Paying My Debt to Society

I recently broke the law.  Yes…me.  I am guilty as charged.

Before I tell this story, please know that I have the utmost respect for police officers and other government workers.  I was a military police officer for over a decade and I have worked for different agencies in the government.  I do have to poke a little fun at the calamity of city government.  I won’t disclose names, badge numbers, or identify the people in city government I met and dealt with during this…experience.

Although I won’t do that, I will offer my observations and some cynical and sarcastic commentary about the experience.  I hope you enjoy it!

On April 16 while on the way to the public library, I committed a traffic offense while operating a “motor vehicle and made an improper approach while making a left turn (wide turn).”  That’s what it states on the ticket.  I did not cause an accident, and I was not involved in an accident.

In basic terms, instead of turning left into the closest lane, I moved over a few feet (it was a sharp turn) and went into the middle lane of the three lanes.  The police officer was sitting across from me in his car waiting to turn right into the street as I was turning left.

He gave chase.  He used his lights, and he turned on his siren.  It was embarrassing.  I stopped within two blocks of where I broke the law.

One or two blocks more and this major chase may have been picked up for broadcast on a cable news channel…

When the police officer approached my vehicle I had my license and insurance card out and ready.  I told him before he said one word that I was sorry for making a wide turn.  He said something RoboCop-like, “Wide…turns…can…be…dangerous.”  Then he asked me where I worked (which made me feel like that might make a difference in getting a ticket or not).  I told him I was unemployed.

Now that I think back on this event, the police officer did kind of resemble a middle school student acting like a hallway monitor who stopped me from running in the halls…

But he made up for his youthfulness with a steely demeanor that reminded me a little of Dirty Harry.  Although the officer was professional, I thought any moment he might say to me, “You’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky?  Well, do ya, punk?”

He asked me for my vehicle registration and I told him I’d have to get it from the glovebox (so he wouldn’t terminate me right there for making a wrong move).  He took my license, registration, and insurance card and went to his vehicle.  I sat there.  I sat there some more.  People gawked at me.  This embarrassment was penalty enough I thought…

He came back and had a ticket filled out and said, “I am giving you a ticket for a wide turn.”  I said, “Really?”  I then added, “I was upfront and told you I made a wide turn before you told me and I apologized for it.  I’ve not received a ticket for decades, and you won’t just give me a warning?  I can’t really afford to get a ticket.”

He said, “No sir.”  I said (sarcastically), “That’s great…how much will this cost me?”  He did not know but he did direct me to the Civic Center basement to pay it.

As the police officer walked away he said, “Drive safe.”  I then said, “Do you mind if I tell you one more thing?”  He said, “Sure.”  I said, “The proper way to say that is, ‘Drive safe-ly.’  We sure don’t want our public officials sounding uneducated, do we?”  He said, “Thank you, sir.”

The Civic Center

The information on the ticket says, “The Defendant is hereby given notice to appear in City Court of Great Falls, County of Cascade, located in the civic center on or before the 23 day of April 2012.”

It’s not really called “City” court; it’s listed as “Municipal” court on the city’s website.  Somebody with a good attorney could have a case thrown out over that error…

On the City of Great Falls (new and improved) website, it tells visitors to “Please call (406) 771-1380 to verify if your citation can be paid without a court appearance.”  It also states on their website “The court accepts Cash, Personal Checks*, Cashiers Checks, and Money Orders.  Visa* or Mastercard* can only be used for payments in full.  *THE COURT DOES NOT ACCEPT CHECKS OR CARDS FOR PAST DUE FINES.* Since I was going to pay in full I took my Visa debit card.  I also have two other regular credit cards with me.

I did call ahead of time.  A lady asked me some questions and then said, “85 dollars.”  I said, “85 dollars?”  She repeated, “85 dollars” which reminded me a little of bargaining for a great “deal” in a foreign country.  Now I know how the city is making up the difference for their losses in the power business…

I started thinking that if I had been stopped for killing someone while driving drunk, I could have probably received a plea deal…

I headed over to the Civic Center on the morning of April 18.  It was, to say the least, a memorable experience.

If one has to visit the Great Falls Municipal Court, which is located in the bowels of the Civic Center basement to pay a ticket or appear in court, be prepared to be hit with a putrid odor that seeps into your nostrils as you descend the stairs into the basement – the aroma is coming from the folks waiting there to see the judge or to pay a fine.  The air is unmoving and it smells like it has been trapped there for months.  This day the basement area was dimly lit with I would imagine over 25 people sitting and standing around gazing into space and not making eye contact.

The zombies on the show “Walking Dead” have nothing on the folks waiting in the Great Falls Civic Center basement…

I found the cashier’s window and presented the ticket and the lady typed something into a computer (yes they have a computer) and she said, “I have some good news – you qualify for a deferred prosecution.”  I said, “That’s the best news I’ve heard all day.”  I was thinking I may not have to pay eighty-five dollars.”  Paying $85 is a lot to someone who is unemployed…

She handed me a purple piece of paper that stated, “Notice: Deferred Prosecutions.”  She then informed me I needed to take the ticket and the purple piece of paper to the City Attorney in room 101.  So off I went back through the zombies – but it was worth the walk to get to the fresher air up on the first floor!

At the City Attorney’s window I gave the lady the ticket and the purple paper and she mumbled some things that I could not understand because of the noise and being shielded by the window, but I did hear her say, “$85 dollars.”  I said, “Great, here’s my debit card.”  She said (condescendingly), “We only accept cash, check or money order – we are not equipped to take debit cards or credit cards.”

I thought to myself, “One floor down they are ‘equipped’ and this is the same city.”

So I left to get/find my actual checkbook that I had not used in about three years…

A few hours later (I waited until after 1:00 in case they were out to lunch) and as I was driving back over to pay the ticket, I took the same route that I took the day I received the ticket.  There were four vehicles in front of me at the stoplight waiting to turn left.  When the light turned green, all four vehicles went into the middle lane (like I did) instead of the inside lane – breaking the law.  I thought this could be a goldmine for the officer at $85 per stop if they cared to pursue it.  The City of Great Falls does need a lot of money to pay off the Electric City Power venture and writing $85 tickets at this intersection sure would help!

I arrived at the City Attorney’s window and waited and then paid the fine – 85 dollars.  They had me sign three copies of the “Deferred Prosecution Agreement” where the City of Great Falls was the “Plaintiff” and I was the “Defendant” and among the ten items listed on the agreement one stated that I must not commit a violation for the next three months.

Since it had been a few decades since my last traffic violation, I’m betting I can make it…

Although I was guilty as charged, it would have been nice if the police officer would have given me a break – with just a warning.  He could also use some work in public relations – plus a heart.  It would also be nice if the city would move into the more modern age and keep up with technology.  Finally, maybe they could get better ventilation into the bowels of the Civic Center…or at least encourage citizens to pay their fines with Royal Pine air fresheners

Follow the life and times of Jack on Twitter @TheWesternWord.

3 thoughts on “Paying My Debt to Society

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