Tuesday, February 15, 2005

My Court Experience

Due to popular demand (1 person), I have been forced to re-live the hell that is the United States Justice System. More specifically, the Burbank County Justice System.

I've already written the intro and the conclusion to my experience, but a lot is missing in between. And I have a lot of gripes.

A 4" bladed knife was found in my carry-on bag at Burbank Airport on my way back to Oakland on October 11th. The knife folds down into a casing. I was informed that if the knife was exposed or it was larger than 6", it is a felony. I had no idea that the knife was there, and they didn't find it on the way to Burbank (unfortunately). The only way that I can think of how the knife could have gotten in there was that I recently had moved from Davis back to Pacifica, and I remember throwing that knife into some pile of junk I was sorting. The knife must have fallen into my travel bag that I always use to visit Quyen (this is why I didn't check it before boarding each way). At the Burbank Airport, they detained me for about 10 minutes, wrote me up a ticket, and sent me on my way. The officer who wrote me the ticket told me that it was manditory to write one, and that it was a misdemeanor. I was shocked. Now that I think about it, I don't think that he did have to write that ticket. The ticket is for knowingly possessing a phrohibited item, but I stated repeatedly (and they have my statement written down) that I did not know that the knife was in there. I've talked to a few people who have had (large) knives in their bags and they were just confiscated.

A month later I had to appear in court. During this time defendants watch a 20 minute instructional video on what it means to plead guilty, no contest, hire a lawyer, or defend themselves. The baliff calls each case and asks for a plea. I opted to hire a public defender since I didn't know what I was getting myself into.

I originally intended to fight the case. My case is pretty strong. They have me on file saying that I did not know the knife was in there. The witnessing officer could support that in court. I have no motive for knowingly bringing a knife aboard a plane (citizen all my life, educated, taken same flight before, etc). And I have no previous record.

But my case isn't perfect. They didn't find the knife in Oakland Airport, so the knife being in there as a result of my moving from Pacifica to Davis may seem unlikely (they may think the knife originated in Burbank). My knife randomly falling into my bag seems also unlikely.

But these things did happen. And I would think that they happen often- that someone has something in their bag that they didn't know was there. Of course, my (65+ yr old) public defender had never heard of a case like this (in all her years). And when I asked her if she thought we would win, she said "no." Great. That made me feel really great about fighting the case. I'm sure that if I hired a private lawyer that I would have won, but I was broke and a lawyer would have been at least a few grand. I didn't want to obligate, nor would I want my parents to foot that bill either.

Lucky for me, my mom is an extremely savvy and intelligent woman. She asked people that she knew about my case and prodded around asking questions. I was trying to figure things out too, but I'm not nearly as close to as proficient as my mother. She's the type who will go into a store and somehow end up getting everything half off. I'll get maybe a free nudey calendar from my mechanic after getting my transmission rehauled. I tried calling my friends in law school, talking to a relative who's a lawyer, looking stuff up on the net, and I managed to get some info out of that public defender. But my mom talked to the public defender a few times and then the defender worked out a plea bargain with the prosecution. The plea bargain was that nothing goes on my record, I had to do 80 hours community service (hard labour)($80) and I had to enroll in the APPS program($300). I remembered that I had my shoulder surgery less than a year ago, so the court was able to give me community service where I wouldn't have to wear an orange jumpsuit on the side of the freeway. Rather than facing possible jail time and having the conviction on my record if found guilty, I took the plea bargain.

The problem with a idea of a public defender in this system is that they basically have no motive for helping you out. Self motivated, determined lawyers are ideally chosen for this position, but after 30+ years, that kind of trickles off. The only priority for the public defenders is to get you through the system and out of their hair as fast as possible. They don't care if you're innocent or guilty, as long as your case is off of their desk. Do you think that they want all of their clients to be innocent and fight the system? Hell no. Only private lawyers are immoral enough to want that.

I still feel jacked. I really don't see anything that I could have done to prevent the situation. Everything was a series of unfortunate events. I never knew the knife fell into my bag, I never checked the bag because it's the same bag I always use (lesson learned, but difficult to say I should have prevented), I got a public defender that didn't want to help me, and I got a plea bargain with way too many hours. Shit happened. I was faced with either wasting time and a bit of money, or else a lot of money. No way around it. Maybe I should have fought my case with the public defender. Most likely I would have- except that the court dates would have been for Christmas and Christmas Eve (for which my family had already made plans). So, I was thankful to my mom for helping me out, didn't like the idea of possible jail time, took the plea bargain, and went home to underwear for Christmas.

A lot of things should have happened to prevent this. The knife should have landed somewhere else, or they should have found the knife in Oakland (they just confiscate there), or the officer at Burbank should have realized that I'm not guilty unless I know the knife is in there, or the judge should have dismissed the case, or my public defender should have been competent, or the case should have been on a different day than Christmas.

So that's it. I'm done. Through. Enough. Please, everyone, for God's Sake, check your damn bags before boarding a plane. And when you're wondering why you're going through the trouble of doing this every time, don't Remember the Titans- remember Matt Lee.


Anonymous said...

it's jodie. that sucks. my godsister is a lawyer. but she does domestic violence and civil rights cases. tough cookie my friend. tough cookies.

Andrew Jang said...

Sorry to hear about your experiences with our judicial system. I've been unfortunate enough to have had a couple of brushes with the authorities. I truly think the amount of "justice" you recieve is directly proportional to how much money you have. Or are willing to spend.