The Long, Clumsy Arm of the Law -- Kiki ClarkRecently, my husband stood up in a New Mexico courtroom and listened to a judge intone, “You are charged with criminal trespass. How do you plead?” There was something about “willful” in there, as well.
“Not guilty,” Joe said, sounding nervous and guilty as hell.
My parents and I sat in the peanut gallery, among the folks summoned for drunk driving, driving without a license, and who knows what all. We watched the proceedings with the look of stunned baby seals. We were all charged with criminal trespass. I had two counts, although that was probably a clerical error. Or maybe it was because I had taken the pictures.
Did we creep over chain link in the dead of night, cutting razor wire as we went? Nope. We went for a walk in the park.
The park was the Rio Grande nature reserve. It was July 3rd, and Joe and I were visiting my parents in Albuquerque. We drove to the park with the idea of checking out the ducks and turtles, then strolling down to the Rio Grande before having lunch and leaving town. My Dad drove to the park, and he was the only one who noticed the sign at the park’s entrance: Bosque Closure. Levees and Paved Trails Remain Open. Some trails were still open, he figured, so we’d go ahead.
We were gabbing up a storm as we took our usual route, crossed the road, and entered the trailhead. I’m not sure I even noticed the yellow tape.
If I did notice it, I probably assumed that it was to keep cars from turning into the trail, which is wide enough to be a road. Anyway, there was plenty of open trail to the right of the tape, and we walked right in. We had stood by the river, admired a bunny, pointed at fleeing lizards, and were almost done with our loop when a police officer/park ranger walked toward us. “Hey there!” we cheerfully greeted him. He was not quite as friendly.
“You crossed the police line. I’m going to have to write you up.”
“What police line?”
“The yellow tape back there.”
“But we didn’t cross it.” Etc., etc., etc.
Apparently, fire danger was so high that the mayor had declared particular trails closed, so people couldn’t walk on them and light stuff on fire, perhaps with carelessly thrown cigarettes.
“We absolutely approve of that,” I said. “And we would never have walked here, but your signage was insufficient.” Signage is one of my favorite words.
None of that made any difference. The mayor had stressed “zero tolerance,” and there wasn’t a fine we could pay – we actually had to go to court, where we might be convicted of a misdemeanor.
While we were alternating between pleas and angry disbelief, Officer X called for back up. Maybe my dad’s sneakers appeared threatening, or my mom looked at him funny out of her big blue eyes. Another officer came, and also ignored our pleas. Officer X doggedly made out citations for each of us.
“How many people have you ticketed for this?” my father asked.
I had my digital camera with me. As they walked us out, I scurried ahead and took pictures of the offending tape.
It was strung between two posts that looked like they might have supported a gate at one time. The post beside the six-foot stretch of unblocked path, where we had walked, had a big, red-and-black No Smoking sign, plus four park glyphs: No dogs, no bikes, no horseback riding…hikers okay. The yellow tape, when uncurled, said “Fire Line, do not cross.” Well, we hadn’t crossed it. The trail itself wasn’t labeled as the Bosque trail. There was a small repeat of the sign by the front gate, but it was perhaps thirty-five feet away from the trailhead, on a post with three other small signs, and we hadn’t had to pass it.
We were due to have lunch and then head back to Colorado. Instead, we had lunch and went to the courthouse, where we were given four different judges and four different arraignment dates. Joe was the only one we managed to get arraigned that day. If we pled guilty, we were each subject to a $500 fine and/or 90 days in jail. Officer X would be prosecuting, although I distinctly recall him saying, “It’s not up to me.”
When I got back to Colorado, I called the DA and the public defender. “Sorry. Can’t help you.” I called the head of the parks department, Lt. Y. “Sorry. If he drops the charges, there might be a question of…impropriety.”
I called my judge’s secretary. “At the very least, can I get us all with the same judge, on the same date? Right now, my husband has to come back to New Mexico once, for his trial, and I have to come back twice.”
“I’m sorry. You could maybe file a motion.”
“How do I do that?”
“Telling you would be giving legal advice. I can’t do that.”
So we were looking at three trips back to New Mexico, missed work for Joe, possible airfare because I fall asleep on the highway, $2000 in fines, and misdemeanors for each of us. My parents felt terrible. I called Dad. “I want you to look in the yellow pages and talk to five law offices that do criminal trials. Find out what they charge an hour and pick one in the middle range, as long as the secretary is friendly.” It’s my belief that personality comes from the top down.
He found us an associate who charged $190/hour. Her father was a partner in the office. We loved her name -- Alexandra Freedman. I sent her all the pictures I had taken and an explanation, and she charged a $3,000 retainer fee to my credit card. I wondered what poor people did.
A lawyer makes all the difference in the world. For one thing, you’re no longer alone and ignorant. Ms. Freedman was reassuring, and a champion communicator. She over-nighted forms, we over-nighted them back, and my mother and I were arraigned without having to return to New Mexico. We were all put with the same judge and given one court date. My father was the only one whose tough-as-nails judge was unwilling to arraign him via mail. He is waiting in the courthouse as I write this. Ms. Freedman is with him, because he is so freaked out by this experience, he’s willing to pay for her presence.
And after we’re all firmly in the system, Ms. Freedman will haul us back out. She’s already spoken to Officer X, and he said he would dismiss the charges. Apparently there’s no question of a lawyer bribing him -- just us criminal trespassers. I’m guessing the cost for this little adventure will run about a thousand dollars.
We’re innocent until proven guilty, but innocence doesn’t come cheap.