“I was pulled over and given a ticket.” Your neighbor Don sits across from you at your kitchen table, appearing perplexed.
“A ticket? An actual citation?”
Don nods, his face tightening—the bitterness he’s trying to hold is making his eyes twitch.
“Whatever happened to a warning?”
“I don’t know. That’s what I told her when she handed it to me. I asked, ‘Don’t I just get a warning this time? I’ve never broken any law in my life!’ But I think she had it out for me.”
“I don’t know. I can’t prove it. It’s just a feeling.”
“Well, what’s it for?”
“Speeding? Well, why you, though? People speed past me all the time and I never see any of them get in any trouble.”
“I know. But I did catch myself looking down at my speedometer on my way back home and found I was going a little faster than I thought I was going. So maybe I’ll start paying closer attention to how fast I’m actually driving.”
“I don’t know. Sounds to me like it was just your unlucky day.”
“Yeah. I have noticed before that there are a lot more police downtown than out here around our neighborhood, so maybe it wasjust a case of wrong place, wrong time.”
“Yeah, that would make sense.”
Don now has two months to pay off his fine.
You’ve been neighbors and friends with Don for 10 years now. You both live in the Kelly Farms subdivision and are part of a close-knit community that makes it impossible not to connect with your neighbors. But Don stands out even more -- you and Don are practically the same person. You’re both lifetime Greeley residents, share the same career in the oilfields (different companies, though), each have three children in their late teens and have been married to one partner for 30+ years. Nearly everything that affects Don has the same or similar effect on you.
Two weeks after being pulled over, Don’s life is flipped upside down. His daughter is involved in a horrific sporting event and has to undergo emergency surgery to save her life. In all of the turmoil that follows, Don completely forgets about his municipal fine. The family’s finances are quickly being drained, and even if Don were to suddenly remember he has a municipal fine to pay, he wouldn’t exactly have the $100 to spare.
Three months pass. Don’s daughter is still in the hospital and he and his wife are trying to figure out how they can stay in their home. It’s a stressful situation, compounded by the fact that both are exhausted on account of their daughter’s medical situation and having to go into their jobs whenever they have spare time to do so.
One evening Don brings home the mail. He and his wife spend an hour opening dozens of envelopes. It’s mostly bills, but both Don and his wife find one piece of mail astounding. It’s from Greeley Municipal Court, and it has been delivered to Don to inform him that his license has been suspended and that his fine is now up to $180, as there is a $30 charge for an outstanding judgement and a $50 charge for the warrant issued to Don for missing court. Don and his wife stare at each other.
“Now what?” she asks.
“I have to drive. I can’t just call into work tomorrow and say I can’t drive. I mean, maybe I can once, but after that . . . .” Don stands up, paces back and forth, then plops back down in his chair.
“What if you call tomorrow and let them know what’s going on and tell them you’re going to try to take the bus?”
“Public transportation doesn’t go to where I’m working,” Don replies. “I’m just going to have to risk it.”
“What will happen if you’re pulled over?”
“Well, what will happen if I don’t go to work?” Don quickly shoots back, angrily. He pauses and takes a deep breath. “I’m sorry, honey. I’m not mad at you. Just stressed and upset.” Don stops and then slowly goes on answering his wife’s question. “It’s up to the person who pulls me over, but they have the right to take me to jail,” Don answers. “Seems it’s worth the risk, though. It’s either keep my job and keep food on the table or . . . . Well, I don’t want to have to think about that right now.”
The next morning, Don has an hour’s drive to make it to work . . . and he cannot get pulled over along the way. Cannot.
Don actually arrives five minutes late that day. It’s completely out of character for Don, but his boss writes him up for it anyway. Beginning the next morning, Don wakes up an extra 15 minutes early. And things carry on this way for weeks, with Don breaking the law every day and hoping not to get caught.
At home, the struggle for Don and his family also carries on. The bills eventually become too much, and they’re forced to sell their home. They then move to an apartment on 13th Street and 9th Avenue, close to downtown. Two days after their move, Don is pulling out of the apartment parking lot and forgets to use his blinker. A police officer cruising by at the time happens to notice. A rush of anxiety and fear pour over Don.
Don is arrested and taken to jail for driving without a license, and his truck is towed to the impound lot. The officer arresting Don informs him that he also has a warrant out for his arrest, so he’s really being arrested for two violations. The warrant is a failure to appear warrant, which has been issued against Don for failing to attend court after not paying his original municipal fine within the time designated by Greeley Municipal Court.
At the jail, Don is overwhelmed by the situation he now finds himself in. He’s informed that there’s a $50 fee to have the warrant removed, that if he cannot pay of the full balance of this fine by another future date then he must attend court on that due date, he will have to contact the towing company and pay fees to have it removed from impound, that his license cannot be reinstated until the full amount of his balance is paid, that a bond has been set for his release and that a bail bonds company will get him out if he pays 10% of his bond. If he’s not bailed out by 7 a.m., he’ll be attending an in-house court hearing.
Don is then taken over to a series of machines that he quickly realizes are devices used to obtain fingerprints.
“When will I get out?” Don asks the burly, muscular guard fingerprinting him.
“Sir, I can’t tell you,” the guard answers in a deep, order-giving tone.
“What? Why not?”
“It all just depends, sir. Please go have a seat. You’re free to use the phones along the far-end of the retaining walls if you need to. Next,” he calls out to a fellow beefed-up guard.
Don walks straight to the far end of the holding area to the wall holding the phones. He dials his wife. He explains everything—dresses it up as brightly as possible for her. He tells her that they don’t have enough money to bail him out and that he will be okay to stay overnight.
“How are you going to get home?” she asked.
“What?” he shot back.
“How are you going to get home tomorrow? After the trial.”
Don paused. “Hmm, I hadn’t thought of that.”
“You want me to . . . .”
“No!” he cut her short. “No. We need the money. We can’t afford any more lost income,” he said rather soothingly. “Speaking of which, I don’t know how much this phone call is costing so let’s just plan on seeing each other tomorrow, okay?”
They said their goodbyes, and Don hung up the phone. He was in a bit of a daze as he ambled towards the seating area. He took a seat and then proceeded to take inventory of his surroundings.
All of the people in the holding area waiting with Don are people Don never has to deal with in his daily life. Aside from those who look like the young, rambunctious men Don has a difficult time putting up with at his job, he didn’t recognize anybody in terms of how he might expect them to act. Everyone around him was different. From the people who looked so strung out on drugs it was hard to imagine them ever coming back to reality to the womendressed like prostitutes, Don couldn’t remember feeling so intimidated since grade-school.
Lights go out at 10 p.m. as Don lies on a small sleeping mat with his head rested on a thin pillow. The scene is so odd to Don that he can’t really digest what is happening. It’s a large room with a seating area at one end, an extended command desk at the center that takes up nearly half of the room and then a wide, open air where Don, and all of the other inmates were lying down on their issued mats and pillows.
In the morning, Don is awoken by a guard standing over him hovering a brown paper bag in his face.
“Here. Breakfast,” the guard quickly exclaims before stepping over Don to the next inmate lying on the floor.
“Here. Breakfast. Here. Breakfast.”
It’s an apple and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Don is barely into his apple before three sheriffs come in through a door just past the seating area and call everyone to line up along the wall.
“C’mon, c’mon. Let’s go,” the sheriffs and guards call out. “C’mon, c’mon. Hurry up. Eat. Let’s go.”
As everyone is lining up the sheriffs are handing out orange jumpsuits. Don puts his orange jumpsuit on just as the guards are coming along with handcuffs and shackles. Don is shackled to the person in front of him and behind him and led up two flights of stairs into a small, white room with six rows and two columns of chairs in it. At the front of the room is a window that overlooks a courtroom.
Each case Don hears is a little different. Nearly a dozen people are called up to speak before Don’s turn comes.
The judge reads Don his rights, the charges, and informs him as to what comes next.Don is told that if he is not bailed out today he will have to sit out the remainder of his fine at a rate of $25 per day. This means that Don will have to stay in jail for six days to pay of his now $180 fine balance ($50 is added to pay for Don’s warrant and $30 is added for not paying in time).
After the court hearings are finished, the inmates are chained together again and led downstairs. Some inmates are told they’ve been bailed out, and they are led back into the holding area. The rest, along with Don, are led through a series of hallways to a row of jail cells. About a dozen inmates are placed in each cell, the door is shut and the key is turned. Don jumps up and grabs hold of the cell bars.
“Wait! Wait!” Don pleaded to the two guards who were locking the door to the cell Don is being placed in. “I need to make a phone call! I didn’t know this was going to happen; I didn’t know I would be locked up. Please, let me call my wife—she’ll bring the money to bail me out. Please!”
“You’ll get your one phone call,” the guard quickly responds.
“It depends. But you’ll get to make one phone call at some point today.” Then the guard turned and walked away. “S’go.”
At noon, three hours later, two other guards come walking down the hallway.
“Anyone need to make a phone call?” a short, dour guard calls out as he ambles along. “Phone calls! Phone calls! C’mon.”
Don’s hand immediately shoots into the air.
“I need to! Right here, right here. I need to make a phone call! Please. Please!” Don moves about anxiously. He’s like a kindergarten child wanting to provide the correct answer to his disciplinarian to receive some kind of reward. “Please! Let me call my wife.”
“All right, all right. Quiet down.” The shorter guard stands in the middle of the hallway, facing the prisoners as he addresses them. “We’re going to open your cell doors and let out those who wish to make their one phone call.”
Don’s overly anxious. Having never been involve with law enforcement or the criminal justice system, Don is ignorant of acceptable actions and behaviors. Don pushes to the front of the cell and tries to scramble out to be first in line. Three other guards are just entering the hallway from the end closes to Don as he quickly forces his way to the open cell door.
“Wait, wait!” the shorter guards yells at Don. As the guard is finishing yelling this, Don is grabbed more forcibly than he ever knew a human could grab another human. Don is yanked from the cell’s doorway and thrown up against the wall on the other side of the hallway.
“Agh,” Don moans as the wind is knocked out of him. Two guards press Don hard up against the wall and hold him there. It’s hard for Don to regain his breath. He’s panting as he weakly lets out, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I won’t do it again. Sorry.” No one is listening to him.
Behind Don, inmates are being taken into the hallway where they’re again shackled together. As they begin to walk out, the short, stern guard walks over to where Don is being held against the wall.
“You can let him go,” the guard tells the two pressing Don against the wall.
Don turns and faces the guard who’s obviously in charge of the current situation.
“Now, you’re probably not going to do that again, now, are you?”
Don shakes his head as he turns his eyes downward in shame. “No, sir.”
“Good. Now, can you promise me that you’re going to behave if we take you out into the calling area?”
“Yes, sir,” Don answers with his head still tilted downward.
“Okay, good. S’go.”
Don is shackled to the last inmate in line. One of the two guards who pressed Don up against the wall remains alongside him, holding onto his upper arm as if Don were capable of actions that would overtake the entire prison if allowed to escape.
The inmates are all led down another series of hallways to one with windows along the wall that look into a room with about 20 monitors with phones attached to them. Five inmates at a time are allowed into the room while the rest wait standing in the hallway.
After what feels like an hour, it’s finally Don’s turn.
Once seated, Don dials his house number. The phone rings, and rings, and rings. With each ring Don feels more divided from civilian life. Each ring leaves Don feeling more and more hopeless. Don’s forced to leave a voice message.
“Honey! Baby, darling. You have to come get me out! They’re going to make me stay in here for six days if you don’t bail me out. Please, come get me. I don’t know how you’re going to get the money, but you have to. You just have to! Please. Find the money to get me out ASAP. Please!”
Don hangs up the phone. All he can do now is wait and hope that his release is being well orchestrated on the outside.
The inmates are returned to their cells where Don sits in a corner by himself, his head placed down in his hands, contemplating numerous thoughts. Don stays seated like this for seven hours until two guards suddenly show up at the cell door and call Don’s name.
“Wh-what?” Don asks, startled. “What’s going on?”
“You’ve made bail. C’mon,” a mild-mannered, medium build guard exclaims. “Let’s go, let’s go.”
Don is cuffed and led through a door around the corner, up two flights of stairs and into a room with a half dozen chambers surrounding it.
“Over here,” a tall, skinny woman standing behind a desk off to the side calls out to the guard leading Don. Her guard’s uniform is black, as opposed to the beige uniforms Don had seen all of the other guards wearing.
“Okay. So you’re being bailed out. Your wife is here—she’s in that room waiting.” The guard points to the chamber directly across from the front of the desk, to Don’s left. “You’ll be taken into the same room as soon as we’re done here.”
The guard asks Don a few questions about his condition and then proceeds to step around the front of the desk and let Don out of his handcuffs. The guard in black and the guard who let Don out of his jail cell both lead him each by one arm to the room where his wife awaits. They knock on the door and a woman inside in a ladies business dress opens it up.
“Hello. Hi, Don.” She smiles at Don, who feels surprised to be met with hospitality.
“Hi! Hello,” Don smiles back. He feels incredibly relieved and is anxious to be on with his life.
The guard in black comes with Don into the room as the other guard turns away to head back downstairs.
“My name is Maria Rodriguez,” the woman in the business dress explains. “I’m an attorney for the City of Greeley. I’ll be helping you go over your case today.”
Maria then covers a long entanglement of details, hypotheticals, explanations and possible outcomes. Don and his wife hear it all, but take in little. This is because most of what Maria is telling them is incredibly dense and seemingly in some foreign language.
“You were lucky you were pulled over when you were,” Maria tells Don.
“I was?” Don asks, surprised.
“Yes, because the balance on your ticket was actually in the process of being turned over to collections.”
“What? I didn’t even know that was a thing.”
“Yeah, it’s in the fine print on the ticket you were given. There’s a 35% charge—”
“Of course there is,” Don interrupts, throwing his hands in the air.
“Honey,” Don’s wife intervenes, trying to calm him.
“Well,” Don whines, “it’s non-stop.”
“There’s a 35% charge,” the city attorney continues on, “to turn a balance over to collections. At $180, a 35% charge comes out to $63. So you avoided that, at least.”
“Yippee,” Don let’s out, sarcastically.
“Don!” Don’s wife slaps his upper arm. “Stop that. I’m sorry,” she says to the city attorney. “He’s not usually such a smart-ass.”
“That’s okay. The main takeaway from this should be that you cannot, absolutely cannot miss your next court date.”
Maria goes on to explain that Don will have another scheduled arraignment at the Greeley Municipal Court building. His court date is in six weeks. If he pays the full $180 before then, he will not have to attend the arraignment.
After wrapping up with the city attorney, Don is finally released from the jail. Walking out, Don asks, “How’d you get the money to get me out?”
“It wasn’t pretty,” she answers.
Don presses and presses her, but she won’t answer.
“Just be happy to be out,” she eventually says.
“I am.” Don is concerned about where the money to get him out of jail came from, but he trusts his wife and the wariness begins to fade some. “I am very happy to be out. Thank you.” Don leans over and kisses his wife as she starts the car.
At home, Don feels a weight lifted off him for now. He just wants to relax for a little bit, but he sees soon after entering their home that his wife is desperately trying to hold back tears.
“What’s wrong?” Don asks.
No longer able to hold it in, Don’s wife releases a flood of emotions. She’s balling hysterically as Don takes her in his arms.
“They fired you,” Don’s wife blurts out through her crippling emotions.
“Your boss—he said you’re fired.”
“What’d you say to him?” Don yells.
“Don’t blame me! I just did what I thought needed to be done. I thought I should call....” she gasps as she returns to full on crying.
Don tries to remain calm as he interrupts. “Honey, look. Let’s not allow this to pit us against one another, okay? I’m the same person you’ve always known, okay?”
Tears fill her eyes as she nods. “Okay. Yes,” she affirms through broken sobs.
They embrace as she bellows out in an anxious, depressed rage.
“What’d Greg say?” Don asks.
“He said that you knew you couldn’t call in on such short notice, and that was a fireable offense. I pleaded with him and told him your circumstance. He replied, ‘We don’t need people here who are such trouble makers with the law, anyway. It’s bad for our reputation to have people working for us who need time off because they’re in and out of court and end up spending time in jail. Tell Don to come pick up his belongings first thing in the morning.’”
Don just stands there flabbergasted. He can’t think of what to say.
Don and his wife try to have a good rest of their night, attempting to celebrate Don’s release from jail. But both are too overwhelmed by emotions to do much of anything besides contemplate their current predicament.
Six weeks late, Don appears in Greeley Municipal Court before a judge. Don explains his situation, and, feeling empathy towards Don, the judge knocks $50 off Don’s balance. Then the judge asks Don if he will be able to pay today. Don informs the judge he will not be able to. He tells the judge he is currently unemployed. Don says he was employed at a gas station, but was late twice in his first week and was subsequently fired. It’s hard to find employment, Don says to the judge, when you don’t have transportation.
The judge asks Don if he’d be interested in completing Useful Public Service.
“Without transportation, your honor, it would be difficult. I’m willing to sign up for it and try to do it, but I’m not sure if I’ll be able to.”
“Well, you need to be able to commit to it because there’s a $25 fee—”
Don can’t help but blurt out a sarcastic laugh.
The judge looks up at him from her files, annoyed. Then, she continues on. “You also have the option of signing up for a payment plan. You’ll decide how much you can afford for each payment and then return to court every two weeks to make your first three payments. Would that work for you?”
“Yes. What’s the fee, though?”
“The fee for payment plans is $25 for one month and $50 for three months.”
Don agrees to a three-month payment plan. Of course, Don doesn’t have $50 at the time, so it is added to his balance, bringing the total back to $180.
In two weeks, Don returns to make his first payment. Two weeks later he makes another payment. He only has to return to court to make his next payment, and after that he can pay online or just stop into Greeley Municipal Court whenever he can in order to meet his payment dates.
“That’s where things stand now,” Don tells you over the phone. It’s the first time you two have spoken in months. Don seems so much different now, so foreign. His family’s health issues, financial struggles and issues with justice are hard for you to empathize with as the closest you’ve come to such worries was your daughter having her wisdom teeth pulled six months ago.
“How long ago did you even get that ticket and you’re still dealing with it?” you ask.
“Eight months ago next week,” Don answers matter-of-factly.
“Wow, that’s hard to even believe.”
You hang up with Don and sit contemplating your discussion. You think, that might have just as easily been me in Don’s place.
But, thankfully for you, that wasn't the case.