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I Bailed My Dad out of Jail!

“I had to bail my dad out of jail!” This is how, then 3 year-old No. 1 had, (with great glee), started every conversation with visiting friends and relatives for the last several weeks. And so, seeing no reason to deviate from a winner, these were 1’s first words to my aunt after we’d settled in for lunch at our favorite Mexican food place.

“Ummm, what?” said my aunt as she put down her margarita, grinned a little bit, and turned her focus to me.

Fortunately, it was a short story, hillarious, but short. My partner and I had been on our way to pick up 1 and then one-year old No. 2 from daycare. I crept up to the stop sign at the edge of our neighborhood, looked both ways, and kept on creeping. The flashing lights that appeared in my rear-view mirror immediately indicated I hadn’t looked quite well enough.

I pulled over in a large and rather empty strip mall parking lot. The officer and I went through the initial pleasantries. He returned to his car to run my license through the system. He returned rather quickly, and asked, “Are you aware that your license is suspended?”

“I”m aware my license ‘was’ suspended. I didn’t pay a ticket for an expired registration I got while moving out of the state six years ago. We found out, I paid the ticket and fines (all $2000 worth of them), and now everything’s good.”

“No, no it’s not. Sir, please wait here.”

Then the second police car arrived.

“Sir, are you aware I can arrest you for this offense?”

With admittedly ill-placed bravado and humor, I replied, “You should do whatever your heart tells you is right.” I guess I was the only one that thought that was funny under the circumstances.

“Sir, please step out of the car.”

Then things just got surreal. Yes, I was being arrested. Did I have anything in my pockets that might stick him the first officer wanted to know. “Nope,” I replied, and then his hands were in my pockets. Two seconds later, he pulled out the world’s smallest Swiss Army knife, you know, the one owned by 10 year olds throughout the country.

“This could have stuck me!” he said holding up the dainty little knife.

“Well not really, you see all the blades are in, so I think you’re OK.”

Then, things just got absurd. We heard the growl of a motorcycle engine. We both looked up to see a man in a Panzer helmet, (a sliver one no less; polished to a mirror-like sheen), circling us about 50 yards out on his chopper, the kind of bike that has the fork angled out at 45 degrees so the front wheel sticks way out. I’d never seen this guy, whom I suspected thought he was being a helpful fellow citizen, before in my life. The whole thing left me with a feeling of watching shark-week episodes while switching back and forth between “The Great Escape.” The officer’s reaction was obviously less fanciful than mine, his hands began to shake as he cuffed me.

Thankfully the rest of the arrest was uneventful. While booking, the officer didn’t believe my street address could really be 4321. I assured him it was, but we hadn’t built the best rapport thus far. He wrote down the information, shook his head, sighed, and walked off.

Left in the holding lobby with nothing else to do I immediately started to estimate how hard it would be to escape. Admittedly, I’m an amateur at these things, but my assessment was that it would be utterly impossible.

Consequently, I was delighted when a guard dressed in his finest short sleeved button-down light-blue prison shirt came around the corner looking completely stunned, and said, “That woman just handed me her baby! I asked her to fill out the forms, and she said ‘Here’, and I was holding her baby!”

I was saved! I only knew one person in the whole world who could elicit those reactions! The gang had bailed me out! I was, (relatively speaking), free!

So, that’s a cute story about a dad getting arrested, but that’s not the point. It turns out I”d fallen victim to what’s known as a regressive fee or fine. When I’d simply left the state six years earlier without paying my fine, a year later my license was suspended. In this state, which I never thought I was moving back to, once your license is suspended, for any reason, you have to pay a $2000 fine. Worst yet, and unbeknownst to me, you get thrown into a pool of offenders who are reviewed by a committee each year for three years to decide if you should pay an additional $1000 fine for that year.

But wait, it gets even worse! Your bill for another $1000 doesn’t arrive from that state’s government offices. No, it arrives in a white envelope with a return address in New Jersey. It looks, for all the world, like junk mail.

In any event, that’s how I found myself talking to the free legal services at my grad. school. In my defence for having not paid the first ticket, the advising lawyer asked, “Are you going to graduate soon by any chance?”

“Why are you suggesting I flee the state?” I asked.

“Well, I wouldn’t use that language, but yes if you just left, this wouldn’t be an issue anymore.”

“Sadly, I’m not.”

My advisor went on to explain that my three year window had been restarted since I missed the $1000 bill. Then he explained to me how one fixes these things. He had an associate who had just retired from the DA’s office. For a mere $3000 his associate would go to the courthouse, speak with the assistant DA who got my case, ask them to drop the charges, and then file paperwork to get me out of the committees fine pool forever. Thankfully, we had enough savings to make the whole thing go away, otherwise we might still be watching the mail with trepidation.

So, now we’ve got a cute story, and an example of regressive fines. The story, besides being intended to make you grin, was intended show that this is an issue that affects families, sadly, rather routinely. The SPUR Urban Center recently  hosted a lunchtime event in downtown San Francisco about how our city handles regressive fines and fees.  Unschooling author Ben Hewitt recently wrote about his experiences with similarly regressive fines and fees at VTDigger.

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