Thursday, February 18, 2010

I was in Hillsborough County traffic court last night on the 6:00PM docket. My case was one of the last few called so I got to see several cases go before mine. One in particular stands out. I don't recall the names involved.

A man and his friend were seated behind me and to my left. One of them was called to the lecturn. His hearing was about a couple of tickets for infractions committed during an incident that had occurred in 2005. He had been stopped for speeding and at some point during the stop, chose to take his chances with running. Evidently there'd been a number of charges stemming from this incident, some of which he'd spent 28 months in prison for. This hearing was for the last two remaining citations. They were for driving on the wrong side of the road and crossing a median to do so. This man maintained that he did not, in fact, do these things. When given an opportunity to cross examine the citing officer he started out okay, but ultimately his anger got the better of him and he got loud and argumentative. His friend was having a lot of difficulty containing himself and ended up leaving the courtroom (maybe he realized that his emotions couldn't help his friend). The hearing officer did a reasonable job of keeping the defendant calm enough and the officer did an admirable job of not engaging too much in the argument. As the case proceeded, it became fairly clear that this guy was not convincing the court of his innocence and was being a rather poor character witness for himself in the process. Despite all of this the hearing officer checked with the arresting officer to see if he had any recommendations for sentencing. The arresting officer deferred to the court for its decision.

Our hero, recognizing that he's about to be sentenced, started running his mouth again about the fines for the speeding ticket, plus the jail time he'd already served and then the fines he had to pay for the DUI (which had not even come up until this point). Bringing up that he'd already been found guilty of DUI couldn't have done the veracity of his testimony any favors in the eyes of the court. The hearing officer, firmly but politely told the man to stop, that this was not helping his case at all. Despite all of the drama and thinly veiled anger with authority that this man demonstrated, the hearing officer chose to withhold adjudication on the offences that he was charged with. This would prevent these tickets from adding any additional time to the suspension of his license. Between fines and court costs, he was given an opportunity to close the door on that unpleasant chapter of his life for about $350. As he left the courtroom, it was abundantly clear that he was not seeing this as a positive outcome, and I found myself hoping that he'd alter his perspective on things. About twenty minutes went by between him leaving the courtroom and my case being dismissed. As I walked out there were five or six law enforcement vehicles from various agencies out front. A close look revealed that the man who'd just seen some mercy from the court was in the back of one of them. I don't know what he did to land back there, but it doesn't take a whole lot of imagination to guess that he probably tried to engage the officer verbally and ended up under arrest.

I have conflicting feelings about what I saw last night. I don't know if it would have been possible to show this man what he was so clearly unable to see. To show him that his own actions put him where he was, to show him that despite his hostile attitude, the court really was making an effort to show him some leniency, to show him that he had a real opportunity to make a choice about what the future was going to be like. We all have the ability to decide what we're willing to accept for our own futures. Too few of us make a conscious decision to maintain better control of our destinies, but it really can be that simple. To decide that, to whatever extent you're capable, you will ensure that you don't put yourself into ridiculous circumstances, that you won't compromise your own integrity, or that you will hold yourself to a higher standard is a commitment that can be deliberately made. Whether or not this is process can be triggered by another person is unknown to me. I recall a specific night, in my teens, during which I decided that my life was not going to be out of control and that I was going to be a better person than I was that night. I was fortunate to have this epiphany at a young age and I've been successful in keeping that promise to myself.

We certainly don't have the ability to control every aspect of our lives. Assuming responsibility for how we wield the control that we do have, however, can make a huge difference in how we live our lives and where on the spectrum we might find ourselves on a "bad day". I sincerely hope that yesterday turns out to be a turning point for the man in the back of the cop car.

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