Two month ago, myself and three friends from the Columbia University chapter of the hash house harriers were issued a court summons before a run through the Cloisters. Officers Nunez and Silvano of the 34th precinct informed us that the brown-bag shields we were using to cover our beers were no match for their detection skills. They issued me, my roommate Rick, and friends Pat and Sean summons for having an open container of alcohol. We did the crime, now it was time to pay up for our actions. Our day in court had arrived.
There was a steady rain as the four of us arrived at Criminal Court a little after 9 a.m. We shuffled to the back of the line, the first of six lines that day, which had already formed halfway down the block. Our minds began to wonder what lied on the inside of the stone temple of justice.
“I imagine it’s like a deli,” Pat said. “You get a number and then justice is served like a ½ pound of Boar’s Head, sliced thin for sandwiches.”
After getting inside the front door and through security, we were directed to wait in yet another line on the second floor. At the end of this line was a clerk who would take our summons and assign us to one of three courtrooms. Slowly we worked our way through the bureaucratic maze that is the New York City penal system.
During our wait we stood behind Henry, a career criminal, who wouldn’t say what he was summoned for. He beguiled us with stories of making fake IDs when living in Miami and driving a carload of pot to Houston. Standing about 5’7” and wearing faded jeans and a paint-stained hoodie, Henry assured us that we would pay no more than a $100 ticket.
With a worried look on his face, Rick turned to me. “I don’t like being in trouble,” he said. “It gets to my conscience.”
Finally we were up to the front of the line. When the bell rang, I walked to the window, handed the woman my summons and received a green card directing me to courtroom one. Rick and Pat’s summons had been dismissed, which we figured out later was because officer Silvano had used a traffic citation form.
The two decided to stay and watch the proceeding with us. I slid into the end of a wooden bench, facing the front of the court. As we entered, a guard squawked at us to remove our hats and turn off our cell phones, despite the fact that we were neither using our phones nor wearing any form of head gear. Not once did they bother any of the three women in the room wearing hats.
After about 10 minutes, the judge entered the room. He was disheveled and dazed, as if they had brought some homeless man in off the street and dressed him in a bad suit that made him look like a used car salesman.
My name was called first. I approached the bench armed with a pen and Pat’s physics homework which I used as a makeshift notepad.
“Put the pen away, sir,” the court officer said as if coaxing some maniac to drop a knife.
My lawyer appeared to be no older than her mid 20s. “Twenty dollars, pay today?,” she muttered like some Canal Street hustler selling fake Louis Vuitton and Gucci purses out a slightly larger fake Chanel purse.
“Uh……,” I responded blankly. “Sure.”
No sooner had the words left my mouth than the next person was called and I was shuffled out of the courtroom to a waiting area where an officer would take us to the cashier. We guessed that it took them about 30 seconds for each case, which people would undoubtedly plead guilty.
When the officer led Sean and me to the pay line, we passed a small bodega, similar to the ones found littering the street. It sold sandwiches, chips, candy, soda and advertised a special – chicken patties for $1.75.
We paid the fine and when I asked for a copy of the summons with my receipt, the cashier gave me a disgusted look and called the next offender.
From there we went to a diner where I had a bacon cheeseburger with pepperjack cheese, fries and a cold Budweiser.
“It feels pretty good to get off,” Pat said at the diner. “The justice system can’t stop me – I’m like Lex Luthor.”
We had paid our debt to society, literally, but had I learned a lesson? Probably not. And thus, the revolving door of justice keeps on turning.