You’ve probably been to a DMV before. Anyone who has will attest that it’s hell on earth, or at the very least one of the circles of hell. You may not know that deep inside the bowels of every DMV there is a whitewashed torture hall that houses many inglorious courts.
These small and powerful courts come in all shapes and sizes, adorned with laminated signage, directional arrows, and carefully chosen messages that often have spelling and grammar errors. As is usually the case with courts, there are judges present—judges who may very well be at the bottom of the food chain of judgeship. Countless and varied people flow through these courts everyday, and the judges have an elevated seat of honor to the nervous procession. It is easy to see the weight of it all anchored to the judges’ faces, hinting at a dark abyss, the depth of which perturbs everything around them: the flags are crooked, the state/city plaques are crooked, the informational signs are crooked, the papers crumpled, and their voices barely manage to escape their mouths before being sucked back in by the sheer comedy of it all.
Such was the state of room 3, today in a New York City DMV.
I sat there watching it all play out, and after 2 hours, I understood how we as a society grew wary and doubtful of both the authority and the integrity of our court system. This is the everyday face of justice. The court system that is supposed to dispense fair judgement and safeguard the law. Below the broader white-collar crimes and Supreme Court hearings is this underbelly of justice that escapes public scrutiny, yet wields great influence over people’s lives. And it’s farcical.
As soon as the judge walked into the courtroom, he began mumbling his sermon. I am a native English-speaker who prides himself on his grasp of the language. I do not exaggerate when I say that I could barely understand him, not because he had a heavy accent or there was loud noise, but because he spoke with such exasperation and carelessness that his words were unintelligible. What of the 5 or 6 non-native English-speakers who went before me? They surely couldn’t understand a single word, and that alone is a miscarriage of justice because he was laying out what each person’s rights and affordances were in court (I think). In any case, whatever it was, I’m sure it was worth knowing.
After he was through, a police officer and a defendant approached the bench. The officer gave his account and the defendant his own. In almost every case except one, the word of the officer was taken more weightily than the defendant’s. All the officers had were their notes and their recollections. In two cases both were shown unreliable.
In one case the officer was up against a lawyer. She finished recounting her version of the infraction, and he asked for her notes, which she handed over. He then asked if her account was from memory. She affirmed that it was. He then asked her to repeat which direction she was facing at the time she witnessed the infraction. “North-bound,” she said. “But it says here in your notes,” countered the lawyer, “that you were east-bound?” That was enough to cast doubt and dismiss the case.
The second case was the one that I was there for. The officer claimed he was at the corner of an intersection near a gas station right before he pulled over the defendant. He misidentified the gas station, and, mischaracterized where he had pulled over the defendant. The defendant pointed out the latter inconsistency. This sparked the judge’s interest.
Improper cellphone usage. While I was there 3 other such cases were presented and every single one fell through. All the evidence was hearsay, and apparently the police officer’s word was more worth the listen. I kept asking myself: “Why?”. Yes, the defendant has an interest at stake. They want to relieve themselves of the charges and penalties, but so does the officer. The police officer wants to evidence their claims and not waste their time in court, nor, perhaps, suffer the embarrassment of losing. The officer from the first case seemed appalled, indignant with the judge, and mocked, “Yes, sir!,” as she stomped out of the courtroom. Her word had been shown fallible and it upset her.
“Officer?” interrogated the judge. The officer did his best to explain away the inconsistency. The defendant was brimming with confidence. He had seen this scene moments before. I was called in as a witness. I gave my testimony. “I find you guilty of improper cellphone use,” proclaimed the judge.
I was stunned. The defendant was stunned. And as we walked out of that courtroom we were hit first with impotence and then with anger at how rigged the court system is against the accused. To evidence his case, all the officer did was speak. To what lengths does a defendant have to go to get that amount of trust? In one instance it seemed that revealing a contradiction would suffice to show that even police officers are human. In another, it sufficed to show that they are inviolable.
The space does not inspire respect. The people who step into it do not inspire respect. The dealings that happen within it do not inspire respect. This is a small, and seemingly insignificant snapshot of an album of similar moments that shame our court system and our law.
Sure, it’s easy to grow disheartened and speak begrudgingly when things don’t go the way one wants. But think back to pre-school, middle-school, or high-school. If ever your word was pitted against a teacher’s and your’s was dismissed in favor of their’s, you will recognize the injustice I witnessed today.