The angular, multi-boxed, sandstone-and-rock Courthouse Annex in downtown Tampa could be the Institute of Something or Other from any number of future-set sci-fi programs that run after 11 p.m. on weekends. The cog-like contemporary design of its ground-floor atrium echoes this illusion. The landing of the second floor, however, where the courtrooms are and the lesser machines of justice grind and wheeze, looks different.
It looks like skyscraper office space that hasn't been leased in so long that redecorating has adopted a seriously leisurely pace. Or maybe the very large waiting room of a dentist with little or no regard for putting his more nervous patients at ease. It is bland, utilitarian, and unpretty in a very Orwellian sort of way.
But you know this, because you've been here, right? Perhaps you haven't. As an American male under the age of 40 who A) lives paycheck to paycheck, B) distrusts the idea that 281-million people need the same set of rules and C) occasionally makes unbelievably foolhardy snap decisions, I'm familiar with Hillsborough County's Misdemeanor and Traffic Criminal Court. It is Disney World's evil twin. Once compelled to go there, you know you're gonna spend more money than is wise, but you can't even kid yourself that the experience will have been worth it.
I'm not here on my own behalf today. I'm lending support to a member of my immediate circle. We'll call this person Speedy. Not because they're here for speeding infractions, but because I can't think of a cute name for someone with the distressing habit of running their car into things. Speedy is reaching the end of a protracted legal entanglement involving insurance and registration snafus, a suspended license and a couple of fender benders; the repercussions of events long since past will be decided this afternoon in Courtroom 19, under the auspices of The Honorable Judge Elvin Martinez. (Though I've often sat in courtrooms directed by a judge whose name wasn't on the door — such as car-show and convention celebrity appearances — the advertised judge isn't always the one you find inside.)
There isn't enough seating to accommodate a third of the people waiting to enter the courtrooms. As the foyer fills up, a passively sadistic Behavioral Sciences experiment develops. Folks crouch, rise, lean, stretch, wander and crouch again, eyeballing those with seats like vultures, as the seated adopt the kind of thousand-yard stare generally associated with nightlifers running a gauntlet of the homeless.
It's an admirably diverse cross-section of people who really can't afford to be here. There are youthful spiky hairstyles, mullets, khakis, work shirts, worn-out John Gruden "Chucky" T-shirts, hand-me-down slacks, receding hairlines, sandals, eczema. One defendant in shorts wanders up to the sign dictating courtroom dress code. He disappears, returning 20 minutes later in baggy full-length pants. Everybody looks like they're reaching the frayed end of a nicotine jones. They most likely are — you could build a scale-model version of The Alamo with the butts that litter the Annex's entrance. The lawyers are suited anomalies, studies in contrast that go from person to person in search of their clients or lurk by locked courtroom doors, timing their entries as other attorneys exit.
Eventually, the doors are opened, doorknob tongues are duct-taped — seriously! — and we file into an abbreviated space that looks more like a White House press-conference room than the noble oak-lined courts of judicial cinema. The password is "dull roar"; observers reassure family members, defendants direct questions at other defendants who couldn't possibly answer them, and lawyers continue to scurry after the faces that match the names on their files. Half a dozen currently incarcerated subjects sit in the stage-left jury box, shackled and wearing orange coveralls. Their slightly bored/amused expressions almost make them cool.
A beefy, serenely indifferent bailiff demands that a young woman take her baby out to the foyer. This turns out to be a prescient move. As we all rise for the entrance of The Honorable Judge Martinez, the baby begins making a noise that, here in the courtroom, sounds like a prehistoric carnivorous bird-reptile strafing the foyer for prey.
Judge Martinez quickly asserts a set-'em-up-and-knock-em-down strategy for today's convoluted, DUI-heavy docket. The lawyerly buzz infuses the proceedings with a sense of nervous excitement. It's almost like a suspenseful movie you're lucky enough to be a part of, just because you got pulled over going the wrong way down a freeway on-ramp with a wheelchair-bound veteran attached to your bumper. One young lady is here to answer for leaving the scene of an accident while driving drunk on a suspended license and in possession of cannabis. Another overachiever has 20 tickets for which he failed to appear in court, accumulated while he was driving with his license under a 10-year revocation. He's given a four-month suspended sentence; the judge qualifies this by guaranteeing he'll go to jail "for as long as I can keep you there" if he's so much as seen behind the wheel of a motor vehicle.
There are two kinds of people in attendance: those here to pay their fines, and those here to set another date to pay their fines. Apparently, the Latin nolo contendere doesn't translate to "no contest" so much as it does "whatever, fine, can I please just get the hell on with my life?"
The excitement of being in a courtroom tapers off in a ratio directly parallel to the bustle. By the time the lawyers have quit milling about and the judge has cracked wise once or twice, sitting and waiting for your number to come up has gone from excruciatingly nerve-wracking to excruciatingly numbing. To paraphrase Fight Club, on a long enough timeline, everybody's emotional involvement drops to zero.
A young attorney entertains himself by playing with the two large rubber bands stretched intricately around the fingers of his left hand. A defendant literally goes to sleep. The galvanizing fear of punishment wears itself out, and I start to wonder how much time is left on my parking meter, how close I can cut it.
Then Speedy's case is called. After a litany of charges, mitigating post-incident reversals and choruses of "no contest," Speedy emerges from the fray clutching freedom and a bevy of court costs. Which is pretty much what everybody else here today who didn't drive shitfaced got, various probationary periods and community-service hours notwithstanding. It seems that, various monetary compensations aside, perhaps the worst consequence of vehicular irresponsibility is, well, having to go to freaking traffic court.
Scott Harrell can be reached at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or by e-mail at [email protected].