Friday, August 17, 2007

No Car Insurance = Court = Big Fine = Jail for Poor People

Some may think I am going to extremes here but this actually happened to me in 2000 in Coosa Co. Alabama in the little town of Goodwater.

I was just weeks out of Hillcrest Hospital for treatment of severe depression after losing my three month old son to SIDS. I was driving through Goodwater when a cop pulled me over. I had no idea what for. My tag was current, I wasn't speeding or doing anything illegal that I was aware of. It turns out that the year sticker on my tag was missing. I guess someone stole it because those things do not just fall off by themselves.

He asked for insurance and I told him I didn't have any so he wrote me a ticket. He said that if I got insurance before my court date that the judge would likely throw it out. I went that very day and got insurance. I had to borrow the money from my mom.

When my court date rolled around my husband happened to be home from his OTR driving job and was able to go with me and handle our daughter as we had no baby sitter. In the courtroom two elderly black men were talking amongst themselves and one of them said..."They building a new jail and need money. Anybody that ain't got money for the fines today will go to jail." I didn't think that would happen. In my then very limited experiences with the court it always seemed that a judge would allow you to make payments. I also was under the impression that he would throw out my case because I had gotten insurance since the ticket.

That ain't quite what happened.

The Judge was the old Judge Teel and he was an absolute bastard to everyone who went before him. Everyone who had the money to pay the fine which was $746 was allowed to pay it and leave. Everyone who did not have the money for the fine was made to sit against the courtroom wall on the left side.

I went before him, took out my proof of insurance and handed it to him. He asked me if I had insurance when I was stopped and I told him no but that I had gotten it that very day and the officer had told me it likely be thrown out. He yelled at me that he didn't care when I got it only that I didn't have it when stopped, imposed a $746 fine and told me to go sit down along the wall.

At that particular time in my life I was prone to serious panic attacks. Full blown ones complete with numb lips and hyperventilation. The prescribed medication was Xanax but I didn't carry it around with me everywhere I went. I started to shake and my breathing was rapid. I knew I was about to have a major episode. My husband was looking across the courtroom at me very scared and worried. My daughter kept saying, "Mama" because she was three at the time and did not understand what was happeneing.

Pretty soon two officers told everyone sitting along the wall to get up and follow them downstairs to the jail. As soon as I made it across the courtroom the panic attack bloomed full force. I was hyperventilating, my face was numb, I collapsed to the floor gasping for air and asked for an ambulance. It was the worst panic attack I had ever had and my heart was beating so fast I thought I was going to have a heart attack.

The judge yelled from his throne, "What's matter with that gal?" Someone responded that I needed medical attention. "Naw she don't git'er off the floor." Then he addressed me, "What's gone make you quit doin at?" I eeked out between gasps of air that felt like I was breathing it through a straw, "Not going to jail." He was not pleased with my honest answer and again directed the officers to get me out of there. Two officers tried to get me on my feet but sat me in a chair instead. It was pretty clear to them that this wasn't some sort of prank.

A lady named Dawn Abrams, who was the judge's assistant that day, came over to me and asked me what I took for painc attacks. She explained that she had them as well and was very sympathetic to my current plight. I told her xanax but that I didn't have any. She told me to go on down to the jail and she would go and try to talk to the judge.

So, I went downstaris into a small, filthy, crammed, concrete hole with three cells, one bathroom that consisted of a toilet and a sink with no privacy and was for communal use. I was strip searched in the fucking kitchen and locked in the trustees cell as no other one was available.

I asked for a paper bag to stop the hyperventilation but was denied. Ms. Abrams came down a few minutes later and asked me how long I had had these attacks. I explained that my baby had recently died a SIDS death and that I had only been released from the hospital for treatment for shock, PTSD and severe depression a couple of weeks prior to this. She asked me if we had the money to pay the fine or anyone we could call to get it and I told her no. My husband was driving a truck long distance and it took everything we made just to stay afloat. She said she had tried to talk to the judge but he refused to show any mercy. She told me that my husband had also tried to talk to him and explain that I was a stay-at-home mother and he was a long distance truck driver and that he would lose his job, our only source of income right then if I couldn't be home to take care of the kids. The judge said to him, "So, you're telling me that you need the government to take care of your children for you?" My husband just turned and walked away before something really nasty happened.

Ms. Abrams then said,"I'll be right back. I am going to get you out of here." I didn't know what she was planning and didn't care because all I wanted was OUT! About 10 minutes later she came back and told the guard to open my cell and let me go.

It turns out that she paid the $746 from her own pocket. This was a lady I had never met before, who had some sympathy for my terrible situation and was willing to spend her own hard earned money on a complete stranger. I am not sure I have ever been more grateful in my life as I was that day. I told her I would pay her back and she said not to worry about that.

But, I did pay her back. She was an angel.

I don't know how often judges act in the manner that this one did. Hopefully not too often and preferably not at all. This judge is gone now. I don't know if he is retired or dead. I hope he is dead. I'd like to shit on his grave. His son is now the judge in his place....which is why I avoid driving through Goodwater, AL at all costs even when I have insurance and the sticker on my car tag. However, having spent the last five years of my life in court I am now prepared to really fuck up any judge who dares to treat me or anyone else in that manner again.

So, because of this retarded car insurance law poor people wind up in jail. This is insanity at its finest.


Anonymous said...

FUCKING bullshit to the highest degree... just another show of bloodlust, power, and greed to the max! Nuff said... surely!

Helen said...

Powerful story. Thanks for sharing it.

One could talk about responsibility--if you are going to drive, you need to be accountable, but you bring up a very good point about folks caught in supertight situations, Loretta. Worse even, how our "responsible" legislators (with some shining exceptions) have chosen to ignore the need for public transportation or support for a living wage. Great dilemma--go to work and risk being caught or go hungry. Ever notice that some of the comfier always find that the poor are "irresponsible"--immoral and at fault for not having more?

Abuse of power still happens--ask any person of color. I also remember two (white) college kids who were stopped by "law" enforcement in Pickens County in the 90s as they drove around looking at old bridges. Their relatively privileged families basically had to ransom them.

This week I got a call about profiling of a "Mexican" in a nearby community (not Mexican--but what's the dif, some say). Lipscomb officials are finally being held publicly accountable for their abuses. They finally went so far that even the intimidated had enough and fought back. Last August a man driving his wife and child to a pediatrician's appointment was stopped in Gadsden. He fainted and hit his head on the ground and was knocked unconscious. They did call for an ambulance. As he lay on the ground more patrol cars pulled up and the officers speculated on how long it would take for him to be deported. Another Mexican, who saw the man fall from across the street, went over, put something under his head (it was 90 degrees in the air, hotter on the asphalt). He later died. He is the member of an extended family group, was a 13-year resident of Alabama and going through the immigration process. An attorney got interested, poked around and reported back that there was "no case." Just a widow and now two children having to lean on other family members.
I have met and worked with numerous police officers, judges and others in power who are trying to do the right thing. How do we stop the bad apples. It is up to all of us, I think.

There are some groups and individuals working to inform people (all people) of their civil rights and some working especially with youth to help them stay out of situations where they don't know how to act.

As for Judge Teel--if he is still alive, do you think living within his own skin must be punishment in itself.

Loretta Nall said...

Thanks for your comments Helen. Did you happen to get any word of other factories being staked out this week? I'd really like to know whether or not this incident at the place where my husband works was widespread or isolated.

>>As for Judge Teel--if he is still alive, do you think living within his own skin must be punishment in itself. <<

No. I don't think Judge Teel ever lost a second of sleep or experienced even a moments remorse for the way that he treated those who were unfortunate enough to have to go before him without a wad of money. I have heard many horror stories about his conduct over the years that he was judge.....and I'd still love to take a massive crunch on his grave. He deserves it.

Elle said...

That is a really sad yet important story to tell. I have never driven without insurance, but I don't think people should be punished to the extent that you were. I only think punishment or fines should take place if a very serious accident takes place and the not at fault party gets hurt. Or, Louisiana has a no pay/no play law where if you aren't insured yourself you can't claim against someone elses policy.

People like Judge Teel are the reason I like to think of an afterlife. This world is a lot like hell for many of us, and I hope this is where we can prove our worth and then go on to something better.

Loretta - you rock! Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately , this is par for the course. City courts are all about the money and if a judge does not act accordingly he is canned. A HSV city judge was reportedly canned because when the city dismissed cases bc the officer had failed to appear 3 times, this judge would not make the defendant pay costs.

Anonymous said...

I had a discussion with my fiance while driving past Wisconsin about this issue.
I really believe you should have insurance on your car.
Insurance is very important. I know the insurance company doesn't make nearly enough money versus what it pays out for accidents. What they do make money from is life and home insurance.
But getting back to the point. Insurance is like a cushion that protects your family and others. However, I do understand that when you are poor you just can't afford insurance. But not always are the people driving without insurance being extra careful or even for a justified cause like driving to work to feed family. Some are out there in their uninsured cars just for the fun of it and showing off they have a car.
I'm rambling again... Ok, what if, you or I were to get hit in a car accident... you may own a house or rent, have kids, bills... the person who doesn't have insurance who hit you is putting your life in total chaos because you could lose everything due to medical bills.
The government makes you buy insurance but it's all justified.
All in all please protect yourself and others by having insurance. I can tell you many real life horror stories about accidents that involved people who have no insurance.. or those who are horribly under insured but I bet you already know of some.

Anonymous said...

It doesn't matter where (which state) you got the ticket, once the ticket is issued it will be on your DMV print out (record) for some period of time. Even if you moved to another and change your license, that ticket will still appear.

Anonymous said...

Do i have to get an auto insurance when i buy a used car? or else, they don't sell the car to a person who doesn't have an auto insurance? I currently have a lease car that will be returned this January next year. But i want to get a used car soon so that i can work on the car, but i won't be driving it around. The car will be in my garage until i return the lease car and get an auto insurance. I live in Philadelphia, PA
Any suggestion?

Anonymous said...

Got a ticket a year ago. Insurance had lapsed...was 2 days without coverage. oops! So went and paid the fine with renewed insurance, no problem. Now, a week ago, DMV Alabama sends a letter wanting me to pay 100.00 for not having insurance on the day I was stopped. "I paid ticket and court fine already" I told the lady over the phone in Montgomery. She said, "Yes, but because you were not covered on the day you were stopped, you owe the state of AL." Of course, the letter/'form sent to me showed nothing about me paying a ticket and court fines....just that I owed the state...and if not paid within two weeks, my vehicle would no longer be registered with the state, and would acrue more fines if driven. So I have to pay the added expense because I was w/o insurance for 2 days a yr.ago! Grrr.
This is in no way related to your stories, but was thinking, "my tags are to be renewed this month...God forbid I should be driving through Goodwater and get stopped...."But your honor, they are due this month and I have until the last day of the month to have them renewed!" Chances are, he would reply, "Don't give a damn, they uz not renewed when you wuz stopped...sit yore azz on the wall maam." Funny? Hell NO! I, with all sincerity, sympathize over what happened to you, Loretta! Thankful it all worked out for you; TOTALLY PISSED OFF THAT it ever happened in the first place, though! Also,I am angry about the man on crutches being shot! Totally wrong! If he did argue with the judge, I say GOOD FOR HIM, SOMEONE NEEDS fact...well, I'll hold my peace for now. But,it reminds me of some low budget, zombie hick flick at it's best...only IT'S REAL AND WE CANNOT JUST LET THINGS LIKE THIS HAPPEN! WE CANNOT JUST THROW OUR HALF EATEN POPCORN DOWN, CASUALLY LITTERING THE THEATER, AND WALK OUT! PEOPLE LIKE THIS NEED TO BE PLACED ALONG THE WALL THEMSELVES, AWAITING JAIL! When the inability to pay a fine turns into a stage for such dramatic injustice such as this one, it's time to SPOTLIGHT the CAST, PLAY THE MUSIC OF JUSTICE UPON THEM LOUDLY AND TELL THEM TO "GET UP AND DANCE!!!!" Bad boys, Bad boys, whatcha gonna do? Whatcha gonna do now the EYE's on YOU!!!
Just sayin.