. I printed two full pages ~ in color, for goodness sake.

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