The new liberality concerning marijuana possession in the United States is long overdue, but let’s not exaggerate how much progress we’ve made. Users might not be ending up in jail as frequently as they did 10 years ago. But cops, judges, and courts still exercise arbitrary power to ruin people’s lives, and they continue to do so at astonishing rates, all over the country.
I recently saw this firsthand. I sat in a municipal traffic court from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., awaiting my own time with the judge for a petty moving violation. I was there with 150 other people, gathering cobwebs as the judge took his sweet time and shamed people as they stood at the bench and humbly submitted to his rule.
No phones or computers are allowed in court. My iPad was not allowed, either. Once you enter through the metal detector, you are trapped for the duration. There is no contacting anyone. For most people today, this would be the only time in their lives when such contact is forbidden. This rule contributes to the feeling of being controlled by and subjected to power.
You just have to wait your turn, even if it takes eight hours. So there we sat.
Not one person in this courtroom had harmed anyone. Not one. They had not stolen anything, had not mugged anyone, had not caused any car wrecks. And yet there they were, facing torment at the hands of a judge drunk on power and a criminal-justice system that is out of control.
Most of my fellow criminals were poor, young, black men who had been stopped for some traffic violation and then booked for a different, unrelated offense. Why the lopsided demographics? Were these people targeted? It would be hard to prove, but it seems highly likely.
The supposed crimes called out by the judge were all over the map: there was too much tinting on the windows, the license plate light was burned out, the vehicle was following too closely, the driver was speeding (of course), the car had expired tags, the driver wasn’t carrying proof of active insurance, and so on.
Each person was fined between $500 and $3,000, and always on a plea bargain. They admitted guilt for something in exchange for paying a reduced fine.
For example, the judge dismissed my one charge (not complying with the “move over” rule — which requires a drive to switch lanes away from a patrol car on the shoulder — a rule I didn’t know existed) and I admitted guilt for something that wasn’t even true: driving without my license. In fact, I did have my license, so the form I signed was a lie that the judge had me tell. By what understanding of justice does the court blackmail you to admit to crimes you didn’t commit?
Fully one-third of these people had been dragged in for pot possession. In the typical scenario, a cop would stop a car on a rural stretch for some minor moving violation. The cop would claim to smell pot, which constitutes probable cause, and initiate a thorough search of the car. The cop would find a pipe or some pot, arrest the person, and then issue a few other tickets in addition, for things like no proof of insurance, a burnt-out taillight, and so on. But it was the pot charge that had landed these drivers in front of the judge.
Repeatedly, the judge reminded the accused, “We are not in Colorado. In the state of Georgia, your offense carries with it a 12-month prison sentence.”
The judge then said he would not send the person to jail. He dismissed a few other charges, thereby positioning himself as a merciful public servant. He was then in a position to get any of these poor souls to admit guilt for anything as long as they would get a lesser sentence.
Everyone was fined. But some punishments went further. The pot criminals were required to do 50 to 100 hours of community service, taking away time from school, work, and family. They now have to attend classes on the dangers of drugs (I’m sure those work!). They also must submit to six months of drug testing to make sure they are not consuming this dangerous substance. They prove this by sending in urine samples. Now I understand why there is such a burgeoning market for synthetic urine.
They also get a criminal record.
Then there’s the fine. Most people could not pay hundreds or thousands of dollars on the spot. The judge gave them one month to cough up the money. Where are these poor people going to get that kind of money? One solution that immediately occurred to me: they could get into the drug business temporarily. Another option: steal the money. How much crime is being brought about through these fines?
Then there were the DUI charges, which carried stiffer penalties, including suspension of licenses. Probably one-third of the people were there to deal with that problem. Again, there was no evidence in the courtroom that middle-class white people have ever gotten behind the wheel after consuming too much alcohol. This courtroom gave a strong impression that the only drunk drivers are young black men.
Stuck in this room for eight-plus hours, without a computer or other reading material, the only thing I could do was count the fines. I came up with an estimate of $75,000 collected on that day. And the judge was brazen about it all.
He kept asking each person, “When are you going to pay me?”
Despite this appalling display, everyone treated the judge as some kind of great man. Court employees laughed uproariously at his terrible jokes, nodded in agreement when he would moralize about pot, and complied with his every command. I think he believed he was doing good for the community, based on the many ways in which he congratulated himself on his dedicated work.
The whole system is clearly a tax-collection scheme masked as justice. In the end, what this court wanted was money, and the people it squeezed were the least able to pay.
What I saw rivaled the worst forms of petty tyrannies I've read about in history books: how tyrannical kings would use every trick to pillage the population of their meager resources. I very much doubt that there is anything unusual about what I saw. It probably goes on every day in your town, too.
Not one person in that room needed to be mixed up with the court system. None of the money and time they gave up deserved to be taken. A true dispenser of justice would have flung open the doors and set the captives free.
Instead, they were subjected to an excruciating, pillaging, and humiliating system that barely masks its true nature.
And we wonder why so many people are unhappy with the system.