Saturday, January 9, 2010

It Is Finished!

No, I'm not talking about the remarkable Gospel proclamation declared by our Lord from the cross just before He breathes His last and dies for our sins.  I'm speaking of my recent run-in with the Law and subsequent tour through our local court system.

Okay, so here's what happened:  On November 30, I took the afternoon off to get one last deer hunt in on this, the last day of the season.  Evidently, I wasn't the only hunter looking for one last chance to bag a deer.  I drove to four different state game areas near my house and there were hunters everywhere (wasn't even room to park in the designated parking areas).  When I got to the fifth, and last location, things were looking up, as there were no vehicles parked there.  So, I got out of my truck, grabbed my rifle, and headed across the field to the woods.  But, looking before me, I saw hunter's orange glaring at me from both patches of woods there is to hunt in this spot.  I don't know how those guys got in there, but there they were.  Not wanting to disturb their hunts, and having no clue where else to go, I headed back to my truck, ready to give up.  It was getting late anyway - around 3:45 already.  But, then my cell phone buzzed.  It was Ken, a member of our parish.  I had told him the day before that I was going to try to get out that afternoon and he was calling to invite me to come over to his place and hunt on his property.  Good news!  But, what follows - not so good!

Ken lives about 5 or 6 miles up the road from where I was.  So, knowing that I was just a short ride away, I did a bad, bad thing.  I just put my loaded rifle on the seat in my truck, closed the door and started to walk around to the other side.  Luckily (oh so luckily!), I stopped myself, went back, opened the door, and unloaded my rifle.  But - BUT! - like an idiot, I didn't take the time to slip my unloaded rifle into the case upon which it laid.  That would have taken probably a total of 3 or 4 seconds . . . but, no, I left it out of the case, got in my truck, and headed to Ken's.  You can probably already see where I'm going with this.

Between the hunting spot where I was and Ken's house, there is a little town, so the speed limit goes from 55 to 25 as you approach that town.  Yeah, I guess I didn't slow down fast enough.  I never even saw the County Sheriff  until I passed him (he was coming in the opposite direction I was heading and there were no police lights on the top of his vehicle).  But, when I did pass him, I wasn't worried about being pulled over or anything.  I wasn't speeding at that point.  I wasn't racing through town or anything.  So, I was surprised to see him turn around and turn his (inside) lights on to indicate that he wanted me to pull over.

When he came to the window, he asked, "Do you know why I stopped you?"  "No," I answered.  I wasn't lying, I really didn't know.  He said, "As you entered the 25-mile-per-hour zone, I clocked you at 42, and the law states that you need to be going the speed limit when you reach the posted sign."  He then asked for my license and registration, which is when the fun began.

As I handed him my information, he said, in a very stern voice, "Get out of the vehicle and place your hands on the hood!"  Shocked by this, I hesitated, and he said in a loud voice, "Now!"  As I opened the truck door to get out, he took a couple of steps back, extending his left arm in my direction and placing his right hand on his sidearm, obviously taking a defensive posture just in case I might attack him or something.  I thought it was a bit much, and I also thought I could hear, "Bad boys, bad boys, watcha gonna do, watcha gonna do when they come for you?" playing in the background, but that was probably just in my head. :)

After getting out and assuming the position, he slammed my door and said, "Stay right there with your hands on the hood!"  Then, he proceeded around the truck to the other side, all the while keeping a keen eye on me as if I posed some sort of threat to him.  It was then that it hit me.  My rifle was out of its case.  That's what he was freaking out about.  When he got to the passenger door, he said, "Do you know that it's against the law to operate a motor vehicle while carrying an uncased weapon?"  I acknowledged that I did.  As he opened the passenger door, he snarled, "This better not be loaded!"  Remembering how I originally put the rifle in the truck loaded, I was thinking, "Pshew, glad I unloaded it."  He grabbed the rifle, confirmed it wasn't loaded, saying, "You're so lucky!," came around to my side of the truck, told me to get in and have a seat, and proceeded back to his car, taking my rifle with him.

Now, as I sat there waiting for nearly fifteen minutes, two things kept going through my mind:  1) I hope he doesn't confiscate my rifle, which was a gift from someone I cherish very much, and 2) Remember that you are a pastor (that was going through my mind because the Old Adam in me was getting a little steamed at the way this officer was handling the situation).

Finally, he emerged from his vehicle and walked up to the passenger side door, opened it, and placed my rifle where it was laying before.  He didn't put it in its case and he didn't ask me to do so, either.  He just laid it on top of the case, as it was before, which I found odd.  Then he handed me two tickets, one for speeding (40 in a 25) and a misdemeanor for operating a motor vehicle with an uncased weapon.  As he handed me the tickets, he said, "I'm not going to confiscate your weapon, even though I have every right to do so.  I'm doing you a big favor here.  The only reason I'm doing that is because you have a clean driving record and no prior criminal record.  However, I am writing you up for 40 in a 25, which is a civil infraction, and for having an uncased weapon, which is a misdemeanor and will go on your permanent record.  In the future, I suggest that you case your weapon when traveling."  Then he said, "By the way, I assume you're out hunting this afternoon.  Before I let you go, I need to see your hunting license."  As I was pulling my hunting license out of my wallet, I wanted to say, "Gee whiz, officer, what led you to the conclusion that I was hunting?  Could it be that I am dressed in camouflage from head to toe?  Or, is it the hunter's orange vest and hat I'm wearing?  Just what was it that led you to that assumption?"  But, I resisted that temptation.  Instead, as I handed him my hunting license, I asked him, "Do you really think it's necessary to give me a misdemeanor here?"  Handing me back my hunting license, he responded, "Yes, I do.  And, as I said, you're lucky I don't confiscate your rifle, too.  The DNR officer I was talking to while running your record told me I should, but I thought I'd give you a break."

Then, he stepped back and looked like he was going to close the door, and I said, "Can I get out and put my rifle in its case now?"  "Yes," he said, in a way that told me that he had forgotten about that.  One would think that if it was such a big deal, worthy of a misdemeanor and all, that would have been the first thing he would have done, or had me do.

Now, I was intent on simply walking around my truck, putting my rifle in its case, and heading away.  I was a little mad, I admit it.  But, I had no intention of saying another word to this officer.  However, when I got around to the other side and was putting the rifle in its case, he thought it would be prudent to give me a lecture on hunter safety, and I simply couldn't take it any longer.  I didn't yell or scream at him or anything, but I did tell him, "Look, you gave me the tickets.  I don't need a lecture."  To which he responded, "Obviously you do, if you're going to break the law and drive around unsafe."  "What, exactly, is unsafe about driving with an unloaded rifle?" I asked.  He said, "It's against the law."

I still wasn't overly mad at this point, so I asked the officer what his name was.  Then I got mad, because his response was, "My name is on those tickets; can you read?" (said in a very sarcastic tone).  "Yes, I can read," I said.  "Can you interpret a situation?  Do you see how I'm dressed?  Do you really not understand what I'm doing?  I'm not some hardened criminal driving around with a weapon.  I'm out hunting, going from one spot to another.  Did you really need to have me get out of my truck and put my hands on the hood?  That was a little much, don't ya think?"  "You better watch it," he said, "or I will go ahead and confiscate your weapon."  "Why do you keep referring to it as a weapon?  It's a hunting rifle, and it's in its case and in my vehicle now.  So, have a nice day, and happy holidays to you."  And then I got in my truck and drove away.

As I drove away, I was a little disappointed in myself.  I should not have let the officer get to me.  I should have just kept my mouth shut and left.  At the same time, the whole thing was a bit ridiculous.  He really had no need to even pull me over.  If I was speeding, it could only have been for a few seconds, since I started slowing down when I saw the first 25 mph sign.  And then, to make me get out of the truck and put my hands on the hood, while placing his hand on his gun, as if I was a threat, was simply absurd.  I could understand if it wasn't hunting season and if we were not in a hunting location and if I was not dressed in hunting clothing.  But, given ALL those indicators, and the additional indicator that we're not in a hot-bed of criminal activity, one would think that the officer would have been able to interpret the situation for what it was.  Indeed, having spoken to a few police officers about the whole matter since it happened, they agreed whole-heartedly that this officer should have handled things much differently.  In fact, two of the three told me that they would have just told me to case my rifle the next time; the other one said he would have had me put it in the case then and let me be on my way.  It just was not necessary to simulate an episode of "Cops" in this situation. 

Anyway, since I was issued a misdemeanor, I had to appear at District Court a couple weeks after this happened for my arraignment.  Lots of fun, that was.  I sat there for over two hours just to go to the podium and say, "Not guilty."  Pleading "Not Guilty" doesn't mean that you think you are innocent of the charges against you; it just means that you want to have a chance to talk the prosecutor and hopefully work out a deal.  Even the judge, who cannot officially give anyone legal advice, made it clear that most people should just go ahead and plead "Not Guilty."  So, having spent over two hours to do what took about 30 seconds, I had to reappear two weeks later for a "Pre-Trial" conference with the prosecutor. 

The prosecutor (actually, assistant prosecutor) was a very reasonable and understanding lady.  She asked me what happened.  I told her the story.  After chatting about things for a bit, she said, "I'll make you a deal:  You pay the speeding ticket and I'll drop the misdemeanor altogether.  Or, you can plead guilty to the misdemeanor and I'll drop the speeding ticket.  Your choice.  If you decide to go for the first offer, I will, out of courtesy, have to talk to the officer first, but I'm sure he'll be amenable to that.  If you go for the second offer, you need to know that this offense carries a sentence of zero to ninety days in jail and zero to $500 in fines.  Also, all misdemeanors are reported in the paper and if you are convicted of this particular misdemeanor, the DNR can take some action regarding your hunting privileges."  After telling her that I would be happy to take her first offer, she said that she would talk to the officer and get back with me after Jan. 1.  Finally, yesterday, having had another useless court date set for Jan. 5, she got back to me and told me that the deal was on.  So, all I have to do is mail the speeding ticket in with $125.00 and the misdemeanor will be thrown out.  My criminal record will remain squeaky clean, no action will be taken against my hunting privileges, and my name will stay out of the local papers - Pshew!

And, hopefully, this will bring an end to the fun some of my family and friends have been having at my expense (photo-shopped pics of me in jail; headlines depicting me as "Most Wanted," etc.).  Actually, I quite enjoyed that stuff - very funny! :)  But, it can end now . . . it really can. :)    

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