Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time, in 1991 actually, an eighteen-year-old girl attempted to shoplift a pack of cigarettes in Florida. She got caught. She was given some non-penalty as a one-time offender but was supposed to pay $85 for “court costs.”
I don’t think shoplifting is right. I’m not a fan of “court costs” over and above criminal penalties, because sometimes the cost is greater than the crime itself. (For example, the Bible would make a person who stole a pack of cigarettes give back two packs. That is less than $85!) But obviously, she did commit a real crime and it is good she got caught.
But this young woman, for reasons that are not yet clear, did not pay the court fee, and the court never bothered to follow up. It is now 2013. This woman moved to Connecticut. She went to college. She became an architect. She now has a job designing jet engine frames. In that time period, she also got married. She and her husband now have two daughters.
The woman’s name is Robin Hall. Recently, she made the very big mistake of taking a Disney Cruise.
Thanks to the war on terror, it is now a federally mandated practice to scan ship manifolds for terrorists. But, of course, like all the other aspects of the war on terror, this practice allows government agents to sweep up a great many other people. In this case, the police were waiting for our middle-aged mother of two, to make her pay.
Sidenote: the police ran this check only after the cruise ship had already left the harbor. If there had been any real terrorists planning to hijack the ship, the whole process would have been useless.
The police did not make the woman pay back the $85 with interest. They simply threw her in jail. According to the Miami New Times,
“Hall was arrested on Thursday and has still not been able to post bail. Brevard County officials must first transfer her back to Orange County, and her arrest just before a three-day weekend has complicated the matter. In fact, Hall may end up spending a whole week in jail before she can put the matter behind her and return home.”
Whatever happened to a statute of limitations? Is failing to pay a court fee one of those crimes, like murder, for which there is no statute of limitations.
The worst part of the story is seeing the footage of the Robin Hill, so sad and humiliated, in her prison jumpsuit. And to here the prosecutor tell her she had no one to blame but herself. It made me wish I had investigation powers so I could do some detective work about his life at eighteen.
What a fantastic joke of a nation we live in. We pride ourselves on being an open society and honoring civil rights. But for the weirdest reasons we can suddenly and unexpectedly find ourselves mere meat for lunatic bureaucracies. We have everyone’s histories forever recorded in digital, and all it takes is for one person to pay attention to you at the wrong time and, suddenly, you’re a television star in a jump suit.
This isn’t the promise of American life. It is pretty much the exact opposite of what we say that we are supposed to be as a nation.
And if you’re thinking about going on a trip out of the country, you had better be sure there aren’t unpaid parking tickets or anything else that might be waiting when you return with handcuffs ready for you.