This will not be published until the case is settled; so if you are just now reading it then don’t be too upset for my predicament. The events described are well in the past, and I waited this long to publish for legal reasons. This was the first post I wrote on the blogger edit interface, nearly fifteen years ago today. The wife convinced me that I shouldn’t make this my first post. She has always been more cautious than I am. “Let sleeping dogs lie” she told me. Let them lie until you are beyond their reach. Fifteen years should be long enough.
I see the cop’s flashlight beam from across the street hesitate on the expired inspection sticker on my windshield. Bicycle cops using a 4th street traffic jam as an excuse to run a impromptu checkpoint. Make a few bucks in fines for the city. Captive audience with no place to go. I move forward a few car lengths, and I have a brief moment of hope that perhaps they have better things to do tonight. But no, there is a tap on my window, and the traffic is stopped again.
I have tried and failed to get the car inspected 3 times in the previous week. I’ve only been driving this car for that amount of time. Before that it was The Wife’s car. I suggested she get the car inspected, a loathsome Texas ritual, several times over the course of the more than a year that the sticker in the windshield has been out of date. Now the lapsed inspection sticker is my problem. None of the mechanics that I frequent seem to want to be punished for improper inspections that they aren’t allowed to profit from, so they don’t want to inspect old cars. State inspections now require carbon monoxide metering equipment, equipment which must be maintained and adjusted to work properly. So here I am with an expired inspection sticker visible on the windshield, stuck in traffic, about to have a memorable encounter with a police officer.
I had just called The Wife and told her I would be by to pick her up shortly. It’s the big weekend of Austin Film Festival, Saturday night on 5th Street. Lots of parties to hobnob with movie types and wanna be movie types are occurring all around town. This is probably why 6th street is closed, and traffic is at a standstill on the neighboring streets. Tourists and investors are in town for the big weekend. She got a AFF Producer’s badge for her birthday, and has been enjoying herself immensely all week. Tonight she’s partying, and needs a ride home. I didn’t see the problem with that. Told her I’d be right down to pick her up.
I hate driving downtown. Everyone downtown has a corncob up their ass, and they’re always in lemming-like flight to get wherever they should have been 5 minutes ago. I get confused easily these days, with the disorientation and the tinnitus. I take wrong turns, I drive too slowly; basically, I get in everyone’s way. So I don’t go downtown unless I have to.
Another tap at the window, this one much harder. Clearly, he’s expecting an answer. Checking that the doors are locked, I crack the window and ask, in my usual manner “may I help you”. The words are “may I help you”, but the tone is clear that I would prefer not to be of help. I’ve been perfecting that double entendre for years. I probably should have stuck to “what” or “Yes Officer”. I might actually have answered “yes”, which is my other favorite. Yes, which clearly sounds like “No”. Again, not a wise move.
His response was “What do you mean, can I help you? Your inspection sticker is two years out of date.”
That annoyed me. It’s not two years out of date. Admittedly, the second anniversary of the cars last inspection is rapidly approaching two years, but it hasn’t been two years yet. I respond with a negative. “It’s hasn’t been two years yet.” Oh, that’s bad. It’s about to get worse.
He’s blunt again. “Gimme your license and insurance.”
Gimme. That’s not even a word. Is please too much to ask? Stupid question. Oh well. I grab my wallet off the passenger seat (where it generally is these days, sciatica doesn’t respond well to objects in the back pockets) and proceed to get my driver’s license.
Another directive. “Pull over onto these tracks and get out of the car”
OK. Now there’s a problem. All along the street, in about 4 places so far, are signs warning you not to drive on the tracks. My car has just had new tires put on, and I’ve spent the better part of a month’s income getting the front end aligned and the brakes done, in preparation of getting it inspected. There are huge (and I mean, huge) city titties along the driving side of the tracks. On top of all this, there is a temporary barricade very close to being parallel to the front of my car. I know the road widens ahead. Pull on the tracks? No, it’s illegal, it’s barely possible, and I might damage my car. Can I pull ahead instead? I get as far as “I can’t drive on the tracks, it’s illegal. There’s a sign back there…”
He said “that’s enough of that” and opened the door. I panicked. The door was supposed to be locked. I checked it. I wasn’t even sure he was a cop until he started talking in his cop voice. I reflexively grabbed for the door handle and tried to pull the door closed. He then said “Oh, you are not going to do that!” and grabbed my arm, pulling my upper body out of the car. Mind you, the car is still in gear, and my feet are on the clutch and brake. If I let my feet off the pedals, the car will surge forward, injuring me and the police officer. So I wedge myself into the seat and hope someone will either let go, or take the car out of gear. I can’t take the car out of gear, because now they have both hands.
Lucky for all of us, one of the cops says “I think the car is still in gear” I don’t remember much else for a bit, because they pepper sprayed me while I was preventing them from getting us all injured, holding the clutch down. I might have popped the clutch at the last minute. I don’t remember. What I do remember is one of the guys stepped on me to get into the car. After they were sure the car wasn’t going anywhere, they dragged me across the pavement for a bit so they could get the handcuffs on. I do remember that I still had my wallet in my hand, because trying to do something with it got me pepper sprayed a second time, and so I just dropped the wallet on the ground.
After they picked me up and set me on a curb, the police officer who started this whole mess had the gall to ask me “why did you do that?” Which struck me as ironic, since I hadn’t done anything. I was bruised, pepper-blinded and handcuffed on a curb because of my not doing whatever it was he was asking me to do. This was a question I could well have asked him. Hell, I probably did ask him amongst all the subsequent cursing.
I’ll freely admit to harsh language on the curb. Before the curb, it was “What are you doing?”, “I haven’t done anything!” and “get off me!” After the curb, the language was much more blue. I demanded badge numbers. Pointless, since I couldn’t write anything down with my hands cuffed. I told them I was going to sue all of them. Everyone handcuffed and bleeding says that. I shouted “police brutality” a few times. People walking by laughed. Schadenfreude. In the end “I just want to go home” is all I would say in response to any inquiry. Some wiseguy must have triggered on that, because they started talking amongst themselves, then one of them came over and asked me “You do know you are under arrest, right?” I’m sitting on a curb, handcuffed and bleeding after being physically dragged out of my car. There are no secrets to be revealed in this predicament. It is kind of obvious now that I’ve been arrested. It would have been nice if they had said that phrase earlier. It would have made a difference.
Had I been informed I was being arrested, I would have simply taken the car out of gear and exited the vehicle. Since I had not been informed that I was under arrest until I was sitting on a curb, handcuffed and bleeding, I’m not sure how it could be said I resisted arrest. That didn’t stop them from charging me with resisting arrest, when the time came.
They also threw in the nugget failure to comply with a lawful order which has the added bonus of getting me tried in two courts, since the resist charge is a county level offense, and the failure charge is municipal offense. You gotta make sure to grease all those palms with fines. Can’t have the state of Texas or Travis county go hungry. They need their blood money too. You, the arresting officer, need to make sure the poor, disadvantaged, disabled sap you’ve just abducted from his car on the way to pick up his wife from a party he told her to go to has to waste as much of his, her, their time as you can get from them since failure to appear is how most of the return visits to the county lockup are generated.
The order to pull onto the railroad tracks wasn’t lawful, and since I wasn’t given the chance to produce my identification while being dragged bodily from my car, I don’t know what basis in fact there was for that charge either. But they charged with that, too.
The officer was sure to shout his justification in my face, during the curbside encounter. “If I tell you to do it, it’s a lawful order!” I said, with no qualms of my being wrong on this, “Bullshit.” He could very well have just had someone pull over onto the tracks before I got there. The police report says they did, that they had been running a lawful checkpoint when they encountered me.
I don’t know about lawful checkpoint. I saw four guys gossiping on the side of the road, one with a flashlight. It looked like they might have been cops and it turned out that they were. Four large men, hopped up on adrenaline, having just broke up a near-riot on sixth street. So they were looking for trouble and found some in a middle aged former CAD guru with Meniere’s disease. What a score for them.
What they were engaging in didn’t look like an active checkpoint. Shooting the shit with buddies you were just cracking heads with rarely looks like organization of any kind. What it meant, if they did order someone onto the tracks before me and he followed directions, was that the last guy didn’t want to get cuffed and arrested. Probably a smart move, but not exactly the basis for a telling argument for giving a lawful order. If a cop tells you to shoot someone it’s not a lawful order. There are laws contradicting his order. So too with moving violations. The order was unlawful, because it was contrary to posted rules. Had I driven onto the tracks, and then they arrested me, they could have easily said that I had committed a moving violation, just like if in pulling me out of my car they caused the car to run into another car, that moving violation would have been my fault as well. That charge would have held up in court, just like the other two.
This police report is an excellent work of fiction, I say as I sit looking at it. A tale worthy of any number of police dramas on television. The perpetrator locked his hands in the wheel. The perpetrator refused multiple requests that he exit the vehicle. I say again, with feeling, Bullshit. Of course, I won’t discover the fiction these cops have crafted for me to participate in for three or four days, on the day when my first court date is set. That’s all later on. Much later on.
Right now, I’m going to jail. The EMT’s show up at some point and rinse my face. They were in the area, so stopped by. They were the first people to tell me that pepper spray can’t be washed off. It can be washed off. Dawn dishwashing liquid takes it right off. I found that out later, too. Then the police cruiser shows up and parks right in the spot I wanted to pull over to. The spot with no tracks and no signs saying don’t pull over here. That figures. Then comes the lovely and entertaining ride to the county jail. I get to ride in a paddywagon next to vomiting drunks. This is just the first in a long list of experiences that could not be over quick enough but yet went on all night long.
After the lovely transportation experience comes the 8 plus hour wait in the drunk tank for processing. I’ve been told I was lucky. The stay in the tank can amount to days sometimes. Days I hear you say? Why days? Because they can wait that long. What does that expense amount to? No idea.
Did I mention the sciatica? No, I only mentioned the Meniere’s. Try sitting for 8 hours, staring at a wall, while a knife slowly cuts into the back of your leg. I call that inhumane torture, myself. The sitting is enforced. I tried to stand any number of times, because standing takes the pressure off the nerve that is being pinched, but I was always told promptly to “sit”. There were plenty of badges around to keep you in your place, but apparently not enough hands to shorten 15 minutes worth of ID-ing from the 8 hours that it took.
Why would you want to do that? Speed things up? We’re all guilty in there, anyway. The medic who looked at my cuts and bruises made that perfectly clear, if the cops who brought me to the drunk tank hadn’t made it clear previously. “What are you doing downtown tonight Mr. Steele?” “Picking up my wife” “Had anything to drink” “No” “So, you just came downtown to drive around, eh?”
Apparently picking up my wife wasn’t a good enough reason to drive around. I have Meniere’s disease. Looking drunk is what I look like on a good day. It’s frequently what I drive like too, which is why I don’t do much driving. “I wish I hadn’t been driving”, I tell her. I made sure she noted all the lacerations. She also told me I couldn’t wash off the pepper spray, so I wore it for the full time I was there.
Speaking of The Wife. She wandered all over downtown Austin, trying to find me. After about 3 hours, she gave up and hired a car to take her home. She then proceeded to call the police and hospitals. It wasn’t until she tried to file a missing person’s request that the police admitted that they had arrested me. For my part, I couldn’t call her. My cell phone rang while they were cataloging my property. It was The Wife. I’d already been told that I was going to be charged with a felony if I picked the phone back up off the table.
Charge me with a felony! For not being willing to violate a law posted on a sign in clear view from my vehicle, based solely on a cop’s order. If I disobeyed an order again I would be charged with a felony. Well, fine. When I asked if I could please answer the phone? I was told no, I could use the phones in the tank. That was yet another lie. There were no phones I could use except the ones they had confiscated from me and the drunks I was brought in with. They did activate a phone line for my one phone call, but you can’t call cell phones from detention so I couldn’t call the Wife who was on her cell phone calling me just moments previously. Can’t call cell phones? Nope. You can’t call them at all. It simply wasn’t something their system was set up to allow for. I’m the only person I know that still maintains a landline, so I was luckily able to call my house and talk to someone. But that was the only time I spoke to anyone who wasn’t talking to a perpetrator until I was released.
I don’t think I can say enough about the phones. It’s criminal. There is no functional way to communicate from within Travis County jail. They inexplicably take your cell phone from you when they put you in the tank, and then tease you with phones that won’t call 90% of the phones in use today. If, like me, you’ve had poor saps trapped in prison misdialing your number for weeks on end, and you’ve had your number blocked by the completely useless company that services the completely useless prison phones, then you can’t even call your own house collect. What is the reason for confiscating cell phones? We’re allowed to make calls. They made me take the cash out of my wallet and keep it. But I couldn’t keep my cell phone. Does this make any sense?
Just let me keep my phone. Better yet, just process me and let me go.
Then there’s the tank itself. It’s dirty, smelly, and freezing. I was only brave enough to go in the restroom once, and I couldn’t bring myself to drink anything or use the facilities at all. Gross doesn’t begin to describe everything about the place. From the dripping fluid all over the restroom to the baby blue vinyl covered foam benches, to the indescribable mess on the floor and the smell of the place. And the freezing cold. Did I mention it was cold?
But there was a TV. You couldn’t watch it from the seats in the tank itself because you’d break your neck looking up at it, and there was no sound that I could hear with my half-deaf ears. For hours we sat there, staring at an equally disgusting baby blue wall that needed to be repainted some other color about ten years previously. The only entertainment to be had was the occasional fistfight. I witnessed four fistfights that night. I saw more fights that night than I’d seen in a decade of working in nightclubs. I think I saw three in clubs, and they caused less damage to the participants. Bouncers are a bit more concerned about the health of bar patrons than cops are for the perps they’ve arrested.
Three of the fights were started by the same guy that they kept insisting on putting back in the tank, where he would start another fight. He eventually was locked up in isolation, which was probably what he wanted in the first place.
We were all perps anyway. We’re all guilty, right? When I stood up on the back deck of the paddy wagon, arms trussed up behind me, did anyone remember that I was disabled? Had bouts of vertigo? No, of course not. I had to shout it two or three times “I’m dizzy, I’m going to fall!” before someone helped me down off the deck. They don’t give a shit. Why should they?
At about 8 am, having delayed processing as long as they possibly can, they take us to see the judge. Now it’s time to start making us look like convicts. They herded us in groups into the next room, and then had us go into private rooms to change into prison clothes, and then we were assigned cells for our stay in the pokey. I could finally stop carrying the couple of hundred dollars in cash in my pocket, sitting next to people who probably don’t have that much in the bank, one of them a guy just looking to start a fight over nothing, much less cash. Repeatedly. I might have finally been able to sleep. If there had been a pillow in the cell, or a real mattress. There wasn’t, and I can’t sleep laying flat anyway. Vertigo sets in when I start to drift off. So I dozed. I had now been up for more than 24 hours.
At about 10 am, they take us before the judge, properly attired in our prison grays. Guilty before being proven innocent, in all but name. It’s just magistration, they tell us. We all listen to a lengthy speech about rights and representation, and answer one question, and then back to our cells we go.
No, the question was not about guilt. We’re wearing prison grays. Is there a question here? The question was about representation. The judicial system is administered by lawyers for lawyers. Representation is important, in the situation we found ourselves in, me and my fellow perpetrators.
So we go back our cozy cells to wait on our bond results. If you get bonded, that’s your get out of jail card. If you don’t, you get to remain in the Travis County justice system’s gentle care for as long as it takes for your case to resolve. I was one of the lucky ones. I was out around noon. 12 hours of torture, in every sense of the word, and I’m a free man. Well, freer than I was in any of the last twelve hours. Poorer now, too. Someone has to pay that bond.
It took months for the case to be resolved, months I could have spent in the county jail without someone posting a bond for me. The attorney I hired advised me to settle out of court. This is what all attorneys tell you. Plead nolo contendere and take whatever the court offers you in exchange for not demanding a jury trial. The system is set up to facilitate plea-bargaining, not courtroom dramas.
I wanted a jury trial. That’s what I wanted. I wanted my day in court. But the attorney was right. I would have lost. I’ve watched enough injustice play out since the day this happened to me to know this is true whether I like it or not. Cops get away with murder. Cops routinely get away with murder because prosecutors don’t want to prosecute them. Cops get away with murder because juries believe them rather than believe any normal citizen, even one that hasn’t done anything to be sitting in court that day. They were going to believe the fiction that my arresting officers had written up as evidence, not me and my picture of a sign saying “do not drive on train tracks”.
So what I got was nolo contendere and ten hours of community service, all of which I gave to the local humane shelter. I liked the dogs more than I liked anyone I encountered on that night. I should have told the Wife to take a cab home. I should have told her that, because she ended up in a cab anyway and the cab ride was much, much cheaper. So are the inspection stickers that I get right on time now. Right on time. Don’t want no trouble, boss. I’m trying to keep my nose clean, sir.
While sitting on the curb that night, chatting with my abductors, it all came home to me. One of them told me “driving is a privilege” in response to my insistence that an inspection sticker was hardly a justification for this situation.
In Texas, driving is not a privilege, it’s a necessity. Pretending that you can make a living without access to a vehicle is a complete joke. You can’t make a living without a car in Texas. You can survive, but just barely survive. You cannot be more than impoverished and homeless in Texas without a car. Everything from the grocery store to the school your children attend can only be accessed by motor vehicle. You take your life in your own hands, walking on Texas roads. Nonsense like “Vehicle Inspection” just puts a further burden on people living on the margins; especially when keeping your vehicle in working order is more important to you and your continued livelihood than it can ever be to the state.
Most often the lack of an inspection sticker is used like it was used on me. It is an excuse for a fishing expedition to look for other fines that can be collected, other crimes that can be booked. But the car starts just fine without an inspection sticker, and the kids need to be fed more than the car needs that sticker. Before you know it, two years pass, and you’re face down in the street with four cops kneeling on your back putting you in handcuffs. Sure, now it looks stupid not to get that $25 sticker. Spending hours looking for a shop to do an inspection, and then spending hours waiting for an inspection seems pretty insignificant in comparison. Silly me, I never thought to prioritize demands based on the relative amount of torture one must endure; as opposed to, say, how much joy I get from it.
At the end of the little curbside chat session, when the question “Why did you do that?” was repeated, I said “I thought I lived in a free country” I was emphatically told by the (now) arresting officer “No, it’s not!” He was being a sarcastic prick when he said that, but no truer words have ever been spoken by any man. It’s time to sing a bar of Alice’s Restaurant, and walk out now. The observation is even more true today when I finally hit publish on this piece (January 22, 2019) than in was back in 2005 when it happened. We don’t live in a free country, and it’s getting a lot less freer with each passing minute.