My life as a ten dollar scofflaw and how I avoided prison
The big lesson is to hire a good lawyer, and keep your head down. All it takes is a federal prosecutor with the stone heart of Trooper Rayeski to make your life a hellish inferno of pain.
There was the time when I was a young and stupid person, and I believe God is pleased that I have this story to tell my own kids. So now you get to hear it too. When I got my secret clearance back in the early 90s, I had to tell the FBI about my “tater salad” episode a few years earlier—you know, about the time I got arrested.
Let me back up.
In the late 1980s, I graduated college and got a good-paying job. Along with that, came a new car, an Acura Integra. (My good friend, who we will refer to only as “the moderator” deflated me when I showed it off, offering his quizzical comment “it’s a hatchback?”). That car was to be the vehicle of my legal trouble, but to get to the root, I need to go back further.
A few years (maybe, my memory is fading a little after decades of telling this story) before, I was driving a different vehicle down I-90, the New York Thruway, on the way to Ithaca, New York. I don’t even remember why I was going there, but I am sure I had a good reason. It was really late at night, as college kids like me (University of New Hampshire, thank you) only drove late at night down dark interstates on the way to exciting stuff that required going as fast as possible to get there.
Seeing a darkened vehicle sitting in the pitch-black median strip, I was worried that some unfortunate traveler met with a terrible calamity, so I did what came to mind: flashed my brights to see. As my high school chemistry teacher would say when I guessed an answer incorrectly: WRONG! (He would also bite off a chunk of chalk and chew it if a student took too long answering, but that’s a different story.) See, I had illuminated a New York State Police car, and I’m sure the occupant of that car was sleeping peacefully until my high beams so rudely interrupted his nap.
So, as it (often) happened during my college years, the bubble gum machine hit the jackpot on my car (he lit me up). I got stopped for speeding and was issued a ticket, which I promptly threw in the glove box and went on with my life.
That was the moment of my enormous error. It was like the little stone used to make a snowball, which then rolled down the freshly powdered hill to become a giant snow boulder.
I did give the ticket some thought, but the sleepy New York trooper who wrote it out had misspelled my name, my address, and a bunch of other details about me on the violation form. I laughed at his abrogation of diligence, and figured it would never catch up with me. Right?
About a year later, I got a letter from the New Hampshire motor vehicle folks kindly informing me they were going to suspend my license if I didn’t clear a default on a ticket. I figured this had to be a mistake, because I hadn’t gotten a ticket in N.H. in the past year. Somewhere in the back of my head, the alarm was going off about the New York ticket, but I couldn’t even find it at that point. It had passed into myth as surely as the elves from Middle Earth. It was buried in the sands of time like Sauron’s Ring of power, waiting for Gollum to wring the neck of whoever dug it up.
I was, however, happily driving my new Integra and going on with my life without any care whatsoever.
It was the night before New Years Eve and I was in a hurry to get home after working really late. I was driving my Integra kind of sort of super fast down what passes for an east-west superhighway in Rockingham County, N.H. As I flashed on past Trooper Rayeski’s patrol car, he must have growled with glee when his radar gun exploded in an arcade of lights, “git-em boy!” He lit me up.
Now you have to understand the context here of what was about to happen. While in college, I had about 15 different part-time jobs, though I kept at least one full-time job to pay the bills. One of the part-time jobs I had was doing database work for the county sheriff’s department. To fund this non-budgeted work, they hired me as a dispatcher, to work midnight shifts that tended to be relatively quiet so I had time to do the computer stuff. I actually did learn to be a 911 operator, at least as a trainee. Even today I can watch “North Woods Law” and understand the quirky N.H. ten-codes.
In addition to that, I was good friends with the local mechanic shop, where I had my vehicles serviced for years. I also sold him a computer and helped out when he needed it. Al’s Automotive was the shop’s name. Finally, my personal lawyer was a circuit court judge for the Superior Court of Rockingham County. The Exeter area was a small community in the late 1980s, and everyone pretty much knew everyone else.
I got pulled over, and Trooper Rayeski did the normal “do you know why I stopped you” routine. He took my license and spent a few minutes in his car, having dispatch run my 10-20 and 10-22 while I bided my time until another citation graced my driving record. No such luck getting just a speeding citation. Rayeski sauntered up to my window, flashlight in my face, to inform me that my license was suspended. Something about a ticket in upstate New York, and would I please exit the vehicle.
The memories flooded back. The ticket in New York. The letter. The Ring was dug up and about to be cast into Orodruin. I did my best impression of being nonplussed, but I knew the gig was up. Rayeski told me he’d be impounding my car, and I’d have to come in with him. Really? Why can’t I just take care of this? Oh no, it’s the slammer for me.
“Where are you taking me?”
“The county farm, why?” The county farm was slang for the Sheriff’s Office in Brentwood, which was about two miles away on the same road we were on.
“I can’t go there, they all know me. Can we go somewhere else?”
“I can’t do the perp walk into the Sheriff’s Office, I used to work there.”
“Well that’s your problem. Troop A is up in Epping, and I’m not going there. Plus, it’s closed up. There’s nobody up there.”
“Really? Isn’t there anything you can do here? Not like I’m going to run or anything.”
“Tell you what, I’ll cuff you in front instead of behind your back, and you can ride in the front seat.” Oh such grace and mercy!
“Great. Hey, one more request.”
“Who is doing the impound tow?”
“Nobody has ever asked me that. Why do you care?”
“I want Al’s Automotive to do it.” See, normally the impound yard charges a fortune to tow an impounded vehicle, and a hefty storage fee to keep it for a day or two. I knew Al would treat me better.
“Fine. I’ll get Al’s Automotive.” By this time Rayeski was getting frustrated. I must have been the Celine Dion of prisoners.
So into the front seat of Trooper Rayeski’s car I go, and down the road two miles to the county farm, where I walk in the intake door along with whatever other scofflaws, drunks and petty criminals were out on the night before New Year’s Eve.
I don’t remember if they applauded when I got there, but news of my coming had certainly preceded me. Motorola is always faster than word-of-mouth, and of course my name had been blasted out over the airwaves. As I was booked in, they allowed me my one phone call from the payphone near the vestibule. I called my brother Jay. There were no cell phones in those days, so I was hoping he’d be home and awake, since it was around midnight.
Ring…ring…ring…it rang a long time, but I was not going to hang up. Finally he answered.
“I need you to come get me and bail me out of jail.”
“Yeah, I guess New York caught up with me.” Of course, Rayeski was listening to this whole conversation. You know, doing his detective work to ensure scofflaws like me get their just-do’s. I know this because later, this would be quoted back to me when things went from stupid to plaid.
“How much is the bail?”
I asked them. “It’s twelve dollars.”
“Will they take a check?”
I asked. “No, cash only.”
“I might not have it.”
“Oh for the love of @#$€#K$!”
“I think I have it. I’ll be over.”
It was probably only about 30 minutes until Jay got there to spring me, but it felt like seven hours. I never entered a cell. It’s funny to think of now, but I’d eaten more jail food as a computer guy “dispatcher” than in my brief stint as a prisoner.
I got home, and the next morning was a bright Saturday. Jay and I got ourselves down to Al’s Automotive, to a chorus of “jailbird Steve!” Oh yes, they got Al out of bed at midnight to tow my car. He said, no charge, the endless teasing was more than enough to cover his fee. Believe me, he cashed in on that for years.
Jay drove my car, but in the maybe four miles from downtown Exeter to our condo in Stratham, he couldn’t make it without eating something. “Let’s stop at Friendly’s!”
“But umm, there’s two State Police cars in the lot!”
“What are the odds that Rayeski is there?”
“Umm, a hundred percent. That’s his patrol car number.” One of the advantages of having been a dispatcher is my memory for stupid things like the patrol car numbers of State Police troopers.
“It’ll be fine. He won’t even notice you.” Right.
We went in to the Friendly’s and no sooner got to the cashier than two troopers looked up from the back of the restaurant and fixed their eyes on me. Rayeski looked outside and saw my Acura in the parking lot. His eyes narrowed like Clint Eastwood in “A Fistful of Dollars.”
“Hey Berman! I didn’t see you get out of the car out there, but if you were driving that Acura, I’m gonna haul your ass back to the jail right now!”
If a black hole opened beneath my feet at that moment, I would have considered it an act of great mercy from God. “No. I wasn’t driving. It was my brother, right here.”
“Uh huh. Better be,” he mumbled loudly. The whole restaurant seemed to recoil as if I farted in church, or maybe I had robbed an old lady on the way to stealing candy from babies. I felt dirty, and decidedly not hungry for a Fribble. I don’t remember eating anything.
Now there was the major logistical problem of getting me back on the road. I didn’t have a license, and I had to find the ticket I defaulted on in New York. I lived 50 miles from work, and had no way to get there. Fortunately, one of Jay’s college buddies, who had become a lawyer, lived within walking distance of my office. He was glad to have me stay there. (This is a different story, but suffice to say that living with Jay’s buddy was like living with Felix Unger, except Unger was a slob compared to this guy. I couldn’t get on the road fast enough.)
I called the court clerk in whatever butt-stink rural county in upstate N.Y. and asked what the fee on a two-year-old defaulted ticket was. He said, “well, because you defaulted, there’s a 50 percent fine tacked on.”
“Fine. How much?” I figured I was in for a big whupping fee.
“Let’s see. Speeding, that was $10. So it’s $15.”
“Are you S@€￥#$g me?,” I thought but didn’t say. I had to get the clerk to sign off on some very official paperwork and send it to the New Hampshire Department of Public Safety. Stuff like that had to be FedEx’ed, not sent by regular mail. I had to pay for a prepaid FedEx pack, FedEx that to the clerk with a money order for $15, and wait for it to get back to Concord, N.H.
Scofflaw fee: $15 plus $12 equals $27. So far.
Seeming like a century later, I got the notice that my default was cleared and found a ride up to Concord, the state capitol. See, New Hampshire is a very utilitarian state, and there’s not a lot of infrastructure for things like suspended licenses. There’s one office you go into in a nondescript building where the Department of Public Safety has its headquarters. I was pointed to a guy sitting behind an old wooden desk.
“Berman. Hmm.” He opened a drawer and withdrew my license, stapled to whatever form he had filled out. The man pulled out the staple and handed me back my license. “Here you go.” It was that simple. I later learned that police officers in New Hampshire knew to look for the staple holes as a tell-tale that someone’s license was once suspended. I have no idea if it’s still this way, but knowing the Granite State, there’s probably the same guy sitting behind the same desk doing the same job as in the late 1980s. He’s probably using the same Swingline (though it’s not red).
But hey, who cares? I could drive again!
If only that was the end of the story. Haha no; hell’s fury had just begun.
I got the paperwork from the state in the mail, along with a personal letter from Trooper Rayeski. I kept that letter for years, like Christopher Walken’s gold watch, but sadly I am unable to find it now. It’s filled with misspellings, poor grammar, and all kinds of accusations. In short, Rayeski threw the book at me, along with whatever other books he could check out from the law library. He got me for knowingly presenting an invalid license to an officer, speeding, making false statements, and driving with a suspended license. There might have been a few more charges too but memory fails me.
I called my lawyer, Larry Cullen. Now remember, I said Larry was also a part-time judge. He quickly reminded me of this and said he couldn’t take my case or even know the details. He did refer me to another lawyer, the same firm that did the closing on our condo. Jay later called Larry, who, I was told, said “I can’t know anything about this!” followed by a breathless “what happened?” I’m sure Jay filled him in on “jailbird Steve” and they both enjoyed a good laugh.
So the lawyer Larry referred me to couldn’t take the case because, get this, he did the closing on Trooper Rayeski’s house and therefore had a conflict of interest. Did I mention it’s a small town? Another lawyer at his firm did take the case, and advised me to call Rayeski to see if some of the charges could be dropped or lessened. That call was about as awkward as calling a girl to tell her you’re not taking her to the prom after you said you would in front of her parents.
During the call—my voice dripping with neighborly love and contrition—I told Rayeski, who lived about two minutes away from me, that I’d be happy to help him out with snow shoveling or whatever, and he accused me of trying to bribe him! I was only trying to be neighborly, pointing out that we live so close. Pharaoh Rayeski’s heart hardened a lump of coal into a diamond. There would be no deals.
The reason the lawyer was so concerned, he told me, is that with all the points connected with these charges, if I pled guilty to them and paid the fines, I’d have accumulated a sufficient number of points for an automatic hearing to determine if I was a “habitual offender” in the State of New Hampshire. That hearing would be conducted by an administrative judge, an employee of the Department of Public Safety, who was not required to be a judge, or a lawyer, or a member of the bar. That person’s decision would be final.
I was told that my future driving in New Hampshire was dependent on some random state civil servant having a bad day, or a case of food poisoning from eating a bad burrito. I was probably better off getting Rayeski to give me some mercy, but that wasn’t going to happen. Oh, and to top it off, if you got tagged as a “habitual offender,” you couldn’t drive for a year, at all. No allowances were given for work or school, nothing. If you did drive, and you were caught, by, say, a state trooper who wanted his face tattooed on your ass by a prison tat artist, you’d get a year in the penitentiary and a B felony on your permanent record. Caught, sentenced, and off to prison for a year. Judges had no discretion on a scofflaw “habitual offender.”
My only sane course of action was to fight the charges. The lawyer said he’d take the case for $500, which ended up being $750, if memory serves me correctly.
So, off to court we went. It took a year and a half to adjudicate my $10 ticket plus all the other citations. We kept getting continuances for one reason or another.
One time, I actually took a morning off work and went to court, only to find Larry Cullen sitting on the bench tut-tutting me. My lawyer knew this had happened, and had a “schedule conflict,” so the other lawyer, the one who had an actual conflict of interest, showed up. Rayeski apparently got the memo I never got, and didn’t show. So they called my case on the docket, my lawyer recused himself, Larry recused himself, and it was me and the clerk sitting there like idiots. Finally, with perfect comic timing, the clerk said, “We need a continuance. You’re free to go.” A morning of paid time off, wasted.
Scofflaw fee: $27 plus $750 plus a half day of PTO equals $777. So far.
Finally, I got a real court date, and we all showed up, with a judge not named Larry Cullen on the bench. The judge read the file, suppressed a couple of grunts, and said, “okay, Mr. Berman, I think we can place all these charges on file without a finding, if you’re willing to pay an administrative fee.” I was ready to mop the floor with a toothbrush every night for a month to avoid a year in prison, but he didn’t ask for that.
The judge nodded to Rayeski and asked if that was acceptable to the State. He nodded back, the hint of a self-satisfied smile on his face. I might have avoided prison time, but my spirit of a need-for-speed had been broken for many years.
I changed my plea on all charges to non-contendre, and the Court placed them all on file without a finding, meaning they could be reinstated if I continued to be a scofflaw. I paid a $168 administrative fee to the clerk, and so ended my journey into the legal system, as a defendant.
Final accounting: $945, plus a couple of days of PTO, constant humiliation at Al’s Automotive, hazing by the Sheriff’s Office, and this story which my brother relishes at each telling. All that, and I still had to tell the whole story sitting at a plain government table adorned with single a glass of tepid water, across from two serious-looking individuals wearing cheap suits, one from the FBI and one from AFOSI, questioning my fitness to receive a DOD secret clearance. They didn’t laugh, at least in my presence.
Little children: If there’s a lesson in here somewhere, and I think there is, it’s to just pay your stupid fines, no matter how small, no matter how far away. If you don’t they’ll haunt you like Mrs. Muir’s ghost. Even if you think they’ll never find you, they will find you. If you think they’ll go away, they’ll stick to you like thrown away gum on your $300 Nikes. If you think they’ll solve themselves, a $10 fine will turn into a $1,000 trip through legal hell and threats of prison.
There’s a book out there titled “Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent.” The author is Harvey Silvergate, a defense lawyer who co-founded the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). A lawyer and pundit I really look up to, David French, was once president of FIRE, so I implicitly trust this book was made as a good faith argument. If a $10 scofflaw like me could only avoid imprisonment and becoming a felon by paying a lawyer $750 in a three-year small town drama, due to one mistake and a zealous state trooper, imagine what can happen if you cross the feds and they really have it in for you?
The real lesson is thus: hire a good lawyer, and keep your head down. All it takes is one federal prosecutor with the stone heart of Trooper Rayeski to make your life a hellish inferno of pain.
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Glad that I was able to contribute to your learning an important life lesson. That is what older brothers are for. Maybe I will post my reflections on this happening from my perspective. Your retelling brought me a smile.
It sometimes pays to be a nerd. Growing up in northeast Georgia with no car and little money, I just went to school, attempted to play sports, worked at part time jobs, and read. When I moved to Atlanta to start engineering school, I still had no money and worked every other school quarter to pay my way. When I was investigated for a top-secret security clearance, the only black mark was that my sister, who was married and working at the local bank, told the investigators I was a pain in the neck. She finally told them I was her older brother.