By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 7/14/2020
Topics/Keywords: #18-Wheeler #BigRigs #Schneider #TruckDriver #TruckDriving Page Views: 1659
An entry from Alternate Roads: Paul S. Cilwa's Truck Drivin' Journal

Wednesday, May 28, 2003

I had spent the previous several days running up and down the I-5 corridor, running mostly relayed loads to and from here and there. Shafter, Los Angeles, Porterville, Fontana, Woodland, Modesto…basically, the breadbasket of California. I didn't complain. I knew they were keeping me in the area because I had a court date in Fowler scheduled for today.

Last December, I got a ticket on this stretch of CA 99, for being in the center lane too long. It was called a "lane violation" and apparently it had been a high-enforcement item for a few days, because two other drivers that I know of had gotten tickets for the same thing, the same week. One of them was my friend, Wayne, who had paid the $87 and put the whole thing out of his head.

But I couldn't do that. I had been driving safely and I had violated nothing. Although I realized it would probably cost me more than $87 in lost work, court costs, and so on, I couldn't let this injustice go unchallenged. We live in a society that is so corrupt, from the top down, that it is our duty to do what we can to make sure our strata in it is kept as pure and honest as possible.

The ticket itself, had stated on its surface that I must resolve this issue within thirty days. I called the Fowler, California Court House within a couple of days, of course—and was told they hadn't received the ticket from the California Highway Patrol yet, and I should try calling in two months. "What about the thirty days?" I asked.

"There's no chance we'd have the ticket in the system that quickly," the woman, Lori, replied.

So I called back in mid-February. And the ticket still wasn't "in the system." Try again at the beginning of March, I was told.

In March, finally, they received the ticket. I explained I wanted to challenge the ticket in court, and Lori gave me an April court date.

But my birthday is in April; and I managed to forget the court appearance. When I remembered, a couple of days late, I was horrified. Obviously, I had blown it and now I just had to pray that the additional fine for missing the court appearance wouldn't be a three-digit number. But, when I got Lori on the phone, she explained that she, too, had missed court that day, due to a flat tire. And so, all we had to do was re-schedule my appearance.

(I had mixed feelings about this. Apparently, if I had made the effort to get there for the original date, the case would have been postponed and my trip would have been wasted. On the other hand, I hadn't gone and so her not being there could be viewed as a marvelous, money-and-time-saving coincidence. Or the work of angels.)

And so, my appearance was now scheduled for today, May 28, at 11 am and I was going to be able to make it.

When I asked for directions, Lori had told me I could park my truck opposite a McDonald's about two blocks from the courthouse. I spent the night at a truck stop one exit south, then moved the truck to the empty lot. That gave me a place to have breakfast. I then sauntered to the courthouse.

I had practiced, all week, what I was going to say. Nothing other than the truth, of course. That's what all this was about. "I was in the center lane originally," I would say, "because there is a sign over it saying TRUCKS OK. Later, where the sign says TRUCKS RIGHT LANE ONLY, I couldn't move to the right because the right hand lane was packed with four-wheelers." Four-wheelers is what truckers call cars. I thought it added a touch of professionalism to my presentation. On the other hand, maybe as jargon it was too obscure. Maybe I should just call them cars. Or, I considered, perhaps I should just give vent to my feelings and refer to them as "idiot amateur drivers with their minds on everything but the road and the giant 18-wheeler rumbling along right beside them."

I decided on "cars".

"It was a few days before Christmas," I would remind the judge, "and traffic was really heavy, even at that hour. I kept putting my turn signal on, but it was ignored. I couldn't safely pull to the right without risking the lives of the drivers who were blocking me."

And then I would, with restrained fury, describe the car that began to pace me just as the traffic began to thin and I would otherwise be able to get into the right-hand lane. If I sped up—always within the speed limit, of course—it sped up. If I slowed down, it slowed down. We passed a police car parked in the median, but it didn't react to this clear violation of road rules on the part of the pacing car.

Finally it took an exit and I was about to turn on my signal, when I saw headlights from behind approaching at great speed…in the right hand lane. At this point, there was an exit about a mile ahead and the right lane went with it—there would be no center lane; the lane I was already in would become the right-hand lane. So I gave up and decided to stay where I was.

The approaching car abruptly veered behind me, and then into the left lane—and it had flashing red-and-blue lights. It was a police car, and it was pulling me over.

I decided not to describe the way the police office did not tell me why he was pulling me over, or how he seemed to be searching my log book for money—he found none—before he told me he was going to write me a ticket for a "lane violation" and had to go back to his vehicle to get his ticket book. Although he was clearly looking for a bribe, I decided that was irrelevant to my case. If he does this often, surely enough of his ticketed drivers will complain in court, and win, that it will come to the attention of his superiors that something is wrong, here.

Instead, in conclusion, I would say, "Your honor, perhaps, technically, I did violate that lane. But to drive other than the way I did, would have been unsafe and would have endangered the lives of innocents. No matter how you find today's case, I have to say that, if the situation were repeated, I would have to do the same thing. Because, no matter what the law says, I will not endanger other drivers in the course of doing my job."

As I walked to the courthouse, the sun on my face, I became uncomfortably warm. I was wearing my white Dockers and a long-sleeved flannel shirt, the only shirt I had with me that boasted a collar. I began to wonder what the judge would be like. What if he were on the take, too? In cahoots with the state trooper? Fowler was, I could see, a very small town. If this was Mayberry, I could only hope that Andy Taylor was running things, and not Barney Fife.

I found the courthouse and entered. There was one woman running things behind a glass wall—not bulletproof, as near as I could tell. And there had been no metal detector. Thank God, I thought, at least this isn't a place permeated by baseless fears, as so much of the country has become. I began to develop a fond feeling about Fowler. Not only had they not turned their county courthouse into Fort Dix, they had left a lot vacant so truckers could stop and eat at McDonald's. What a nice place!

Although there were several people ahead of me, the woman, who was bilingual, quickly took care of them all and got to me. When I explained why I was there, she told me to go on into the courtroom, even though it was early. The door to the courtroom was located on the side of the same building; I had to go outside to go in.

There were two uniformed policemen present, two spectators, and a prisoner, in addition to the judge, and what appeared to be a district attorney and a court reporter. Suddenly, the scene shifted for me. This wasn't Mayberry; this was Night Court. One of the policemen was Bull; the other was Selma. Except he was a tall, thin, young man rather than an older, chain-smoking woman.

However, court was about to take recess and no one could remain in the courtroom when the bailiffs weren't there. They asked me to come back at eleven, when my appearance was scheduled. I stepped outside and walked a respectful half-block away, then turned and watched them walk the prisoner to a waiting van. He was handcuffed and his legs were in iron. Wow, I thought. He must have criticized the President, and Homeland Security has got him. But then I remembered that the terms of the so-called Patriot Act allow citizens to be imprisoned indefinitely without ever going to court; so it couldn't be that.

While waiting, I found the Public Library two doors down. It had a row of computers for Internet access and, at present, no patrons. The librarian told me I would need a library card to use the computers. When I explained I lived in Arizona, and was just there for a court appearance, she lent me hers. I checked my email and responded to a couple of messages while she chatted on the phone, trying to find someone in town who could take her shift in the library the next weekend, so she could go to Disneyland with her boyfriend.

And then it was time to go.

There were just a few of us appearing that session. The very first case was dismissed. "I see you've already made good the property you damaged," the judge told a young girl, "and the city has withdrawn charges. So, case dismissed." The girl looked startled but relieved, and left gratefully.

The next case was that of a young man who, apparently, hadn't bothered to make any of his previously scheduled court appearances. There, but for the grace of God go I, I thought, and then wondered if my papers would show I had missed a court date. The judged fined the kid $500 for each one he'd missed. The kid's original offense was driving an unregistered car without a license, and his total fines came close to $5000. His father, sitting in the spectator section near me, maintained a poker face.

As the kid's hearing continued, my mind started to wander. What a shame I hadn't had a chance to do something for the judge, earlier, without realizing it. For example, when I first was walking down the street to the courthouse, suppose I spotted a toddler break away from his momentarily-distracted mother and run into the street. And suppose a car was coming. I might have run in front of the car, grabbed the kid, and saved him from being run over and killed, or at least horribly mutilated. Then, when I was in the courtroom, just as the judge was hearing my case, the woman might run right in—the judge was her husband, you see—and blurt out that their precious baby had almost been killed, would have been killed, if not for the intervention of a stranger. And then, turning around and spotting me, she would squeal, "Oh my God—that's him, that's the man who saved our son!"

With a start, I realized that the judge was now on the next case, a woman who'd been ticketed for speeding. I hoped I hadn't missed him calling me. The state trooper who'd ticketed her was there, too; and each presented their side of the story. The trooper had copious notes to refer to. Fortunately, I had brought my Pumpkin Book. My officer and I would at least seem equally professional, he in his uniform and I in mine. Of course, a truck driver's uniform is a lot less impressive than a police officer's, consisting as it does, basically, of denim and flannel. The policeman, on the other hand, comes decked out with handcuffs, a revolver and its holster, a night stick, and so on. Perhaps I should have brought my tandem puller and a flashlight with me. Who knew?

Other defendants took their turns. Each one was found guilty, and most of the time spent was in determining a payment schedule for the fines. Can you make at least a $35 payment by the first of July? What day of the month is best for you to make a payment? Can you make weekly payments? As the minutes passed, the judge seemed less like a champion of justice and more like the loan officer of a rather under-funded bank.

And then it was my turn. I was ready. I had my story, I had my concerned-citizen expression, my beard was neatly trimmed and I had brushed my teeth. My tattoo was safely hidden beneath my long flannel sleeves. I stood straight and tall, the picture of cooperative citizen ready to right a wrong.

"Mr. Cilwa," the judge said, and I straightened a little more, ready to take the oath, "it seems your officer didn't bother to show up today. So…case is dismissed."

My jaw dropped. I was ready to say something! I had something to say! I had been…the officer had…I was…

But I'm not an idiot. I thanked the judge and left the courtroom, stepping back into the warm California sunlight. I felt relieved and disappointed at the same time. Years of courtroom dramas on TV have fooled us into thinking that courtrooms are about seeing that justice is done. The fact is, they are mostly about bureaucracy. My case wasn't dismissed because I was right. It was dismissed because the officer who ticketed me hadn't bothered to show up. In fact, as I was leaving, one of the other officers had said to another, "Hey, what's with Roger? He's missed quite a few cases lately, hasn't he?" I resisted the urge to suggest that perhaps Roger's cocaine habit had kept him away.

Still, that didn't change my feeling about Fowler. I got to inspect it as I strolled back to my truck. The buildings were old, but they were put to good use. The court might be a bureaucracy, but it was a well-run bureaucracy. The library was small but well-stocked and well-equipped. It really did seem like a Californian Mayberry, peopled with nice, friendly folks you'd like to know and wouldn't find hard to get to know.

I judged it to be a nice town. Case dismissed.