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June 03, 2013

Seagulled Part 3: Criminals in...Crime

[Seagull Lessons Part 1 and 2 found here.]

I stood in my crocs with bare back leaning against a cement wall in some police station corridor purgatory. About 30 minutes later, the first officer with the spiral bound notebook began asking me questions.

"So how many days a week do you work out?"
"Have you ever done P90X?"

I was in NO mood to bullshit. But since that word accurately describes the whole series of events,  that's exactly what I did. I made it a point to state that I had recently had an essay about P90X published in The Patriot News. We talked a bit more, him taking finger prints and fitting in criminal questions between fitness questions. I thought he was playing me...

An hour later I was released and given some paperwork about returning to City Hall at 9:00 a.m. the next morning. I didn't feel much like dinner with the extended family that night, nor did I rest easy. The next day I reported back at 8:45 and sat for over two hours listening to people state their cases. There were a half dozen DUIs and a few "failure to obtain appropriate consent for signage." I listened to a Hispanic fellow who could barely speak English try to explain to the judge how the City sent his paperwork to a former residence rather than his current residence at his restaurant.

By the time the judge called my name I knew the routine. I stood up and he read my charges. A poorly contained snicker of laughter came from a guy in a business suit to my right, and I was thankful for him.

The judge asked if I killed a seagull and I said, "Yes, by accident." He advised me to get an attorney, said they would see me in a few months, and quickly moved on to the next name on his list.

No. I could not pay a fine and move on with life. I would have to return, no kidding.

The next day, at the suggestion of a Northern NJ lawyer my mother-in-law works for, I biked to the office of an Ocean City attorney. He was a living attorney caricature but I heard he was good and would treat my fairly. He offered to defend me for $1000, which I later found was a good deal. 

Back home in late September, I received a summons to the Ocean City courtroom on a Wednesday in January. In advance I took off work for that day and booked a hotel. When the day came I received a phone call while traveling east on the Turnpike. The attorney said that he could enter a plea for me in my absence, and though my presence was not needed for that day, I would have to come for a hearing on a date to be determined.

I exited the Turnpike and called the hotel. "Yes I know that I'm entitled to no refund on a late cancellation of my hotel room."

A week later I received paperwork regarding a trial date in early February. I scheduled that day off work as well and reserved a hotel. On that date, all of the east coast was immobilized by an ice storm. The hearing was rescheduled to early March. I ended up getting a $55 refund from the hotel.

And so the whole big stupid thing rolled on...

I scheduled a third day off work. That day came and I brought Tim and Ryan at the advice of my attorney. We drove from Harrisburg to his office where he spelled out a game plan. He read us the police report which stated that the bird was an endangered breed, and it was later released into a wildlife sanctuary in Southern NJ. That was an interesting detail because, if you recall, Ryan bludgeoned it to death and I carried a limp carcass across the beach. But the officer specifically wrote it up that way as he was talking to me at the station.

The attorney smoked a huge cigar as he drove us less than a mile to City Hall. We arrived and stood outside waiting for him to finish it off before walking in together. The first thing we all noticed was that the seagull people, the ones who called the police at the scene of the crime, actually showed up at 9:00 a.m. on a Wednesday in March. Yes, apparently there are people with nothing better to do than watch for such events.

But it turns out that they didn't have their act together. I later learned that when the city prosecutor spoke with them, he determined it would be best to...send them home.

The posturing was gross. Oh the posturing.

My attorney met with the prosecutor in the hallway. The prosecutor met with the judge in his office. My attorney met with the judge in his office. The three talked again in the hallway and the attorney asked me some questions in the stairwell. It was near time to go to trial. FINALLY I would have the chance to plead my case on record to an impartial person in his right mind, and justice would be served. Or so I thought.

The attorney called Tim and Ryan and I into a small conference room where he spelled out two options. I could make a Not Guilty plea (to animal cruelty) and I would probably be found innocent, but he wasn't completely sure, and I would have to make another trip for another trial date since the witnesses were no longer on site. Or I could plead Guilty to a reduced misdemeanor charge and pay a fine of $800.

"On second thought, we'll try to get the fine reduced as well," said the attorney.

"Then I'm done with this?"
"Yes, then you're done!"

In the end I paid a $475 fine. Plus a $1000 attorney fee. Plus 3 days of missed work. Plus travel and 1.5 hotel room fees. Plus about 4 lost hours of vacation. Plus humiliation, stress, and other personal damages. 

This is justice? The City Prosecutor's (and judge, for all I know) only angle was maximizing the revenue coming into the city. Like, "You made a mistake and we're going to drag you over the coals." He sent the witnesses home knowing that I would settle and pay a fine rather than return on another day for trial.

The attorney was well worth the money, but I still felt angry and sleazy having to associate with him. The city and bird watchers? You actually get help from the state when you decide to terminate the life of an innocent human in the womb but woe to you who aborts the life of a seagull.

Ryan would later give me $250 in cash, which he certainly didn't have to do. He thanked me for not throwing him under the bus, which was seriously appreciated. 

It's been almost three years that I've dug for a lesson from this. There was no true suffering. But it was one costly nuisance. As far as lesson, I have none to offer. Other than "Don't mess with the seagulls (when others may be watching)."

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