Make Me a Criminal

female-driver-being-pulled-over-with-police-lights-in-rear-windowI saw the lights before I heard the sirens. My heart sank as low as the siren’s pitch was high. My mind raced in a million different directions at once. I prayed that the officer would let me off with a warning. She didn’t.

I was relieved to see the officer was a middle-aged woman like myself; I hoped she might have kids too. She asked me for the usual, license and registration. I had my license. She asked me if I knew why she pulled me over. There were many reasons why, but which ones should I admit to? Why do they ask anyway? I just said, “I don’t know.”

Apparently, both brake lights are now not lighting up; the left cover was already smashed and covered with red tape. I didn’t have my current sticker on my plate because I could not afford it. And, I was going too fast trying to make up for a crazy morning with my kids at drop-off. I was late again for work. I can’t be late again. Now, I’m going to be really late.

Three tickets were all she wrote; it could have easily been five because of my cracked windshield and no village sticker. I guess she went easy on me. I would have to take a day off work, unpaid, to go to court or just admit my guilt and pay a fine. With what money, I have no idea. I don’t have several hundred dollars sitting around doing nothing.

My boss fired me later that morning when I arrived rather late. I don’t know what was more embarrassing, being escorted out of the building or crying in front of everyone.

I went to court. I just hoped that if I could explain my situation to the judge then he’d have mercy. I was hoping  for some way to avoid the fines. He offered me traffic school, but that costs as much as the ticket. I was going to have to pay the fines.

The notices kept arriving. The County Court I guess assumes that if they keep sending me reminders to pay and threaten me with more court dates that I will suddenly have money. But, if I had money I would have fixed my car and avoided the fines in the first place. The last notice I received told me I had to appear in court to answer for the fines. If I failed to appear and pay then they could lock me up for “contempt of court.” So, I went.

I had a new job. I had to lie to get it. I could not tell them I was fired by my previous employer. I had already used my paid sick time on my kids, so I had to take the day off unpaid. We would just get more food from the food bank this week.

When I appeared before the judge I explained why I could not pay the fines. She said that I could be locked up for not paying. My greatest fear was for my kids. Where would they go? What would I tell them about why I was not with them? The judge told me that I could work off my debt through community service. That sounded better, but what about my job and my kids? When would I find the time to work these service hours? I had to make it work.

So, I serve in a local food bank run by the County. I go on Saturdays and some evenings. The people I work with there are nice. Church people mostly. I miss the time with my kids. My neighbor agreed to help me by watching my kids while I worked off my debt. I should be done in a few months. I just hope in the meantime I don’t get pulled over again because I still don’t have enough money to fix my car. If you think about it, pray for me.

This story is an increasingly common narrative as Municipalities face budget short falls due to lack of State funding.  Municipalities are turning to code and traffic violations to make up the short fall. Obviously, focusing of code violations will face disproportionately upon the poor – who can’t pay. This is the criminalization of poverty.

Here at Administer Justice we are becoming more aware of this criminalization happening in our client’s lives, but without additional resources, we are unable to help these clients. Please consider donating today through our website by clicking this link, and help us bring justice and hope to more clients that are facing criminal sanctions for being poor.