I arrived at Sussex County Justice of the Peace Court 4 at 8:45 am, fifteen minutes early, traffic citation and a receipt for a Bluetooth device in hand, mildly apprehensive and not sure what to expect. The following forty-five minutes were both enlightening and infuriating.

Three weeks earlier, I’d been cited for taking a phone call while driving through the nearby town of Greenwood in a company vehicle. This was certainly a mistake on my part; Greenwood has a well-deserved reputation for being a speed trap. Its officers patrol a section of Route 13, a major divided highway, with an unreasonably low posted speed limit of 35 mph, and they don’t give warnings. Aware of this, initially I’d put the phone on speaker and placed it in my lap, but then lifted it chest-high, still on speaker, to hear it better. Apparently that was too high, for it wasn’t long until I heard a siren. Frustrated but not especially shocked, I pulled over.

The stop proceeded normally enough. The town cop was professional if a bit chilly, and I was courteous. Did I understand why he’d pulled me over? Yes, I’d been holding my phone, I readily admitted. He retreated to his vehicle and returned several minutes later with what I expected to be a hefty fine. However, I was surprised and dismayed to learn that the officer had scheduled a mandatory court appearance. That seemed extremely odd; I was familiar with Section 4176c, having violated it before, and had expected the usual “voluntary assessment” to be paid by mail. Even so, I said nothing, thinking that perhaps the Delaware Code had been amended to mandate a court date for subsequent offenses.

At home I checked the code and discovered that it included no such provision. Off-the-record conversations with several knowledgeable individuals — active law enforcement officers, retired cops, lawyers, and even a local legislator — confirmed my suspicions: The mandate was extremely unusual, not supported by the law or by standard law enforcement policies, and anything from unfair and distasteful to blatantly unlawful, depending on the source.

Had I been fined, I would have quietly mailed a check. Instead, I was forced to have my day in court, so I did.

The scene at the court reminded me of visiting the Department of Motor Vehicles. A bunch of ordinary people of all ages waited to fork over their cash, visibly impatient and hoping to get the inconvenience over with as quickly and painlessly as possible. No one seemed overly stressed out or fearful. A couple of court officers manned a metal detector and saw to it that no one brought a cell phone into the building (apparently, they’re dangerous in more than cars).

After a couple of minutes, several of us were herded into another room, where two Greenwood cops (neither of which was the one who had stopped me, oddly) dealt with each of us individually. By the time my name was called, I knew what to expect: They read each citation, and offered each person the chance to plead guilty to a lesser offense, and thereby pay a smaller fine. Sometimes the lesser offense had nothing to do with the offense they’d actually committed. One fellow who’d been caught driving with a suspended license was offered a completely unrelated and comparatively minor traffic violation, which he eagerly accepted.

“That way you can get out of here,” one of the friendly officers explained, chuckling and sounding for all the world like he was genuinely sorry that the busy citizens before him were having their time wasted by the organization he’d chosen to work for. I’ve used a similar tone of voice when telling a customer about an employer’s policy which I thought to be unreasonable.

My turn came. “Mr. Slavens, what we can offer you is to knock this second offense down to a first offense, if you plead guilty. Does that seem like something that would help you out?”

“Yes,” I said. That would save me over $150. Then, hesitantly: “Also, I have this receipt for a Bluetooth…” No less than three active law enforcement officers had advised me to take a Bluetooth and/or a receipt for one to court, tell the judge I’d corrected the problem, and beg for leniency.

“Great, great. Just go back over there, and the officer will take you into the courtroom to see the judge.”

Although it was now 9:15, the judge was not yet in the courtroom, which was not much bigger than my living room. Somehow, seven defendants managed to squeeze in and wait for the judge. Classic rock played faintly behind the door to the left of the bench; presumably he was in there, taking care of some important legal business.

When he finally emerged and began rattling off instructions at a speed that would put most professional sweepstakes disclaimer readers to shame, it became clear to me that I was being swept along an assembly line of sorts, and far from acting as checks and balances, all of the individuals involved were working together to:

  1. Convince each defendant to plead guilty to an offense he or she had not committed.
  2. Discourage not guilty pleas, requests for a trial, and questions in general.
  3.  Get each defendant to pay a fine and leave quickly and quietly.

Several went before me. Each was told what their penalty would be, and what it could be, so long as they pled guilty. The judge acknowledged that anyone could request a trial in Georgetown, the county seat, where there would be a real judge — my words, not his. “Justices of the Peace are trained in the law, but we are not attorneys,” he added, reassuring no one and doubtlessly raising a number of questions which no one dared to ask. Oh well; at least we were in the hands of a guy who might know what he’s doing.

Aside from one embarrassed man who had to explain that he needed to make monthly payments because he had just started a new job and was broke, no defendant said any word other than “yes.” Would you like to confess to an imaginary crime that you didn’t commit, and pay less than you otherwise would, for a savings of X? Yes, yes, yes. Someone might have said “thank you.” Then it was back out to the lobby to pay up.

My day in court — in the courtroom, with the judge, not counting waiting time — lasted about twenty seconds. Deciding that keeping my mouth shut about my sincere concerns about the legality of a municipal road pirate unilaterally mandating a court appearance for an offense which does not require one was worth paying $221 instead of $375 (what a deal!), I said yes when offered the chance to plead guilty to a first offense rather than face the penalty for a second offense. Immediately I was directed to return to the lobby and pay at the window. Next!

Two incidents occurred while I waited in the crowded lobby, the first softening my feelings towards the court officers, the second provoking a surge of righteous anger and adrenaline.

A father and son who spoke with a slight accent were distressed because the clerk had asked for the teenage boy’s social security number, and they didn’t have it. The clerk warned that without it, records could get mixed up, and he could get convicted of someone else’s violation. When the boy tried to return to their car to call his mother, the older of the two officers questioned him, heard why, and loudly announced: “You don’t have to give your social security number. There’s a Privacy Act. You don’t need it. Who told you that? Don’t worry about her. Sit back down.”

That rather pleasant moment — a court officer publicly overruling a clerk who had just frightened a young man for no reason — didn’t last long.

Having paid my fine, I waited to walk back through the metal detector and get on with my day. A young, heavyset man who looked vaguely Latino was coming in. The other officer — a rather dull-looking brute who had probably struggled through high school and taken the first government job he could get — told him to empty his pockets. He removed a couple of items from his pants pockets and placed them in the bin. Immediately, the officer told him to step through the metal detector. Instead, he reached into his jacket pocket.

“DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH?”

The entire room tensed. Every head turned; many looked alarmed.

Lisping slightly, obviously embarrassed, the man said, “Yes.”

“Step through the metal detector, now!”

“I have more things in my pockets.”

“I just told you to empty your pockets!” The officer had gone from zero to jerk in a matter of seconds.

The man spread his hands slightly, desperately. He had that deer-in-the-headlights look that manifests when someone realizes that somebody is getting them all wrong, and could cause serious trouble for them. “Sir, I’m trying to,” he said gently, meekly, pathetically.

My face red and my heart outraged for this poor man who was being bullied by a uniformed dillweed who couldn’t get into Del Tech, I chose that moment to slip between them, through the metal detector and the exit, without a word.

I am neither a lawyer nor a habitual offender. I know little of courts, and have no idea how closely JP Court #4 resembles other courts in Delaware and throughout the U.S. However, I know that I experienced a racket, a revenue-generating factory, a shameful mockery of justice and liberty.

I watched uniformed police officers pressure defendants who had broken minor traffic regulations to lie and plead guilty to utterly fictitious offenses they hadn’t committed, so that the cops wouldn’t have to deal with the hassle of a trial.

I watched a judge act as their “yes man,” encouraging defendants to take their deal and go along with the deception, never suggesting that he had any say in the matter. He wasn’t a judge. He was a rubber stamp.

I watched a low-level court officer — a glorified security guard with a pension — bully and humiliate an innocent man because he could.

I watched an even lower-level clerk terrify a teenage boy by saying the court could accidentally convict him of the wrong crime.

In short, I witnessed a disgraceful scam in progress, no better and possibly worse than a Mafia extortion scheme, all of the so-called “checks and balances” cooperating with each other like the cogs of a well-oiled machine, raking in thousands of dollars from people who chose the carrot rather than take their chances with the stick.

May God have mercy on a nation that allows its public servants to threaten, lie, and steal on behalf of the state.

May God have mercy on the souls of the officials involved. For it is they, not their neighbors who drove a bit too fast or took a call on the road, who are the criminals. It is they who deserve to be punished. And when they do face God, eventually, as all mortals do, I rather doubt that he will offer to substitute lesser sins that they didn’t commit, just to make things move a little faster.