WEEKEND JAIL: Judges Just Don’t Understand
When someone breaks the law, most hope that there is no intention behind their actions. Granted, most people don’t know every single law that presides over their residential jurisdiction, but as citizens we follow basic common laws to the best of our ability. So when a crime is committed without intention—hell, without knowledge, what is the proper recourse to “teach” said assumed criminal “a lesson”? When you don’t know that you’ve done something wrong, what happens once you’re held accountable for it anyway?
I’ll tell you what happens next at least from the point-of-view of the indicted: confusion, ambiguity and an overdose of mixed emotions. I know because it happened to me. Right before I made my move to New York City early last year, I was held accountable for a crime I didn’t even know I’d committed. As this is all public record, I will share with you my experiences as a first time convict who was completely unaware of her crime.
The Mysterious Crime called “Hit-and-Run”
While driving home (down a narrow road) one late Saturday afternoon, I put my left indicator on with the intent to change lanes. I checked my blind spots twice just in case I missed anyone in my peripheral vision. As it looked clear to me, I slightly merged into my left lane. While merging, a motorcyclist appeared on my left. I quickly swerved away from the biker to avoid impact. As I continued driving through the light, I looked in my side mirror and saw the biker had lost control of the bike and tumbled to the ground.
Shocked, I immediately attempted to return to the intersection. Since I was driving on a road without a shoulder on either side, I made a U-turn at the next intersection. When I got there, I found no one. I looped around the nearby gas station to see if I missed anyone. Empty-handed, I went home thinking nothing more of the situation other than as an “avoided accident”. I have never been more wrong; as the 36 hours to follow would soon be filled with accusations, written statements and eventually a hard-to-understand judgment.
Sunday, I received a call from a sheriff claiming that my car, which was identified by my license plate, was reported as part of an accident. The sheriff asked me to come down to the station to give a statement, for “insurance purposes”, I was told. I obliged, thinking the situation was just a misunderstanding since I never hit anyone. So I travelled down to the police station. After giving my statement and following all directions, the sheriff tells me (with a smile on his face, mind you) the most baffling piece of information I had ever heard.
“Thank you for coming down today and giving your statement, and insurance information. You are being charged with a felony hit-and-run. You can go home if you’d like, but as soon as you leave the station a warrant will be put out for you arrest.”
The Unusual Punishment
My eyes widened in disbelief, as my first reactive feeling began to set in: confusion. I was being charged with a hit-and-run? Why? I thought, “What evidence did they have that I actually struck someone with my vehicle and ran from the scene of the crime?” I began to recollect the situation’s chain of events. I thought, “Did I hit the motorcycle and not hear the impact? No, I’d remember that. There would be some sort of evidence on my car; a dent, paint scratches, something.” I began to piece together what happened, what was happening and what was about to happen.
To comply with the sheriff, I turned myself in on the spot. While my paperwork process began, my
second reactive feeling began to take over me: ambiguity. I asked myself questions like: “Who am I supposed to consult about this situation?” “Is this what ‘getting booked’ means?” “Where am I going?” “When can I go home?” And above all, “Why is this happening to me?” After being strip-searched, photographed and finger-printed, I was handcuffed and placed in a holding cell. Eight hours later, I was released on my own recognizance with a pending felony charge and a court date in which to appear for my arraignment. While driving home, I still wondered how this all happened. How yesterday I left an empty scene and today I’m being charged with a felony?
Over the next seven months my case consumed my life and my wallet. While riding the rollercoaster of mixed emotions in search of a sense of peace, I spent upwards of almost $8,000 on fines, travel, lodging and legal representation. Although I took a deal to avoid major time, I was ultimately charged with a misdemeanor hit-and run. I wasn’t as upset about the charge, as the judge deemed it equivalent to “reckless driving”. The sentence, however, was the icing on my depressing, confusing, frustration-filled cake: 12 months jail time (with 11 months suspended), three years probation, 100 hours of community service and a 90-day suspended license. In short, I would be serving 30 days in jail.
The “Weekend Program”
Thirty days in jail. I thought, “Wait a second, that’s an entire month in jail.” The disgusting cocktail of emotions began to churn in my stomach again. JAIL?! I’ve never even been arrested! Fear churned my stomach even more. How exactly was I going to get through this? Luckily, the judge showed me a little mercy, by cutting my jail time in half since I was a first time “misdemeanant”. Fifteen days in jail. And I never hit anyone, or ran from anything.
After paying the rest of my fines, meeting my probation officer and scheduling my community service, I headed to the county jail to retrieve my sentence term. While the sheriff finished processing my paperwork, she informed me just how jail works.
“Within our jurisdiction, funding was terminated to uphold a female prison. You will be in what we call the ‘weekend program’, otherwise known as ‘weekend jail’. You are free to leave today, but you must show up here at [time disclosed] starting [date disclosed]. Each weekend day you will serve eight hours in our program. You must continue every consecutive weekend until all days have been completed.”
You all are probably wondering, “How does one go to jail on the weekend?” Quite easily actually.
Funding was not only terminated to uphold a female prison, the landscaping and janitorial budgets were cut as well. And to pass the time, the sheriffs forced us to clean the jails inside and out.
For the better part of January and February, I travelled half way down the east coast to be a janitor or a landscaper for a dollar an hour. I didn’t get paid; I had to pay the courts eight dollars per day in fines. Most weekends, the sheriffs’ would randomly test a few of the inmates for drugs and make all of us carry out landscaping duties around nearby schools and parks. No matter the temperature (and sometimes it would be below freezing!), we were outside doing manual labor. I did everything you can imagine: pulled up weeds, spread mulch, cut hedges, raked compost, picked up trash in the surrounding woods—you name it. If it rained or snowed, the sheriffs’ would drug test all of us AND make us clean all the floors inside the entire jail.
And it was exactly how you would picture any sort of detention hall, a bunch of people doing what they’re told yet wondering the purpose. The whole idea just seemed pointless. The inmates were regular people like you and me. Some people were there serving jail time for unpaid child support. Others were there because they racked up too many DUI’s points on their drivers’ licenses. Some were there because there was overcrowding at a nearby jail. Everyone’s story was different, but one factor remained the same: the situation we all were in sucked.
It almost seemed like it would have been better to serve my time straight through. The amount of
money, time and energy spent going back and forth to do manual labor proved to be nothing but a tedious task [read hassle]. Granted the idea is progressive, giving citizens the option to pay off their debt to society by rebuilding society. But in my situation, where the inmate lives out of state, it was just a waste of money I didn’t have, and time I could have cut in half by serving my 15 days straight through. Yes, I am grateful that the conditions of my time served were easier than most, but I was still charged with a crime that I was still trying to understand how I committed.
On the eve of the completion of my term, which ends March 3rd, an unsure feeling still sits with me. Should I have taken that deal from my lawyer? I never hit the motorist, so why was I held accountable for a hit-and-run? I came back to the scene to find no one there and no one around, so how exactly did I commit this crime? After going through this year-long debacle, I’ve learned the actual meaning of a “hit-and-run” (please write this down):
Section 46.2-894: while having been the driver of a vehicle involved in an accident in which a person was [killed or] injured, failure to immediately stop as close to the scene of the accident as possible without obstructing traffic and failure to report the accused’s information forthwith to the State Police or local law-enforcement agency, to the person [struck or] injured or to the driver [or some other occupant of the vehicle collided with].
According to the stature, if I had immediately stopped and called the cops—witness or not— I would be misdemeanor-free. You be the judge.
Kortnee Leigh is a regular contributor to STARK. Follow her on Twitter @CaliBudKay