This is the story of how I spent the morning in jail and my observations thereof. Before today, I would have told you to read it as it may be entertaining, but now I think I'd also advise you that it might come in helpful. I couldn't say "it'll never happen to you."
It started innocently enough (I'm pretty sure every story that ends in an arrest starts like that). I was driving to work, to perform the productive service that helps millions of low-income families across this great nation of ours (I say this to establish sympathy for the protagonist, who is me).
I became aware of the flashing lights of a police car behind me. This being Washington, DC, this is not an infrequent occurrence. As always, I pulled to the right so that the proud officers in blue could pursue whatever dastardly miscreant they were chasing.
The first bad sign was when the police car pulled behind me and seemed to amp up the strobe of its lights. Or maybe it just seemed that way because the car was closer. I don't recall sirens.
I've never been stopped for a moving violation before, but I knew I was supposed to stay in the car, roll down the window, and produce my license. Which I did.
"Do you realize," the admittedly attractive young police officer asked me, "you're driving with expired plates?"
"No, sir, I did not." I thought the "sir" was an appropriate appellation. One should always be respectful to police officers. Their jobs are not easy.
"Can you explain why you are driving with expired plates?"
"Honestly? It's been a rough year and half," I offered. He seemed unmoved. "But I'm sorry," I added quickly. "I'm sure I should have, uh, renewed them." I can admit when I wrong.
"License, please," the office asked flatly.
I gave it to him with equal flatness. He took it to his car and remained there for five minutes. I knew that he was checking to make sure it was valid and that the car wasn't stolen.
He returned with a stoic expression. In fairness, his expression had been stoic the whole time. I didn't expect anything was amiss.
"Could you please step out of your car?"
"Could you please step out of your car, stand with your legs spread and your back to me, arms raised over your head and with your hands pressed against the windshield."
Normally, I think I could have followed those instructions. However, I was beginning to think this was no longer a routine traffic stop. Had I stolen my minivan and forgotten about it? Nervousness impaired my higher brain functions.
I stepped out of the car.
"Please turn with your back to me, spread your legs, raise your arms above your head and place your hands against the glass" he repeated.
Four steps. Let's see. Turn - got it. Spread your legs - not the first time I've heard it, although usually under friendlier circumstances. Raise your hands - like when you really know the answer in class and really want the teacher to call on you. I resisted shouting "ooh-ohh, pick me!"
The last part proved the stopper. "Er, sir. I lowered the window to speak to you and didn't raise it again. I can't press against it." I did, however, hold my hands up and flat as if against an imaginary surface, like a bad mime.
"Use the windshield," he instructed politely, although I imagined he affixed "idiot" to the sentence in his mind.
So, there I stood, legs spread, torso arched in a "C" so I could place my hands against the front windshield, one atop the other. I wished I hadn't given up those Yoga classes.
The officer patted me down with a thoroughness that surprised me. Here I was, a middle-aged guy in shirt and tie driving a minivan. I didn't imagine I presented a particularly threatening appearance. Still, the inspection lasted a full minute or two. It might have proven helpful as, at times, he was in a position where he could have diagnosed testicular cancer.
"Put your arms behind your back, please."
This wasn't good. I've watched enough TV to know what that meant.
"Really?" Maybe I'd heard wrong. It was noisy on the side of the road at rush hour.
"Please." I had to give him points for politeness.
I put my hands behind my back. Sure enough, handcuffs. I thought telling him the handcuffs were OK, but we should really agree on a safeword. I didn't think he'd appreciate the humor.
The right cuff was tight and hurt.
"Do you know why you're being arrested?" he asked.
"I'm being arrested?"
"I'm being arrested?"
"Yes, sir. Do you know why you're being arrested?"
Seeing as how I didn't even realize I was being arrested, it seemed unlikely I'd know why. I sensed a "who's on first" moment coming.
"You're being arrested because your plates are expired."
"I'm being arrested for that?"
In all fairness, my driver's license was also expired. By two months. I hadn't realized. How would I have? I didn't receive a warning in the mail. If they can make devices that beep and flash when your table at a restaurant is ready, why can't they make a driver's license that fades to white or falls apart when it's done? It's 2012, people.
Let's take a moment. At any given moment in Washington, DC, some very serious crimes are being committed. The papers are constantly running stories about how overcrowded the prisons are. This is one of the reasons many advocate the decriminalization of marijuana - because we are filling our correctional institutions with people who've committed victimless crimes. Failing to renew a license plate or driver's license is wrong, but it reflects bad planning, not the mentality of a serial killer. In fact, I understand serial killers tend to be over-organized. Surely, this was not an infraction that required arrest. A warning would have been appreciated, a ticket seemed fair. But handcuffs? Arrest?
"In DC," the officer added, "driving with an expired tags requires arrest." Maybe he was reading my mind. My guess was I wasn't the first person to be surprised to be arrested for this. MIght as well answer the question before I asked it.
It has been my experience that in situations like this, a Zen approach is helpful. I was being arrested. It was an experience that was happening to me. No point in putting up a fight or arguing. I respected the officer's authority. It would do neither of us any good to explain that the policy seemed stupid to me.
The office escorted me to the back of his patrol car. Now, let me tell you some things about a patrol car which I hope you haven't had reason to know.
The back seat has no cushion. It is fashioned out of what I assumed to be plastic, but it had the hardness and discomfort of steel. At the edge, it came to a sharp corner that felt like a razor beneath my knee. The front seats are pushed way back, so the back seat is cramped. I'm about six feet tall, one hundred and eighty pounds. Tall but not heavy. Yet I could barely fit. My knees were pressed against my chin. My back was pushed against the ballistic-grade seat, further driving the too-tight cuffs into my wrist, and the whole mess dug into my sacrum. I vowed never to complain about an airline seat again.
It seemed in my interest to stay quiet. But I couldn't resist asking, through gritted teeth, how long the ride to the station was.
"A few minutes," the officer answered, with the only hint of sympathy I'd hear from him.
"It's kind of a tight fit back here," I said. "I can't imagine how you fit heavier…people in." I was going to say "perps," impressing him with my knowledge of the lingo.
"We just kind of…slide them in," he answered.
That was pretty much it for conversation.
After a few minutes that flew by like hours, we reached our destination. Holding me by the elbow, the officer instructed "we go through the blue doors."
With the skills of a true comedian, the building designer had placed two sets of blue doors thirty or forty feet apart at each end of the facing wall. "Uh, which blue doors?" It seemed like a reasonable question.
The office guided me to the left with what I thought was more force than required. My right, handcuffed wrist resented this bitterly.
Once inside, the officer uncuffed me. Whew. He produced a plastic bag for my possessions. Phone, wallet, keys, change.
"Remove your tie and belt please." They joined their companions in the bag.
"Spread your legs, please." The officer repeated the thorough patdown he's performed by the car. i wasn't sure what he imagined I'd pocketed with my arms cuffed behind me in the patrol car, but I complied. Remember: Zen.
He held the plastic back up to me. "Is that all?"
I turned my pockets inside out. I found an errant penny and dutifully handed it to him.
Incredibly, he conducted a third careful patdown. I can't stress enough the thoroughness of his inspection. Was it the penny that triggered his suspicion? I didn't know. Satisfied that I wasn't I hiding a dime or dustball, he instructed me to sit.
"Remove your shoes," he said. I did. "Your socks, too."
"My socks?" I was playing the repeating game again. Still, I was genuinely surprised. Was it possible I had planned on being pulled over, arrested for a minor infraction and with foresight tucked a shiv into my Goldtoes?
I removed my socks, grateful they were clean and that I had taken a shower that morning. The officer's comfort was a concern of mine.
"OK," he said.
"You can put your shoes and socks back on."
I don't remember the officer looking at my feet or sox. Who can blame him? The exercise didn't seem to accomplish anything. I suspected it was Standard Practice.
"Are you wearing any jewelry?" the officer asked me.
He tugged my shirt collar down anyway. No necklace made a liar of me.
"Do you have any tattoos?" he asked. That seemed random. I couldn't imagine the significance of the question. It wasn't something I could remove and put in the bag.
"Yes," I wanted to answer. "I have an arrow pointing to my ass with the words 'Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here' written above." But this didn't seem like the time to crack wise.
"No," I answered, adding "I'm Jewish" in a nervous babble. I don't know if the officer knew Jews believe tattoos are blasphemous, or if he disregarded the reference as irrelevant as it was.
Shoed again, it was time to go to the Holding Cell. That sounded ominous. Would I be forced to join the Aryan Nation to defend my honor? If so, my mention of my Jewishness was a bad move.
Luckily, I had the Holding Cell to myself. I wasn't confined with someone who had committed a more violent crime than Driving Under the Influence of an Expired License. Lucky, too, because the space was small. I know because I paced it. Four feet by six. About the size of a burial plot.
With perhaps the first example of humor, or as a polite fib, the office told me it would be a short stay. In truth, I wound up in there for over three hours. Without a phone or watch, time was difficult to measure. But I knew when I’d been pulled over, and what time I left, so that's pretty close to accurate.
Every subsequent encounter with a law officer ended with the assurance that I was "almost out of here." "Almost" is a subjective measure, but I don't think anyone would have considered those statements truthful. I suppose they're useful though - had I been told "it'll be a long time before we're done with you," my mood and cooperation might have suffered.
So, I had a lot of time to study the holding cell. The walls were painted sky blue and, judging by their appearance, not recently. Sky blue. Was that irony? The floors were the speckled tile familiar to public school students everywhere. They slanted slightly, to the middle, where a two-inch circular drain rested. It is my sad duty to report that the floor was extraordinarily sticky. I leave it to you to speculate why. I was grateful my shoes had been returned.
Various graffiti decorated my cell. I wondered how it got there. I had been frisked in as frisky a manner possible. Who could have snuck in a pen? Later, an officer explained to me that detainees scratched their messages into the walls using their fingernails.
If so, it didn't seem worth the effort. One person wrote "Fu." I figured he sensibly spared himself the trouble of finishing a word we could probably all guess. Someone else wrote, unnecessarily, "in prison." This I knew.
What fascinated me most was this. In exaggeratedly huge letters, someone etched "Shame on UTube." In the most boring setting possible, I spent some time trying to intuit his or her intent. Had it read "Shame on U," I'd have figured it a condemnation of the police who put him or her there. But the "Tube" belied that interpretation. I'd suffered excessive buffering times, but that hardly seemed the place to register that complaint. Did he or she think YouTube was responsible for his or her incarceration? if so, how? It was as close to an entertaining diversion as I was going to get.
At one point, a younger, friendlier, officer arrived to take my fingerprints and mug shot. That experience was surreal. Again, I was there for an EXPIRED PLATE! Granted, I was in the wrong, but really? This was costing the city and me a lot of time and money. I couldn't see the point. In Singapore, you can be arrested for chewing gum. That is one of the many reason I choose not to live in Singapore.
It was the fingerprinter who told me about the scratching of the walls. He took my fingerprints with a computerized scanner - it was kind of cool. My mug-shots were more ordinary, although he preceded it with the promise that "it's not like what you see on TV."
In fact, it was exactly like you see on TV. Look at the camera. Now to the left. Now to the right. Done. Based on his declaration, I was expecting more. Mood lighting or fun costumes. Anything. I've heard it's the monotony of prison life that is most wearing - I was ready to confess to grand larceny after only three hours. Wimp.
Midway through my stay, an officer opened my cell to ask for my phone number. I recited it. He also asked, bizarrely. for a second time, if I had any tattoos. Was this information of vital importance in the service of Justice? I stuck with my true story. Although, maybe I was supposed to "yes" to get out of there. Maybe there was a rule at the station - every other prisoner needed to have a tattoo. If I was asked a third time, I might go rogue.
Since I had the opportunity, I mentioned that my stay seemed longer than I'd anticipated. "We just have to make sure you are who you say you are," he explained.
I don't remember saying I was anyone, although my name and picture were on my (expired) driver's license and the government-issued ID I'd given them. Plus, if you Google "Scott Sherman," my picture appears three times in the first row of the images page. Bing is better, placing my picture right there on the first results page. Even Yahoo has my picture on the first line of results. If establishing my identify was the work of ninety minutes, something is amiss. I see a business opportunity for a clever consultant.
The end of my stay, like most things in life, was both anticlimactic and tedious. The arresting officer arrived to take my fingerprints again - this time the old fashioned way, with black ink and paper. The redundancy was lost on me. He gave me something to sign - an agreement to appear at a hearing someday in July. Without my phone, I didn't have a calendar, so whether I'd even be in town on that day was a mystery to me. But, again, I'd have signed anything to get out of there.
I did not get out of there. As he escorted me back to my cell, I asked "again?"
"I just have to make some copies," he said. "I'll be back in a minute."
Twenty minutes later, he was back. He unlocked the door. Asking me to put my hands behind my back, he handcuffed me again as he led me out of the station. He didn't explain this to me, but earlier, I heard another officer tell his prisoner that handcuffs were required for all escorts. Like you have to ride a wheelchair out of a hospital even if you're ambulatory, I guess.
With a no-nonsense attitude. he handed me the clear plastic bag containing my belongings. "I'm sure this wasn't fun for you either," I told him, "but I appreciate your efficiency and courtesy." He nodded so slightly that I couldn't swear he nodded at all. He did not say goodbye or wish me luck. He disappeared behind glass doors that locked behind him. I wondered if my politeness appeared foolish.
Walking the mile and a half back to my car, which I couldn't drive but from which I wanted to retrieve a few things, I never did see a point to the arrest. My experience wasn't pleasant, nor was it abusive, It was…mystifying. I wondered about the role of authority in our lives. Who decided an arrest is mandatory in the instance of an expired license plate? I wasn't even sure it was.
But, more importantly, I wasn't even sure I was arrested. Had I "just" been "detained"? I wasn't informed of my Miranda rights. Isn't that required in an arrest? The officer who pulled me over seemed very efficient; I doubt he'd overlook something so basic.
I almost asked him about it, but I'll save it to for the judge. Still, something had happened. It wasn't pleasant. It seemed to me an overreaction, and just don't know what it was. I don't feel guilty - yes, I'd failed to renew my paperwork, but that seemed a minor infraction. I mostly felt confused by a process in which I had no agency and was frightened to ask questions about what was happening. I was aware that if, for any reason, someone took a dislike to me my stay could have been more disagreeable. The copies that took twenty minutes to make could have taken two hours. I had no power, other to observe and report. Which is what I'm doing here.
I'll ask around. Was my arrest really required? If so, should I have been informed of my Miranda rights? Were the handcuffs, the three hours of confinement, the fingerprinting, the mug shots, necessary? What was the point? In retrospect, it was Kafkaesque.
I don't feel at the moment traumatized by the experience, but I wouldn't be surprised if I had trouble falling asleep or bad dreams. I respect police officers and appreciate their service. I don't assume what they did was unwarranted or mean spirited. But I also don't understand its necessity or usefulness to society. If you know something about this that I don't, clue me in. I write mysteries, but they're resolved by the end of the book. This one isn't. I'd like it to be.
THE NEXT DAY
As predicted, I didn't sleep well and was plagued by bad dreams. I guess being arrested has an effect on a guy.
Troubled, I turned to Google. Turns out, I wasn't the only person arrested for this. A local news station reported: "District of Columbia police records show that in the past two years officers have arrested more than 3,400 drivers for expired tags or unregistered cars." http://www.wjla.com/articles/2011/11/d-c-expired-tags-arrests-total-3-400-over-past-two-years-68953.html
Fox News, bless their hearts, had this to say: "In a city that hosts its fair share of murders and terror plots, police are cracking down on another threat to the nation's capital -- expired vehicle registrations. To the frustration of forgetful drivers, Metropolitan Police Department officers are throwing people in jail for letting their tag renewals lapse. The practice provoked somewhat of a backlash last year after a local mother from Maryland was jailed for what in many places would be a routine traffic offense punishable by fine. But the department continues to reserve and exercise the right to throw drivers in the clink for missing the DMV deadline."
The resulting publicity led to an "emergency meeting” in which "the D.C. Council unanimously changed a law that had allowed police officers to arrest motorists for driving with expired tags." http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2011/oct/18/dc-council-ends-arrests-expired-car-tags/
A couple of things here. You may have noticed the paper said the law "allowed" police to arrest motorists for driving with expired tags. I was told it was required. More importantly, since it made no sense and was a waste of time and money, THE LAW WAS CHANGED TO PROHIBIT THESE ARRESTS!
As far as the fact that my Miranda rights were never read to me, that's not as clear. Apparently, they are only required when an officer asks questions while the arrestee is "in custody" and if the answers are used in court. I think. Since I had handcuffs on at the time, I'd guess that qualifies as "in custody." I certainly didn't feel free to stop by a Starbucks.
As to whether or not my startling confession I’d made while handcuffed that I didn't know why I was being arrested will be brought up in court, well, I guess we'll see.
Yesterday, when this happened, I never questioned the actions of motivation of the officer who arrested me. He told me the extreme step was required. Today, knowing that not only was it never required but is forbidden, I feel differently about what happened. My guess is you would, too.