Sunday, February 1, 2009

Criminal ennui

so, I don't really expect you to read all of this, unless you're bored. Really bored. If you're related to me, you've probably heard this before, and will be excused from bothering to read it. Although, this is the unexpurgated version - it just wouldn't hold your attention if it was this long when I told it.

Mom told me about the legal trials & tribulations for one of her co-workers this week ....

I was inspired to recall my own brush with the law ... it's long, but it makes a great party story ...

Long ago (1994) and far away (Kalkaska, Michigan), there lived a young woman (28) who was born with the burden of being named Smith. Not her first name, obviously, but her last. One day she got married and foolishly didn’t bother to legally change her name. This is a story about her.

One day, I went to Kalamazoo to teach a class; the former resident of my house went south to Cincinnati to teach a different class. I had made plans to go skiing at Lake Charlevoix with my friend Sean Patrick, not to be confused with my brother Sean Robert. Unfortunately, the Fates had not placed this into my life’s weave on their loom.

I left the lovely city of Kalamazoo later than I had planned, and drove northwards into the darkness of night, into the hinterlands of western Michigan. I drove and drove. I drove further and further. The night got later and later. Eventually, I realized I would need to stop for gas. I needed sleep, too; in lieu of sleep, I figured any gas station would have coffee of some sort. I hoped.

I saw the blinking yellow light first. Then my brain kicked in with the slow-motion-time-lapse memory of having just passed the sign “Reduce Speed Head 45 mph” while going waaaay more than 45. A split second later, my brain was catching up to realize the 2nd blinking yellow light was ahead of me, immediately followed by another sign: “Reduce Speed Ahead 35 mph”.

I hadn’t even slowed down at the first light. Hell, I hadn't even seen it. I hadn't gotten to the 2nd light. There wasn’t another car in sight. What to do?

Quick, look in the rear-view mirror. No one there. Slam on the brakes. Look both ways as I slowed down going through the 2nd light. At the far side of the 2nd intersection I was doing a nice, sedate 35 mph.

So was the police car immediately behind me. With its lights on.

“License, registration and proof of insurance”. A caricature of a rural sheriff, a big belly, brown uniform, and a flat-brim Smokey the Bear hat, he was also presenting the caricature of a big-time bad-ass police officer. Oh, god, I thought. At least my license plates were valid. I hand over the required documents.

At this point, I should mention, the soiree in Kalamazoo was for the Society for Creative Anachronism. This tale underscores the necessity to wear normal clothes when driving away from their events.

I waited.

Deputy came back, looked confused, and asked “Did you know your license was suspended?” Suspended?

“No, sir.”

“Miss, If you lie to me now, it’ll just go worse for you later.” A very patronizing warning in his voice. Now is when I panicked. I did manage to refrain from waving my gold ring in his face.

“Sir, I’m not lying. You asked if I knew it was suspended. No, I don’t know - If you say it’s suspended, I believe you. But I didn’t know!”

“How could you not know? The Secretary of State mails out notices when they do this.”

“I moved twice in the past 6 months. They probably did send me a notice. If I'd gotten it, I would have fixed it!”

He looked confused and went back to his car.

I waited.

He eventually walked back. Do you know there are those moments in life where, in retrospect, you recall the strangest things? His holster was open.

“Step out of the car.” Um, perhaps now is when I actually panicked. “Take your purse,” was said in the most patronizingly offensive tone of voice, where I expected him to add “or whatever girly things you’ve got.” I remained calm enough to a) make sure my epilepsy medication was in my purse, b) make sure my wallet was put back into my purse, and c) grab the piece of paper with Sean Patrick’s phone number.

I stepped out of the car; he took my purse without asking, put it on the roof of my car, and told me to “turn around, put your hands on the car, feet apart.” Panic not only arrived, it set up housekeeping. I’m in the middle of Nowhere, Michigan, and there is not a single soul on the face of God’s Green Earth who even knows where I am.

I get handcuffed. I get escorted to the back of the sheriff’s car, and put in the back seat. Did you know the back seats of police cars aren’t flat? They’re tipped back, so that when you sit down, your bottom is lower than your knees. Making it practically impossible to get out. It also leaves you leaning against the handcuffs, which is rather uncomfortable.

We finally get to the police station. They take my personal belongings. I get photographed. I get fingerprinted. I get escorted back to the counter. There were 3 or 4 people standing about 20 feet away from me, looking at some papers. It was a rather long print-out from an old dot-matrix printer - the kind with the running holes on the sides for the paper feeder. They looked at it; they looked at me; they looked at it; they looked at me.

They asked me the basic information one would expect the police to have: Where were you born? Date of Birth? Mother’s maiden name? How tall are you? 5’7” Color of eyes? Green How much do you weigh? .... um ... “Do you want to know how much I actually weigh, or do you want to know what my driver’s license says?” The three men looked completely unamused; the one woman rather quickly smothered a grin. “160, I think, I don’t know how much I weigh!” The questions went on.

I always figured getting interrogated by the police would involve some sterile room with straight-backed 1960s government surplus chairs and a battered linoleum table with cigarette burns. Nope, I was standing in the foyer of the police station, leaning on a counter top, staring across their office area, across at least 2 desks, at a little cluster of police officers. Eventually, I begged them, “What is it? Can you tell me what you want to know? What is wrong?” Aside from it being after midnight in a police station desperately wanting some coffee, rather than sitting in front of Sean’s fireplace drinking whiskey. One of them finally walked over, placed the print-out on the counter, and said, “this is your criminal record.” My what?

It started in 1982 or so, maybe earlier. I looked at it in stunned disbelief. DUI. DUI. Wanted - Felony. Speeding. Something else. Expired plates. Expired plates. Speeding, Wanted - Felony. The list was rather extensive. Of course, I thought, this can’t possibly be me. I looked at the top of the page, where it had the name, address, etc. etc. Only this one listed my name, my married name, and 3 others I’d never seen before.

I must have had a totally panicked look on my face. I pointed at the list of crimes (both vehicular and criminal), ran my finger down the first 4 or 5 and said “these aren’t mine. I didn’t live in Michigan until 1987, I lived in West Virginia; I didn’t even have a license until 1986; I didn’t have a Michigan license until 1989, ... umm ... this is mine, this is mine, this is mine (several invalid plates, a speeding ticket, another problem, followed by the newest, the suspended license which apparently grabbed all this attention)." I figured it might make my case more believable if I fessed up to the things that were actually mine. "Please, you’ve got to believe me, these aren’t mine! These names aren’t mine! - I didn’t change my name after getting married, but I’ve used it, that’s it, but not these others! Please believe me!”

The middle-aged sheriff’s deputy looked at me with pitiful eyes. He said, “Yes, we think these are two different people,” my mind briefly relaxed, “but we’re not sure which one you are.”

I finally got them to let me call my poor friend Sean Patrick. Who else would I call? No one knew where I was ... everyone I knew was in either Kalamazoo or Cincinnati. Of course, the phone is out-going collect calls only. “I’d like to place a collect call to 616-555-1234,” and the operator cuts in, says “Please hold” and leaves me on hold. About 1 minute later, she comes on and says, “I’m sorry, but they’ve refused the charges.”

Finally someone I can be mad at! “Of course they did! You didn’t tell them who’s calling. You need to give them my name!” ‘Please hold’ ... beee beee beee ...

“Elizabeth, what are you doing in a correctional facility?”

Rarely has a man’s voice sounded so sweet.

I finally broke down. ... there’s some problem with my license ... they think I’m a wanted felon ... can you please come bail me out of jail in the morning? Please? We discussed what to do, if the police wouldn’t let me go. I was still in panic mode. Sean, not being in jail and not being a potential felon, was much calmer. Fate might be a Grade A Bitch at times, but she’s got a nasty sense of humor. If there was one person in the whole state I would have called in that hypothetical situation, it would have been Sean. Or rather, Sean’s father, the successful criminal attorney.

I got to spend the night in jail, watching the drunks roll in and roll out. It was cold. It was really psychologically uncomfortable having no control over who went in or out. At least the women seemed to be more resigned than some of the men in the other cell.

The morning came. Eventually someone told me I’m being released. Ah, sweet hosannas and hallelujahs!

I find myself standing at the same counter again, only this time there’s much more activity than at 12 or 1 a.m. I wait for them to finish doing whatever it is they were doing. On the countertop, there sat a 2” thick pile of paper, the top sheet of which was an 8.5x11” photocopy of a head-shot photograph of a woman, with her description hand-written below it. Female, white, brown hair, brown eyes, 5’6”, 150 lb., .... this was her.

I was terrified. She looked just like me.

If that cop had had that photograph in his hand, he would have arrested me.

I signed whatever they put in front of me, nodded when instructed to get my tickets paid (you didn't think I'd get out of being ticketed for driving through a light without a license?), grabbed my purse, and managed to refrain from throwing myself into Sean’s arms in sheer relief.


No. Are you kidding?

Did I have my car? No! My license was suspended! My poor little car was left in Kalkaska. Sean took me up to his family’s ‘cabin’. Skiing did not occur.

What had happened? How did I wind up in the Twilight Zone? One of the policemen offered as a suggestion: the State Police Records Unit had decided to digitize its records. So, they transferred everyone’s record into a computer. Given that my name was Smith, and one of the names used by the Other Woman was Smith, perhaps the computer merged our two records? What Kalkaska Co.'s Sheriff’s office did was to have the records office look up all of the names listed on the aliases. Voila! Two women: yours truly and her. Ms. Heidi Rochelle Jenkins, your ass is truly grass if I ever meet you.

but, wait you think: The State Police had some record of me already? Yup.

... 6 months earlier ...

I had a party. Eric had been drinking. Friends don’t let friends drive drunk, right? Hell, yes they do! I offered to drive him home, we’d get his car back the next day. Sure, he probably didn’t really need a ride, but what the hell, that’s what friends are for.

I got off 127 at Trowbridge and waited at the light at Harrison. Right where that big Dairy Mart it. right where MSU Campus starts. Right where an East Lansing police car pulled up behind me. Shit. “What’s wrong?” Eric quite reasonably asks. “My plates are expired.” (I did mention that a few of those ‘citations’ were actually mine ... this is one of them.)

The light turned green, I turned left, the cop turned on his lights. I’m thinking oh, well, the plates are expired. At least I'm not speeding. Ta da! This is why I gave Eric a ride home, right? Still, we were only 3 blocks from Eric’s house!

License, registration, proof of insurance. It would be de ja vu in 6 months.

When asked what I was doing, I stated I was driving my friend home (no mention was made about why I was). The policeman come back and states in a very regretful voice, you’ll need to step out of the car, ma’am. “What’s wrong?” police don't ask you to step our of the car to chat about the weather.

“I’m afraid I’m going to have to arrest you.”

“What!” I screeched at full volume.

“There’s a bench warrant out for your arrest.” Eric looks stunned. I assume I look totally freaked out. The policeman looks really regretful.

“Really, I am sorry.” I get out of the car, and ask if Eric can take it home. I think the cop must have realized why I was driving him, and then said no.

This night's event I will use later as my benchmark experience of “how to get arrested”, being completely unrealistic: this just isn't how people get arrested. Yes, I got handcuffed: with my hands in front of me; the policeman let me sit in the front seat of his car, and was polite and chatted with me on the way to the station, he apologized for arresting me.

I get there, I get photographed & fingerprinted. I call home to get bailed out of jail. I discover the reason for the bench warrant: 6 unpaid parking tickets from the MSU police.

Parking tickets!?

Yup, parking tickets. You’d think that the $250 in parking fines would be an incentive to never repeat this. Yup - it was. But, then again, it was a $250 insurance policy for that Autumn, since the primary reason the Kalkaska cops let me go is that there was proof that I was actually me. A simple absence of any evidence of my identity would have resulted in me staying in jail longer.


No. Are you kidding?

Where was my car? Back in hock in Kalkaska.

Kalkaska lies on US-131, which runs north-south along the western side of Michigan. Conveniently, it’s the “major highway” (which is sort of a euhpemism) in the area - more like the only 4 lane road for miles and miles.

I need my car. I can’t get my car, because my license is suspended pending trial in the same damn city, which won’t be for a couple weeks. I make tons of phone calls, rack up my long distance bill, and finally get straightened out: a friend of mine can pick up my car for me. Graham came down to Lansing 2 or 3 times per month with her boss. They were willing to swing by, pick up my car, and bring it. I was horrified at having to impose upon her boss, an important woman who probably doesn't particularly want to spend an extra hour getting my car out of hock.

They show up at the impound lot at the designated time (before 5, which had required them to leave early). No one’s there. They finally find someone. There’s a snafu about releasing the car to them. Now, mind you, requesting my car was a very tall, very large blonde 30ish woman and a short, salt-and-pepper haired 60ish woman who looked really unprepossessing. There ensues a discussion about the legality of letting them have my car, despite all assurances to me previously.

Did I mention the two women getting my car having this little discussion of legality? Graham Bateman, clerk, and Elizabeth Weaver , Chief Justice of the Michigan State Supreme Court. God, was I embarrassed when I got my car.


Almost. Really, almost.

I still had to get my license back. Did I get behind the wheel of a car in this interlude? Hell, no!

Back to Kalkaska I go, a couple weeks later, to go to traffic court due to the “driving on a suspended license” ticket. But ... I can’t drive myself there. Well, I could, but what would happen if someone wanted to know how I’d gotten there ... um.

“Connell, will you be willing to take a drive up to lovely Traverse City and points north” Connell being the only person I knew at the time who was unemployed and acceptable to a) drive my car and b) occupy my car for the 3 hour drive it would take. For a change, all of my good friends were actually employed. We went up on one day, spent the night with my friend Graham the Lawyer.

I asked for her advice on dealing with the court case the following morning. She & a colleague (not the Justice) offer some really practical bits:

“Did you bring something else to wear to court?” with a look at my blue jeans, sweat shirt and sneakers. “Yes, my business suit is in the car.”
“How did you get up here?” with a look at Connell. “He drove me.”
“Leave him in the hallway outside of court.” with a look at Connell and Connell’s fashion: long hair, battered leather jacket, really ratty jeans, well, sort of like an Irish hooligan, but short and cute.
"If he puts you on parole, ask for ..." I got some very specific phrases to use to make a good impression. I got some very specific things to avoid saying, to make a good impression.

Off to court ...

The docket posted outside the room had everyone’s name and the reason they were there: DUI, DUI, suspended license, suspended ... suspended, Smith Suspended license.

Heeding my lawyers’ advice, I left Connell kicking his heels in the hall. I went in to hear the magistrate’s dispensation of Justice, since I was the last person in the group. I wanted to get an idea of how deep I was in. I had looked up the maximum penalty (which included jail time). Other than the magistrate, the prosecutor, and one attorney, I was the only one in the room wearing a suit. Well, make that a business suit. One fellow looked like he’d just departed work at a automobile workshop. Probably did. But, I would have at least taken the oily coveralls off. Different strokes ...

As an example of my competition in the “criminals are stupid” competition (I'm not even making this one up):

You were arrested for driving on a suspended license, right?
Did you know it was suspended?
Why was it suspended?
Where were you driving?
to the grocery store
How far is the store from your home?
6 blocks
What were you going to buy at the store?
Sentence: Lots of money + days in jail

I’m getting nervous at this point - the judge is passing out pretty steep fines, and a few people got jail time.


You were arrested for driving on a suspended license, right?
did you know it was suspended?
big pause
You didn’t?
Why was it suspended?
Unpaid parking tickets
big pause
Where were you going?
Up north to go skiing with some friends.
Why did you get pulled over?
I explained the traffic light to him.
Did you get all of the other tickets paid & do you have receipts for them?
How did you get here today?
A friend of mine drove me.
Is he here?
He’s in the hallway outside. Should I ask him to come in?

Sentence: the least amount of money possible with the adjuration: don’t let it happen again.

After returning from the Tour of Kalkaska County Jail, Monday 8 a.m. found me standing on the door of the Sec.State with my marriage license to get my name changed.

an amusing side note ...

I was spending Summer vacation with my elder cousins a few years after this escapade. One evening we were chatting, catching up with each other’s lives - due to the usual insanity of life, we haven’t been a particularly close-knit group. I said, in passing something about getting arrested. They were shocked, shocked I tell you. Jay laughs and asks oh, so, slyly: “yeah, but how many times have you been arrested?” My hand rose, holding up 2 fingers.” Everyone looked even more shocked. Except Jay, who looked disappointed; he couldn’t on-up me.

No comments: