Making a difference
Visits to justice court for DUI cases bring discouragement, and one good surprise
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A few years into our marriage my husband, a praying man, decided he wanted to make a difference. That meant changing jobs, and the main difference I grew concerned about was his impending 70 percent salary decrease. But after he went through all the hoops to become a Mississippi state trooper, we sold the house in the suburb, packed our 2.5 kids in a borrowed truck, and headed toward a county line I’d never crossed. Keeping everyone quiet in an 800-square-foot house while Daddy slept at odd hours was a challenge.
Soon the newly minted officer realized his “making a difference” ability was removing impaired drivers from highways, and he often led his district in those kinds of arrests. Seeing him at the head table at annual MADD banquets? Well, it was almost enough to make me stop saying I married a marketing major and hadn’t signed up for this. In time, though, I watched some of his zeal evaporate. This usually happened on Thursday afternoons between 2 and 4, when justice court convened.
My husband’s hardest day on the stand came after a deacon in our church decided to represent a certain client, an alderman’s son charged with driving under the influence of alcohol. Even though DUIs weren’t this attorney’s specialty, his cunning impressed. He managed to turn a case involving an underaged driver and a certified Intoxilyzer reading into a battle of adverbs.
“Were you immediately to the rear of the vehicle?”
Thus, a sorry tryst of turn signals and positions turned the probable-cause tide. What a victory—the young partier went back behind the wheel, and the lawyer/deacon/adverb specialist went on to become a chancery court judge. That same year, 352 caskets lowered into our local cemeteries because of drunk driving.
Decades passed, and I decided to sit in on a justice court session in a different community, in a different millennium to see if things had changed. The short answer: not much. DUI attorneys still scored proficient at finding uncrossed or undotted letters of the law. On this day it was an unchecked box that let an accused, grinning like the proverbial cat who ate the canary, walk out scot-free. Here’s what that poor soul didn’t know. The officer who pulled him over that night had just hours earlier pulled a mangled body from under the dashboard of a Dodge. Yes, an alcohol-related collision, and the job included knocking on a door and telling a family their loved one wouldn’t be coming home. Ever.
I don’t think I heard the word dead (or its adverb form deadly) the whole three hours I sat in court. Men threw around words like suspended, as in jail time, and lowered, as in fines, but they didn’t whisper a single syllable about the lethal recklessness of impaired driving. The only time the judge got riled was when a blunt smoker testified that he routinely drives on a road near the judge’s home. Even then, the response was just more fine-lowering and jail-time-suspending. To put the scene in pocketbook perspective, a judge in a neighboring county had weeks prior fined a hunter $2,400 for illegally baiting a field during dove season. Here, the judge fined a convicted drunk driver $754.50.
Still, the afternoon did hold a surprise, a good one involving a lanky 19-year-old wearing Wranglers and a credible look of remorse. His DUI lawyer encouraged him to plead guilty, but that wasn’t the real showstopper. No, the real push pause happened when the young man walked over to his arresting officer, took his hand in his, and shook it. Hard.
Later, I asked the arresting officer to help me make sense of what I’d seen in the courtroom. All the denying. The finagling. The pandering. He thought a moment, then loosened his tie and slipped his arm around my shoulder.
“Mom, the only thing that’s really going to make a difference is a great awakening. Pray for one.”
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