Caught in the system
by Emily Gallagher
Jan 04, 2017 | 4122 views | 0 0 comments | 173 173 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Driving to visit my family for Christmas, I was delighted to find almost no one on the road. I was able to cruise at a clip and I was confident I would make it to my parents home before sunset. That was until I saw flashing lights behind me.

I was unceremoniously pulled over to the side of the highway, which made me very nervous as we were near a curve and the whole road was on a mountain side that someone with a fear of heights like myself would not enjoy. I was nervous but remained composed.

The police officer explained to me that I had been driving in the passing lane but I was not passing anyone. I confessed that I had not realized this was a rule (my now distant memory of driver's ed recalls something similar I suppose), and certainly didn't realize it was punishable.

The fine for the offense was $25, but I also accrued fees, making the total for my traffic stop $128. I had ten days to pay it, and that included Christmas and New Years. The officer told me this was a "small ticket" and I should be thankful to him for not also charging me for speeding.

It being the day before Christmas, I had already spent my extra money on Christmas presents for my family and gas to get myself there.

I gulped as I sat in my car considering how I would make ends meet for the rest of the month, knowing that I pay a significant part of my salary to my rent and expenses every month.

I am a privileged person. I have a good job and no dependents. I have an easy time moving through the world. As I thought about this, I became angry.

I was going to be made very uncomfortable by paying this ticket, but I knew that many others would not be able to manage it whatsoever.

I read the small print on the ticket, which said that if I could not pay the ticket I would have to show up at the courthouse in their town to contest it, with a very small amount of turnaround time.

A town four hours away from New York City, which would only be open on weekdays and during regular business hours, meaning that missing work for the entire day would be required.

If I still had a job where I was paid by the hour, this would mean losing a day of my income, as well as a precious sick day or relying on a coworker to take my shift, as well as the cost of paying the ticket.

According to the Center for American Progress, one out of five New York City residents live below the poverty line, and in New York State 15.9 percent of families live in poverty.

We also have the worst income inequality ratio of the 50 states. To put it in perspective, the federal poverty line is around $11,000 for one person and $23,834 for a family of four.

That is a wage so low that one already has to compromise every aspect of their life. It's very clear that many, many more people are struggling above the poverty line too, even though they aren't being counted.

There are so many people who don't have the luxury of simply paying the fee.

So many people are left without the option, and then additionally miss their court date because the system leaves them with few options.

The police officer told me if I did not pay or show up in court, I may lose my license and might also find myself in criminal trouble. Had I not given him the money as soon as possible, my problems would escalate.

Having spent the next four hours of my drive fuming over what felt like a shake down, it really got into my head how lucky I am.

So you can imagine how furious I was on January 2 to read that Governor Andrew Cuomo vetoed a popular bill that would require the state – and not counties, which cannot cover all costs in some cases – to pay for impoverished defendants to have a lawyer in court.

A good friend who is a public defender told me that most criminal cases that hit the courts are more along the lines of my offense than a robbery or murder.

The rules are sometimes hard to understand, and so is the procedure. If you do not have a lawyer and are not trained in the law, protecting yourself from felony charges and other stains on one's record becomes quite precarious, innocent or not.

According to Politico, the bill was the result of a Supreme Court settlement where New York was found at fault in certain counties for making it impossible for poor people to afford lawyers.

Cuomo has said that the settlement will remain for those five counties, but will not be extended further out.

My heart broke a bit when I heard the news. I had thought about how quickly my silly mistake could have escalated, had my circumstances been different.

I wonder how many of these silly trials happen about something as trivial as my offense grown large through the inability to confront it?
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