When I came into the courtroom, which was already filled with some sixty other offenders, first I was called to a sidebar by the DA. She asked if I had run a red light or if I wanted to plead not guilty and go to court, where the officer who had given me the ticket would give testimony. I told her that I was sure that the light was still yellow, but instead of drawing the conclusion that I should therefore go on trial the DA said: “I can downgrade the violation, so that you won’t get points on your driver’s license.” Now I had to make the decision I had been anticipating. If I took a principled position I would go to court, where the officer would lie that the light had been red, I would lose the case, and receive a much higher fine than if I accepted the DA’s offer, probably increased with the costs of the trial. Obviously the choice was easy, so I told the DA that I would accept her offer. She said that she first had to check if I was eligible for point reduction, and that she would call me back to give me instructions for when I would appear before the judge. After about an hour she called me back, told me that I was eligible, had me sign a paper slip and instructed me to waive my right to a trial and plead guilty before the judge.
In the meantime one after another my fellow offenders were called in front of the judge, pleaded guilty, and received their fines. Knowing that the whole thing would take some time I had brought a Philip Roth book, but when I opened it to start reading a court officer immediately came over and told me that reading was not allowed in the courtroom. Since the court proceedings were not all that fascinating and I wanted to relax I decided to meditate, so I sat upright, closed my eyes and focused on my breathing. Almost immediately I felt a hand on my shoulder and that same officer told me that sleeping was not allowed in the courtroom either. When I told him that I was meditating, not sleeping, he responded that one way or the other I had to keep my eyes open. After he had gone back to his strategic position in the corner of the courtroom I mumbled something derogatory about his kangaroo court rules that made the offender sitting next to me laugh, and the officer came over again, this time to tell me that speaking is not allowed in the courtroom at all. Forbidden to read, meditate or speak I felt like a grounded kindergartner, and could only wait for the judge to call me and get it over with.
When the judge finally called me he had the slip I had signed in front of him, and asked me if I waived my right to a trial, what I confirmed. Then he told me that my offense was ‘reckless driving,’ and asked if I pleaded guilty. Unable to control my anti-authoritarian instincts and pissed off by the treatment I had received from the court officer I said: “I’ve been instructed to say yes.” That didn’t sit well with the judge, who said: “I don’t care what you’ve been instructed, I just want to hear what you say,” to which I responded: “In that case I say yes.” For a moment the judge looked like he was going to hold me in contempt of court, but he probably figured that eventually I had answered his question and let it go.
The penalty I received was a $106 fine, to which the judge added a standard $250 administrative fee and a $33 fee for the receipt I would get. The total came to $389, significantly less than the $85 fine and the $600 increase on my car insurance I would otherwise have had to pay, so in the end it turned out to be a good deal.
The lesson here is that justice in New Jersey is like a fish market, where deals are made without any ethical considerations. The $389 goes to the city, while the $600 would have gone to the state. In kangaroo courts all over the US cities steal from states, and ‘offenders,’ guilty or not, get screwed in the middle.