Tuesday, March 05, 2013
You Don't Have to Turn on the Blue Light!
I'm afraid of the police. I shouldn't be afraid, since I stick pretty close to the speed limit these days. I keep my tags current and my various lights working. I always come to a complete stop at stop signs, and I don't run red lights. In fact, in 20 years of driving, I've only been involved in one accident where I was at fault, and in that one, I was traveling approximately 5 miles per hour and the car in front of me had nothing more than scratches on the bumper. So I'm a pretty safe driver, and my adherence to other laws these days is generally as precise as my adherence to traffic laws.
Driving down the road, though, noticing a police car behind me, I always worry about what might happen. Do my brake lights work? Do my running lights work? Is this guy going to worry about 1 mph over the speed limit? My hands start to shake a little, and I can't stop looking at my speedometer and my rearview mirror. A cop pulled me over once for having an expired tag. The sticker had come loose and fallen off, or someone had physically removed it from my plate. Either way, he pulled me over. I didn't get a ticket, but I had to sit on the side of the road with blue lights flashing behind me. The county police pulled me over twice in one night once for a dead headlight. The light must have just gone out, since I hadn't noticed it yet. Two different police officers in one county for one headlight! Seriously? There are no murders happening that need investigating?
Even if I know I'm obeying all the relevant traffic laws at that moment, I worry that the officer behind me might turn on the blue lights anyway. See, I've had a run-in with the police that never should have happened. I haven't always worried about the speed limit as much as I do now. In fact, I used to have a heavy foot. I got a ticket once from a motorcycle cop who'd set up a speed trap. I wasn't exactly flying, but I was over the speed limit, so I can't reasonably complain. I went to the courthouse to pay my ticket. Shortly after walking up to the payment window and presenting my copy of the ticket, a sherriff's deputy approached me.
"Are you Robert Michael Coon?"
He also confirmed my social security number. Yep, that's me. I started to feel a little nervous.
"Did I park in the wrong parking lot or something?"
"No. We have a warrant for your arrest."
Now, I'd obviously sat on the side of the road before with flashing blue lights behind me. I had even testified in court against a guy driving a dump truck who had clipped the back of my car. I had no frame of reference for this.
"So what do I need to do to clear this up?"
"Well, first I'm going to arrest you."
You know the stereotypical (probably archetypal) movie scene where one white guy walks into a bar full of black guys and says something offensive? You know, there's the record-scratching sound, and everyone just freezes in stunned silence for a minute? Yeah, I felt something like that.
He was nice enough to let me use my cell phone to call Jessika. I told her I was under arrest, and I didn't know why. I told her they were taking me to the county jail. I didn't know what else to say. The officer put me in handcuffs and leg cuffs and led me out to a police van. I got into it, along with some other people, and we drove to the county jail. They booked me, took my photo and fingerprints, all that jazz, and I sat in a holding cell for the next few hours while I waited for an officer from Oconee County, Georgia to come pick me up for transport to their county jail. I don't think I felt anything. I just sat listening to people tell each other their stories, why they were here. People really ask each other that question: "What're you in for?" I figured it was just a movie thing.
Behind the scenes, Jessika had jumped into action. When she called my friend David, he didn't believe her. I'm not the only Mike we know. She said "Mike's in jail," and he thought she was talking about a different friend named Mike. Nobody believed I could do anything to land me in jail. It had to be another Mike. She called my sister and my parents, and they found an attorney who managed to get me out that afternoon. I'm glad he was so capable, because I walked out of that jail at 5:00pm on a Friday. At any point, if anyone involved had moved just a little more slowly, I could have spent the weekend in jail. But everybody came through, and I walked out of the jail to see my parents and my sister and my wife waiting for me outside. I kissed Jessika, and at 32 years old, I walked to my father, hugged him, holding on for dear life, and I cried.
In 2001, while living in Athens, GA, Jessika and I had our radios stolen from our cars. The thief also took my backpack with my college textbooks and notebooks. I can only assume that something in that backpack had my name on it, because a few years later, a man who called himself Robert Coon committed felony credit card fraud in Oconee County, Georgia, near Athens and the University of Georgia. I lived in Athens while I attended UGA, so when an enterprising deputy looked up rental records in Oconee County, he found my name and my social security number. Without making any attempt to contact me or verify my identity, he had a warrant sworn out for my arrest. Fortunately, by the time the crime took place, I lived an hour away and worked for Barnes and Noble. I also bear no physical resemblance to the person who committed the crime, so my attorney was able to get the case dismissed before I was formally arraigned.
So now I can't see a cop without a moment of terror. Every single time I see a police car on the road, I think about the power that they have to change a person's life. I didn't commit the crime in question, but because a sworn officer of the law said that I did, I spent a day in jail. What if I had still lived in Athens when the crime occurred? What if the perpetrator had more closely matched my physical description? What if the defrauded individual in the intervening years between the crime and my arrest had forgotten enough of his features that, looking at me, she had become convinced I was the person who stole her money? I could have gone to real prison, not just a county jail, simply because a deputy said I did something, and I couldn't prove otherwise. We hear the phrase "innocent until proven guilty", but at no point in the process of getting handcuffed, taken to jail, and left in a holding cell for a warrant that never should have been issued did I EVER feel innocent.
Despite our illusions to the contrary, our lives are not always under our control, at least not in the sense we can actively predict. Sure, if we had chosen to live in another apartment way back in 2001, we wouldn't have had our radios stolen, and I would not have been impersonated by a criminal. But what else might have happened instead? We can't see around every corner, predict every outcome.
I just keep an eye out behind me.