03 July 2015

Not Reading Can Be A Pain


By Dixon Hill

Toward the end of May, I seem to recall receiving a letter with the return address of the National Safety Council on it, complete with the circular seal you see here.

As I recall things: I thought it was another one of those "Watch your kids around water!" notices that get sent out, like confetti at a ticker-tape parade, around Phoenix during the summer.

I seem to further recall tearing the envelope in two, unopened, and tossing it in the garbage can. After all, I taught all three of my kids not only how to swim, but also "safe swim defense" techniques.  And, I figure I did a good job, having earned Swimming and Life Saving Merit Badges back in my youth, along with the BSA Mile Swim Award, and having served as a scout-swimmer in Special Forces during my army days.  I was also a Swimming Merit Badge councilor for the Boy Scouts for several years after I left the army.

So, hey, who needs to read a silly letter from the National Safety Council?  Right?

About two weeks ago, however, I got a tremendous surprise while driving to work.

A police car was pacing me in the left lane, its hood just a little ahead of mine.  (This isn't what surprise me; I've driven alongside police cars before.)  And, when the left lane gave out, I slowed so he could pull into the right lane ahead of me.  He slowed further, so I did too -- just before thinking about what my friend on the Scottsdale PD had told me about not waving to police officers, or acting too friendly, because this is the sort of behavior bad guys think will put cops off their scent.  Hence, in an officer's view, my behavior might be considered suspicious.

Consequently, when the squad car went through the next intersection on a yellow light, but I stopped (I was behind him by that time), I wasn't surprised to watch it turn into a parking lot up ahead, then nose back out toward the street as if waiting for me.  Sure enough, when I passed, he pulled out and followed me.

No problem.  I'm one of the good guys.  Nothing to worry about; I wasn't even speeding.

At the next light he hit his overhead lights and pulled me over.  I was a little surprised, but not terribly so: I know there are enough traffic regulations on the books that an officer can pull over just about anyone, at anytime, and with perfectly legitimate legal cause -- This is actually a useful law enforcement tool, and I don't resent it in the least.  I pulled over, turned down the radio, got my license, registration and proof of insurance out, and waited for him to walk up to my window.

After examining my documentation, the officer asked, "Mr. Hill, do you know why I pulled you over?"

I shook my head.  "No.  Actually I don't.  I don't think I was speeding.  Do I have a taillight out, or something?"

"Actually, sir, I pulled you over because, when I ran your plates, it came back that you have a suspended license."

I was shocked!  ME?  A suspended license?

"Really?  Why is my license suspended?  Are you sure you got the right guy?" I asked.  I didn't have to ask if he was kidding; his demeanor made it clear that he wasn't.

He nodded.  "Wait here, please."  He walked back to his car with my papers.

I sat there, puzzled, until he came back and asked me to step out of the car.  Why does he want me out of the car? I wondered.  Is he going to arrest me for some reason?  This was really getting bizarre.

Once on the sidewalk with the officer, I saw him clip my license to the front of his shirt.  I knew then, I was in trouble.  For the first time, I began to suspect this wasn't just a case of someone having made a mistake that we could iron out in the next ten or twenty minutes.  I asked, "Can you tell me why my license is suspended?  I mean, I had no idea."

He shook his head, and now it was his turn to look a bit surprised.  "No.  I can't.  It just says your license is suspended.  For some reason, it doesn't say why."

I surmised that he was talking about his on-board computer.  I realized he wasn't sure why it didn't tell him the reason for my license suspension, and that this bothered him.  I also began to notice how young he was, and that he didn't have any stripes on his uniform.

"Do you have any idea?" he asked.  "Did you get any traffic tickets lately?"

"No."  I shook my head.  "I got a ticket about six months ago.  First one in about ten years."  I laughed.  "I paid the fine and all, so I don't see how that could be the problem."

He looked troubled.  "Well, if you have anything in the car that you need, please get it out.  We're going to have to do an inventory, and I don't want have to go through all your things.  It might embarrass you.  You seem like a nice guy."

"You're going to inventory my car?"

He nodded, looking a bit sheepish.  "I'm afraid we have to.  I have to impound your vehicle for thirty days, because you're driving on a suspended license.  You seem like a nice guy, and you're really being good about this, but I don't have a choice."

My eyebrows rose through my hairline.  "You're impounding my car?  For thirty days?  Really?"

I couldn't help laughing.  I'd once been on an A-team in the field, when we got into a tight position, and then two of the guys started punching each other out due to frayed nerves.  I started laughing then, too -- so hard that the warring parties quit fighting and came over to demand what I was laughing at.  But, our captain, the Team Leader, beat them to the punch, asking what was so funny.  I told him, "Nothing's funny, Skipper.  It'll take miracle to get us out of this thing, and you either have to laugh about it, or you gotta cry.  And I sure as hell ain't gonna cry about it!"

I was laughing for the same reason this time, too.

"I'm really sorry to do this to you," the young officer reiterated.  "You seem like a really nice guy."

"It's okay, officer.  I've got a friend on the Scottsdale PD, and another who used to be on the Phoenix department.  I know you're just doing your job.  No hard feelings, believe me.  I'm just embarrassed, that's all."

He was kind enough to get a trash bag from his car, so I could put all the items from my car into it.  I appreciated this, as I had recently-cleaned work shirts lying on the back seat at the time.

The young officer suggested I go to the Department of Motor Vehicles to find out why my license had been suspended.  When my son dropped me off there, I found out that I had to take a Defensive Driving class because of  my earlier ticket.  "But, I paid the fine," I said.  "I thought I had to either pay the fine, or take the class."

The woman behind the counter said, "New program.  Now ya' gotta do both."

"Both?"

"Yep.  We mailed you a letter at the end of May.  It told you that you had to take the class, or we'd suspend your license."

"I never got any letter."

"Still gotta take the class, if you want your license reinstated."

"Okay."  So, I paid three bucks for her to print out the letter they'd sent me in May.

When I went to the Defensive Driving course three days later, I learned that there really is a new program in Arizona, requiring almost anyone who gets a ticket to go to a defensive driving class -- even if they pay the fine.  This program is still pretty new; it was evidently enacted after I got my ticket, but I somehow fall into the category of person who has to take such a class.

And, there is a bit of reasoning behind the program.  Seems that, of the five most dangerous cities for driving (i.e. greatest number of traffic fatalities per annum) in the United States, Phoenix ranks No. 1, Mesa ranks No. 3, and Tucson ranks No. 5.  This program was enacted to help stem the tide of death on city streets in Arizona.  Now, the state alerts the MVD about offenders who pay the fine, but don't take a course.  The MVD then sends out a letter, saying that the offender must take a course as well, or risk suspension of his/her license.

And the kicker is:  The DMV sends these letters out, not in envelopes with official seals from the state, but (You guessed it!) in envelopes with the return address and circled green cross of the National Safety Council, because this is considered a safety measure.

Reporting from the rather humorous front lines of the legal system: this is Dixon Hill.

See you in two weeks!



16 comments:

Anonymous said...

Man, I have to say I'd have been in the very same boat. I'd never in a million years have thought that a letter from the National Safety Council was anything but junk mail of some sort. I sure hope you get your car back soon! That really stinks!

Dixon Hill said...

thanks anon. glad to say I already got my car back, and am currently driving it to work.

30 days evidently doesn't have to last for 30 days. Lol

janice law said...

Ouch!
I suppose you've also learned, I hope not the hard way, that updated credit cards come in plain envelopes with no real return address ID.

Dixon Hill said...

you know Janice I think you're right, but somehow the credit card envelopes always seemed fairly clear to me - - probably because they have the gift card inside though I don't know. That Green Safety Council seal is what I think faked me out

Eve Fisher said...

I hate to say it, but it's obvious that another reason the letters come in the Green Safety Council envelope is precisely BECAUSE most people will throw them out in the trash, and that way Phoenix will get more revenue (3 bucks for a copy of a letter, to start with), and perhaps a few cars that will stay in impoundment (and thus auctioned off) because the people can't afford to get them out in time. It's a nice way to make a little extra money while saying, "We sent you the letter. This is all your fault."

R.T. Lawton said...

Dix, only the innocent people feel embarrassed. Criminals, not so much.

Paul D. Marks said...

Dixon, you seem to have taken the situation in good stride and with humor, which is a good thing in the moment. But in the bigger picture I find what happened to you unsettling, but I don't get into all of that here, so I'll leave it at that.

Elizabeth said...

I'm glad you figured out what happened! The state of New York suspended my husband's license in 2010. He had not been ticketed nor had we received any envelopes from "National Safety Council" ... his license was up for renewal & being disabled he had to get his doctor to fill out a form disclosing that he has a pacemaker & drives a vehicle with hand controls because he has diabetic neuropathy. So when some doofus in Albany opened the envelope, s/he saw a few words describing his disability, but didn't know what they meant nor attempt to figure it out. The DMV sent us a letter that his license was suspended & would be reinstated when he passed a road test.

The driving examiner was very good & graded him fairly. He's of Polish descent like hubby & told us that the -ski at the end of a Polish name stands for Skill, Knowledge, Intelligence.

Leigh Lundin said...

Elizabeth's husband and RT have the right attitude. I'm afraid Eve is right… Someone's calculated this as another clever way to increase the state revenue.

Dixon, having been through that myself, I can empathize and it hardly seems fair to conduct state business through third party mailings.

If you have a moment, here's my own experience.

Dixon Hill said...

Hi, ALL: I recently returned from work and, having cooked chicken for the family and eaten, am back on the computer to read further comments and add some of my own. Sorry I was out of the loop for so long, today, but the "electronic salt mines" of windshield sales called. LOL The odd appearance of my earlier comments is because I sent them by dictation into my cell phone while stopped on my way in to work.

Dixon Hill said...

Eve, I think that may well have something to do with it. I've certainly spent close to $500 so far, to take the class, get my license reinstated, and to get my car back. And, I still have to deal with the criminal charge of driving on a suspended license. The idea that I've done something criminal is what really bothers me -- whether I knew I was doing it or not. For a fellow who prides himself on being one of "The Good Guys" being charged as a criminal comes as rather a shock.

On the other hand, my wife and I both noticed that the courts, impound, police and DMV don't seem to all be on exactly the same sheet of music. Each piece of the system seems to be taking care of only its part of the situation, while there appears to be no legal "overseer" who sits above and sees it all -- with the exception of those pulled over (such as yours truly), who have to sort of blunder their way through things. Consequently, I look at it as my having fallen through a crack between strips of red tape, and -- as I pointed out to my wife -- I took advantage of cracks between red tape to accomplish my A-teams' missions in the army, often enough, it's probably only fitting that I stubbed my toe on a similar crack years later.

Dixon Hill said...

R.T. and Paul, I hear what you're saying. And, thanks.

Elizabeth, being part Polish I'll have to remember that ski definition. Sorry to hear about what happened to your husband. Sounds like -- again -- the parts of the system that needed to, weren't communicating with each other in a useful manner.

Dixon Hill said...

Leigh, I read your own experiences, and have to say they sound a bit similar to my own experience when I showed up in court -- with a few differences:

I think most of my fellow defendants were there for drinking issues (public intoxication, buying alcohol with a fake ID [he had to do community service and pay $90] and DUI).

I found it interesting that, before court began, the prosecutor came in and said that for anyone there charged with driving on a suspended license -- if that person didn't know WHY the license had been suspended -- the court would grant a continuance so the person could go to the DMV and find out. Interesting...

As for myself: I'd already taken the class and had my license reinstated, and was being arraigned(!!) for later trial, but the judge, upon learning that I was veteran, instead entered a plea of Not Guilty for me, and set me up for a trial in "Veteran's Court." Having never heard of such a thing, I looked it up afterward, only to learn it seems to have been established to help those with PTSD issues get help reintegrating into society -- doesn't seem like I quite belong there. She also assigned me a defense attorney and said I could opt out of Veteran's Court later, if I wish, and come back into the regular court system. I plan to email the attorney and see what he says. I'll keep you apprised.

--Dixon

Anonymous said...

I have to say, having thought about this much of the day: this is so wrong at so many disturbing levels. What about people who don't have the money to bail their cars out of the impound lot and therefore lose their jobs? What about people who can't pay all the various costs? Do they go to jail? What about the African American or Hispanic or Indian person who's tailed and then stopped by a cop and doesn't know why but is anxious (especially given what's been going on nationally) and therefore runs in fear? This whole thing is rife with the potential for serious abuse. What happened to you is bad enough, but it could have been even worse. A lot worse. I'm not sure what should happen here, and I don't think you want to do anything that jeopardizes your court case. But at some point, information about this set-up needs to go national while everyone is talking about police department policies and how unjust laws like this are used to fatten civic and polic coffers.

Leigh Lundin said...

Anon, the point you raise is particularly troubling to Eve and me and perhaps others of our colleagues. Court outsourcing and corporate prisons have turned even the simplest of errors into profit centers. Lobbying makes it even worse as companies push for more inmates and longer sentences. Something has gone horribly wrong with our justice system.

Dixon Hill said...

Well, I haven't been completely through the system yet. We'll see how this all turns out. Hopefully, I won't wind up having some criminal conviction on my record because of it all.

Personally, I think the primary nature of the problem is probably rooted in the unanticipated side-effects of well-intentioned legislation. In an attempt to address a safety concern, a program was enacted that may have created unintended negative consequences for otherwise-innocent individuals. (True: it may raise funding for elements within the state, but I doubt this was the primary goal -- though it probably did increase the likelihood of adoption.)

The problem is also magnified by the multi-layered application it naturally has to function within. For instance: The DMV (which sent me that notice) is a state agency, while the police officer who pulled me over worked for the city of Tempe. My car was impounded at a county impound lot (a private concern that contracts to the county for this service) located in Mesa. I have to deal with the city of Tempe for court services, and had to pay the Tempe PD $150 for the paper that the impound lot had to have, in order to release my car. Then I had to pay around $215 to the impound lot. Thus, you can easily see that a state-initiated program winds up being carried on state, county and even municipal shoulders, which decentralizes the authority and creates a question of where or how to address concerns, complaints, etc.

In the end, a person is left arranging through the state for a driving class, paying the class-teaching company for that class, buying a new license from the state, then ransoming his/her car at the municipal level, before finally being left to clean up any potential criminal charges at the municipal court level. A rather intricate multi-layered mess that, to my mind, is really just probably the natural result of state legislation.