Crimes and (Metro) misdemeanors

| Forum Editor

Last Thursday, just as the wan winter light was starting to shine through my window, I awoke at the ungodly hour of 7:30 a.m. to prepare for my first introduction to the whims and wiles of the Clayton court system. My notice had appeared innocuously enough, an indistinct white envelope with a form letter enclosed inside. A simple piece of mail summoning me to battle the proverbial man in an epic court case…for a MetroLink ticket.

I had been on my way back from winter break when I was stopped in the middle of a crowded train car. As I fumbled for my U-Pass in my luggage, I felt 50 pairs of eyes swivel toward me to relish in my discomfort.

“If you just hold on a second, I’ll get out my other wallet!” I cried, stalling for time, frantically digging through my bag.

In the end, because I wasn’t sure what else to do and because the U-Pass did not materialize, I chatted with the security guard as he gleefully handed me my ticket. I left the MetroLink station feeling strangely resigned but also incensed. I’ll admit, it may seem like a small thing to get so worked up about. A part of me didn’t want to fork out $90 for an easily avoidable mistake. But at the same time, I wanted to distinguish myself from the people who abuse Metro, those who carelessly board buses and trains with no ticket and no intent of doing their meager part to support the sad, slight system that we have here in St. Louis. As someone who relies on the excellent D.C. public transportation system as my sole method of transit at home, St. Louis public transportation feels like an endangered species, increasingly threatened by misguided legal propositions and ambivalent riders. And finally, I’ll confess, there was some sort of strange morbid curiosity that compelled me to contest the fine, appeal the ticket and wait for the gavel to fall where it landed.

So great was my dedication to achieving legal justice that I had braved eight inches of snow to arrive at court on time, only to be told that all cases had been suspended for the day due to weather (if only we could merit the same stunning snow day casualness at Washington University). As I passed back through security, I stole a backward glance at the police officers loitering around the lobby, gossiping and sucking down coffee; their thumbs snugly secured in the tight waistbands of their regulation uniforms. They didn’t seem too bothered to see me leave.

So back I went last Thursday (following the second court summons) and as I pulled into the parking lot, I began preparing myself for an impassioned appeal to the stony-faced judge. “It was an honest mistake!” I would plead, casting a tearful eye to the sympathetic jury, who would nod with empathy. But striding briskly into the courtroom, ready to meet my fate, I found something far different from the court drama I had conjured in my head. Rows and rows of defendants sat on benches, looking bored in the florescent lighting. As soon as I sat down, the federal employee announced that all first time offenders would be dismissed. A collective cheer rose from the audience as we impatiently awaited our turn to be excused. When my name was called, I flashed my student ID and pledged to never again travel without a ticket.

The whole thing took less than 30 minutes.

So there it was, my heroic crusade in the Clayton courts had come to an abrupt end. And though my initial intent had been to rail against the U-Pass system, to demand that student IDs be recognized by Metro as a valid form of ticket, I’m not so sure anymore. Yes, you run the risk of a hefty fine by traveling without a U-Pass. Yes, a sticker of some sort on your student ID would probably be a lot easier. But as I found through my recent experience with the ins and outs of Metro misdemeanors, there could be worse lessons in civil society than that brief encounter of the U-Pass kind.

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