Sunday, April 8, 2007

Finding out the hard way (Part 2)

We get a fair amount of tourists in our town. Most are here to enjoy the beach and maybe the nightlife. Unfortunately some get carried away, and since my house is near the end of the strip, I get to witness a lot of their antics. Things like blaring their car stereos at 3AM on weekdays. Things like seeing how fast they can possibly go between the stop signs on my block. Things like throwing beer bottles at our parked cars as they speed by. For these reasons I was kind of glad to see the JSO DUI unit regularly parking at the end of my block on the weekends.

Before I go any further I should probably clarify something about law enforcement in our area. Our town, like many others, has it's own police department. Even though we are a separate town from Jacksonville, the JSO (Jacksonville Sheriff's Office) also has jurisdiction here. I don't entirely understand all the reasons for having two police forces here, so I'm not going to try to explain it.

Our local police department has to deal with a lot of craziness. I've seen them put up with a lot of ridiculous behavior and still remain professional while resolving the issues. Despite the poor behavior exhibited by the officer I mentioned in my last post, my view of our local police department was that they were generally pretty good guys. That's why I was blown away by what happened this time.

The JSO on the other hand have a pretty bad reputation. This blog isn't intended to bash the men and women that risk their lives to protect us, so I hope no one takes it that way. However I don't think pretending there's not a problem will make it go away. If you want a better idea of what I'm talking about, please watch the Oscar-winning documentary called Murder on a Sunday Morning. The behavior of the JSO officers in this documentary was unfortunately not an isolated case of a few bad apples. And, no, I'm not saying this just because of my personal experience. The JSO have some serious issues and I really wish they'd straighten up their act. That said, I never expected that I'd have a run-in with the JSO.

One Saturday night, a few weeks after the encounter with the officer from the bank, I needed to run to the store for some aspirin. It was 11:30PM on Saturday, June 3rd--my 8th year anniversary of moving to Florida. I'd been working all day on a web site for someone and I had an awful toothache so I decided to drive the three blocks to the store instead of walking like I usually would.

As I walked to the car I noticed the JSO DUI unit parked at the end of the block just as he had been the last couple weekends. I didn't think anything about it because my vehicle registration was valid, my insurance was paid, I had a clean driving record, and I hadn't had anything to drink. However, when I backed out of my parking spot I noticed him start driving up the street towards me.

At the corner I put on my turn signal, made the left towards the store and made sure I was doing exactly the speed limit. 25mph, three short blocks--the walk to the store takes less than five minutes door to door, so believe me when I say they are short blocks. He made the turn and followed me closely to the next stop sign three blocks away. As I came to a stop he turned on his lights. Not wanting to block the intersection I put on my turn signal, made the right, and then immediately turned into the parking lot of the store.

When I turned into the parking lot the JSO DUI unit followed me. And he was closely followed by a police cruiser from the local police department as well as another local police officer on a golf cart. When he asked me for my ID I handed it to him and asked what was wrong, but he simply said "Stay in your car. I'll be right back." I thought it odd that he didn't ask for my registration or proof of insurance. Isn't that supposed to be standard procedure? I figured he was hoping that I'd been drinking so he could justify spending Saturday nights parked out by the beach. I stayed calm because I thought he'd probably just come back and tell me I was free to go.

Instead of coming back to the car he called to me to step out of the vehicle. As I walked over to him I looked over at the two local police officers. One was a male with white hair, and the other a female with blond hair. They were standing a little bit away and chatting quietly. The blonde was smiling as she was talking but the officer with the white hair just looked over at me with no expression.

What came next was totally unexpected. The JSO officer said, "Can you tell me any legal reason why you were driving with no lights?" My first thought was that maybe I really did forget to turn on my headlights. I asked him if he was sure, but he just plowed on.

"Can you tell me any legal reason that you were driving 32 in a 25?" he continued. But I knew for certain that I was going the speed limit. I'd been checking my clearly lit dashboard to make certain I was going the speed limit while he was following me. I guess it was a rhetorical question because he didn't wait for an answer.

"And this officer over here says she noticed you weren't wearing your seatbelt when you went through one of the intersections." At this point I was incredulous. Even before the seatbelt laws I'd always worn my seatbelt. I grew up always having to wear my seatbelt, and frankly I feel naked riding in a car without my seatbelt on, no matter how short the trip. Besides that, I clearly remembered removing my seatbelt.

I guess he was done with his list of offenses because now he finally gave me a chance to respond. I started to explain to him that because my car was a convertible, the seatbelt comes up from over the back of the seat, so you can't see it from outside the car. But the blond was having none of it. She started yelling, almost screaming, "What, you callin' me a liar, huh?"

I looked back at the officer that had pulled me over and said "Look, I'm not calling anyone a liar. I just clearly remember removing my seatbelt. I always..." But I didn't even get to finish. The blond started yelling, even closer to screaming this time, "You're callin' me a liar!" She turned to the officer with the white hair and said "He's callin' me a liar!"

I really didn't like where this was going so I decided it would be a good idea to end it. I said "Alright, I'll be the liar." Fortunately the hidden insult passed over her head, because she just went back to chatting with her partner, once again with a smile on her face.

The JSO officer then handed me my tickets, which were already written up, and in his hand the whole time we were talking. He handed them to me one at a time. "Here's the ticket for operating a vehicle with no lights after dusk. And here's the ticket for driving 32 in a 25. And here's the ticket for driving without your seatbelt." The ticket for the seatbelt listed the blond officer as the witness. Then he said some other stuff about how to pay it and how much they were going to cost me.

As he explained I glanced over at the two local officers. This time they were no longer chatting, just watching and listening as the JSO officer explained how much I was going to pay. The blonde was still smiling, as if she was proud of what she'd done, and the officer with the white hair still had the same stone cold expression that he'd had the whole time.

The odd thing is that's the part that I remember most vividly; the two local officers standing there watching. But the officer that actually gave me the tickets, I doubt if I'd even recognize him if I saw him somewhere. The smiling blonde and the other with the stone cold face I will never forget.

That's how the second clue revealed itself to me. I still didn't know what was going on at that point, but after a night of tossing and turning and a day of laying in bed trying to forget the world outside, something finally clicked into place. I'll get to that in my next post.

(to be continued)

Next post: Finding out the hard way (Part 3)

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