The harsh, bright light flooded the courtroom as if to banish even a shadow from lurking. The walls were white and unadorned.
The Maryland flag hung from a broken pole, limply leaning in the face of the constant pain that paraded before it.
From the back of the courtroom, a baby began to cry. If he had known what was about to happen, he would have cried even louder.
This was not a murder trial. It was not the trial of a thief or an armed robber or any of the other vermin that prey upon decent citizens.
No, this was important. This was the trial for my speeding ticket.
Almost three months ago, I was stopped, handed a ticket and told I could either pay the $45 fine by mail or go to court. So I did what most people do: I threw the ticket in the glove compartment and hoped it would go away.
It didn't. And a notice came telling me to send my money to Annapolis or report to court on Tuesday. Because I think too much money already goes to Annapolis, I went to court.
It wasn't the fine that bothered me. It was the points. In Maryland, if you exceed the speed limit by 10 miles an hour or more, you get two points. Reckless driving is four points. Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, eight points. Fleeing a police officer, 12 points.
You look at the Maryland Vehicle Law and the points don't look too bad: Over a two-year period, if you collect three points, you get a letter of warning. If you get five points, you get called in for a conference. If you get eight points, your license gets suspended, and with 12 points, it is revoked.
But that is not the problem. The problem is the true terror of the modern age: the insurance company.
And everybody sitting with me in the courtroom under the unceasing glare of the florescent lights was thinking the same thing:
If I get a point, my insurance premium will go to $10,000 a year. If I get two points, my policy will be canceled. If I get three points, they will seize my home and sell my children.
I nervously shifted on the oak pew. I was dressed in a suit of somber gray, a dazzling white shirt and a tie so conservative that Bill Casey could have been buried in it.
wanted the judge to know that even if I couldn't drive responsibly, I could at least dress responsibly.
I had already decided to plead guilty and offer my spotless driving record in mitigation. I had never before received a speeding ticket. I had no points on my record. And if I got one now, my life could be ruined. I might start down that long, declining road to harder crimes like lane violations and failures to yield.
I kept glancing at my watch. The only parking lot I could find had meters, and the meters took only quarters. I had only two quarters. This bought me one hour and 15 minutes.
The judge moved at a deliberate pace. He was white-haired and round-faced, a kindly looking man. He joked with us and talked with us and tried to put us at ease.
Just about everybody pleaded guilty. And just about everybody got the same sentence: the judge reduced the number of miles per hour the person had been speeding and gave them one point instead of two.
Which was certainly a good deal, but it was still a point on your record. One man asked for probation before judgment, which would have meant no points. The judge declined and handed him a point. One woman, who came with a lawyer, asked to go to traffic school. The judge declined and handed her a point.
The clock ticked away. My meter was about to expire. The courtroom emptied until there was about a dozen of us left. And the kindly judge looked up and read off six names, including my own.
"The bailiff will take you into the next courtroom," he said.
In the next courtroom, the judge did not look so kindly. He was young and handsome but in a slightly cruel, Richard Widmark kind of way. We took our seats. The judge began to speak: "You were all offered the chance to pay your $45 fine and you declined. That is not the maximum fine. The maximum fine is $500. If you were speeding because you were driving your mother to the hospital, that is no excuse. Your intent is no excuse. Your negligence is no excuse. You may appeal my judgment in 30 days in writing."
The six of us looked at each other. I didn't know about the rest of them, but I was ready to take three to five years on a plea bargain if I could get conjugal visits every other weekend.
The handsome/cruel judge called the first case. The man pleaded guilty but pointed to his excellent driving record.
"Thirty dollar fine, fifteen dollar court cost, probation before judgment," the judge said.
"Probation before judgment?" the man said. "How many points is that?"
"No points," the judge said.
I began to weep softly. They were tears of joy. The next two people also had good driving records and got the same thing. Then I was called, pleaded guilty, pointed to my spotless record and was handed the same sentence.
I wanted to ask whether it was permissible to embrace a judge in Maryland, but the words would not come.
I reported to the little window in the hall, paid my fine and then ran for my car before the meter expired. But as I fumbled the car keys out of my pocket, the full magnitude of what had happened hit me:
I was on probation. The swift sword of the law now hung heavy over my head.
If I got another speeding ticket, I would get the new points plus the old points. And the thought paralyzed me. I broke out in a terrible, drenching sweat.
And I put the car keys back in my pocket and made my resolution: Until my probation is over, I don't intend to drive. I am leaving my car exactly where it is.
Now, I feel a whole lot better. Except for one thing:
& Anybody got a quarter?