A couple years ago on Cinco de Mayo I was arrested and put in jail for a DUI. However, I was actually innocent, having passed my breathalyzer earlier in the night. Because an idiotic cop had a “hunch” my family had to spend thousands of dollars and I am still dealing with the repercussions of this night now, about five years later. I don’t usually tell personal stories on this blog. However, I feel that this story highlights how corrupt our justice system is. It made me realize how easy it is to get stuck inside the jaws of the system. There are much worse scenarios that have played out over the years, one only has to watch Errol Morris’s Thin Blue Line, but this made me realize something else. I realized that it’s not just the bigger life changing cases that are often wrong. I can now see a whole justice system that, on a much smaller and more personal level, is ruining people’s lives. I also had a family that had the resources to fight the system. I was in jail that night with many people that didn’t have those resources. They had to wait days and possibly even weeks to get out, even if they had done nothing wrong. If you miss a couple days of work, innocent or not, you are probably going to lose your job.
Earlier in the night my band had played in North Austin. A couple of the people I was with decided to go down south to see if James McMurtry was playing. I was the designated driver as I had only had two beers with dinner before my bands show, many hours before. McMurtry was not playing, so we decided to just call it a night. As we were leaving the Continental Club I was pulled over by two cops. The cops asked if I had been drinking. I made the first of many mistakes by telling the cops the truth that I had had two beers much earlier in the night. I have now learned from my lawyer to always lie to cops. You don’t get in any more trouble if you do. The police do not value truth and will actually use it against you if you are honest. That was my rookie mistake 101.
The cops decided to give me a field sobriety test. That night I was wearing cowboy boots, which I rarely do. Although most of the field sobriety test was passed with ease, I wavered slightly on the test where you have to stand on one leg. When I mean I wavered, I mean slightly enough that my lawyer laughed while watching the video recording as he could not believe that it was enough for the police to try to take this to the next level. Again, I am not used to wearing cowboy boots, and it just took me a second to gain my balance. Also, please keep in mind that this entire time I was speaking coherently and was completely polite to the police officers. For the trouble that I was about to go through, I wish I had called them douche bags or something, but alas, I did not. Although I thought I was going to be let go, I was next cuffed and thrown in the back of a police car.
I was taken to a mobile unit where the job of the police there was to give you a breathalyzer. I passed the breathalyzer as stated above. However, the cop that detained me only seemed to get angrier at this. Cops hate to look like the fools that they so often are. Instead of letting me go he said that he thought I was on something and decided to take me tot the hospital for a blood test. I went to the hospital, gave a blood test, as I had nothing to hide, and then was taken back to the mobile unit. Instead of being taken back to my car, at this point I was booked and thrown in the back of a paddy wagon.
If you think cops are dicks outside of jail, wait till you meet the ones inside jail! After spending several hours in a general holding cell, which resembled a cell less than it resembled a bunch of church pews with no deity at the front, I was forced to strip nude in front of an officer and other people being held. After several other minor steps I was then taken to a solitary cell with no windows. Instead of being given any information as to what was going on, the cops in jail seemed to relish withholding any information from me. They would actually get angry at me when I asked any questions about what was going on, when I could expect to get out, etc. Remember, I was completely innocent. So much for freedom in America!
About 16 hours later I was taken to a preliminary hearing with other “inmates” that had been brought in that night. My brother was with me earlier in the night. As a side note I should mention that instead of letting my brother move my car five feet into a parking space, the cops towed my car, thus adding several hundred dollars worth of costs to the proceeding. Anyway, I knew that because my brother was there when this happened, that my family was aware of what was going on and was probably trying to contact a lawyer to get me out. I remember looking around the room, many of the other people were poor African American males, and I remember thinking they were doomed as many of them probably didn’t have the resources to get a lawyer. They would simply have to wait for the state to let them out on its own glacial pace. Working in the moving industry for several years I had already seen how this bogus imprisonment robbed many people of their jobs. You may think I am stereotyping, but I would bet any amount of money that my assessment of many of the people around me was not incorrect. Although some of the people were surely guilty of the crimes they had been accused of, they were now caught in a system that was going to fuck them either way. Also, I believe that unless the crime is violent or harms other in some way, the way that the system disrupts your life punishes people in an unfair way. You are not only doing whatever time or paying whatever fine is deemed by society to be acceptable; you basically have something on your record that will make getting employed much harder. And remember, many of these poor souls were probably going to lose whatever job they had when they got taken in, if they could not afford to get out in a timely manner. My lawyer cost $5,000 dollars. If not for my family I would have been sitting there for days or weeks too.
I got out late the next afternoon. I had spent 20 hours in jail, had been stripped naked and robbed of my dignity, and had been treated like a piece of shit by the cops in jail, and my family was out thousands of dollars. Oh, and all just because I ran across the wrong dickhead cop on the way home. I should be able to say this was all a horrible mistake that doesn’t happen very often. But instead I just want to say, “Welcome to America!” I simply had the ill fortune of experiencing what so many others go through on a nightly basis. If you haven’t gone through something like this I say, “Lucky you!”
This is something I am still dealing with. I recently applied to an educational company for some side money, and I am having trouble getting hired because the “dismissed” DUI is still on my record. And it was dismissed. It was thrown out of court before ever going to trial because it was basically laughable in the eyes of my lawyer and the prosecutor. Though after several visits to the courthouse for which I had to take off work, it didn’t feel very laughable. I was told after my case was dismissed that it would take several years, and another couple hundred dollars, to have this completely expunged from my record. Remember, this is despite it being dismissed outright in the court of law. It never even went to trial.
What kind of country do we live in when people can incur costs of thousands of dollars and be denied employment even when they are innocent? Our justice system is a cruel joke. It is a large dumb slow moving beast that tramples lives into dust. I got out relatively easy because my family had the money to help me out. So many others are not as lucky. I’d like to say this has taught me to never trust the cops. But, I felt that way before. Anyone with any intelligence knows that the police are just organized muscle that often works on behalf of the moneyed interests in this country. This whole experience just confirmed my suspicions. I’m not saying that all cops are bad. They are people just like everyone else, some good and some bad. However, just like people they should be treated as individuals, and not with any kind of overreaching reverence. Too often they are tasked with enforcing the laws of a ridiculous absurd system. With all of the training they get, I wonder if they are taught empathy.
We see an increasingly militarized police force in this country. Innocent citizens being gunned down, people’s dogs shot, and young girls being arrested for crossing the street are now part of our daily headlines. And that is just in Austin! Those that have money can pay the fines and pay for good lawyers. If you don’t have a lot of money, and cross the path of the wrong police officer, you are shit out of luck! When you read of an arrest in the paper, you really need to ask yourself: What really happened?