Sunday, May 13, 2007
I was jailed for a day last month after walking my dog without a leash last fall in Lincoln Park on Capitol Hill. That much has been reported in the Washington Examiner, on the radio and on the Web.
Here are the details, and how it felt from my perspective.
First, I was in the wrong. By walking Henry, a Hungarian vizsla, leashless on the evening of Nov. 15, I broke the law. I am not disputing that.
And, yes, that evening I did tell the man who issued the ticket, U.S. Park Police Officer Stephen Smith, that he might want to check on the errant squirrels at the other end of the park.
Still, I had 15 days in which to pay the $25 ticket. When I attempted to do so, the situation spun out of control.
· The information printed on the back of the ticket said I could pay at a substation on E Street SE. But the ticket was wrong, as such tickets have been for at least six years.
· I tried to pay at Park Police headquarters, but the hours are limited, and I couldn't reach anyone.
· The ticket said that I could pay by mail, but it offered no further details.
· The ticket failed to mention that I could pay in court.
So, I sent a check to U.S. Park Police headquarters with a letter stating that "I know that the job of ticketing dog-owners whose dog is off-leash is highly important -- especially in time of war and terror threats, not to mention D.C.'s high crime rate. However if someone at your department could see their way to having an informative ticket written in competent language with correct information, perhaps we might feel our taxes are not being totally squandered."
The Park Police waited 12 days to reply that my payment was unacceptable and, in the meantime, obtained a warrant for my arrest.
Last month, I received a letter inviting me to go to a police station for accelerated processing through court. When I got to the station on April 12 at 6:45 a.m., I was promptly arrested. Throughout the day I was put in five cells, handcuffed three times, fingerprinted twice, made to wear leg shackles and photographed before being released at about 5 p.m.
That day a few officers told me: This is ridiculous. They explained that most officers would have used their initiative, delayed the warrant and made a call to resolve the issue simply. Hmm, initiative . . . I think not.
Now, I'm relatively new to the United States. And I speak with an English accent. But I am a law-abiding person. I'd never been in a cell in my life, and my reaction was some combination of surprise and fascination. It was like the movies. Knowing a judge would release me meant that I was never worried, but it was strange to know that I could not leave immediately if I wanted to. I contemplated how awful it must be to face long-term incarceration. It doesn't matter how many times you see it on TV; it's different when you are there.
The judge was incredulous when he heard the facts. He told me that I should not have been there. I recall holding up my manacled leg and saying, "Well, your honor, it's been an interesting day, and I've had a good insight into the judicial system." I recall him smiling and saying, "Welcome to the U.S.A."
I have, however, learned some important lessons:
· I really, really never want to go to jail. There were some hard-core prisoners at the court, and it is my wish never to join them.
· I will never walk Henry again without a leash.
· Some officers follow the law to the letter. Perhaps it's easier than using common sense.
· Creating a ticket with correct information seems to be beyond the capability of the U.S. Park Police.
-- Peter McMahon