Many of us get through our lives with no more contact with the criminal justice system than a traffic ticket. Such was my experience until two incidents six months apart brought me closer to our system for crime and punishment.
In one case I was the victim. In the other I was the perp.
Neither case was particularly consequential, the sort of drama from which TV crime shows are fabricated. But each deepened my understanding of the system.
Take first my unexpected mutation from a generally law-abiding citizen to the status of the accused.
It was a sunny July day. I was running a few errands on my bike. A block or two ahead on Blaisdell Avenue a sedan had snaked into the bike lane that’s delineated by white plastic posts, white paint and no-parking signs.
It was sort of a trigger for me. For the last 18 months of my career as a reporter based in downtown Minneapolis, after the Strib moved from its own building into a rented office tower, I commuted mostly by bike. Previously, I’d been two-wheeling the eight-mile roundtrip to work once or twice a week during the warmer weather. But distaste for paying downtown parking rates turned me into a bike commuter on all but the iciest days.
Frequently, I’d encounter vehicles blocking the bike lanes along Park and Portland, Blaisdell or First avenues. There were postal vans, school buses, taxis, contractor trucks and more. It’s against state law to park or even stop in a bike lane, and I’d grown quite righteous about defending cyclists’ hard-won space. Maybe too righteous. I’d commonly slap a fender or rap it with my knuckle as I passed to protest having to swerve into the traffic lane.
As I approached the latest offender on Blaisdell, I saw a passenger get out but the driver remained. And sat there. So I thought nothing of rapping on his fender as I passed.
A block layer, the driver passed me, rolled down his window, and asked me to pull over until he could check for damage. So confident was I that my mere knuckle couldn’t have damaged sheet metal that I humored him. To my surprise, there was a dent maybe the size of a dime on his fender.
He began talking of compensation. I pointed out that he was in my space on a block in which three no-parking signs were posted and that there was space to park legally on the other side of the street. He called a cop, pointed out the dent, which I didn’t deny causing, and I was soon the recipient of a ticket for criminal damage to property in the fourth degree.
I quickly looked up the statute, and began devising possible defenses. Fourth-degree criminal damage requires intent to cause damage. My intent had been not to damage but to warn as I passed. I debated whether to fight the ticket. Hiring a lawyer would be expensive, but self-representation had a steep learning curve, and I was cognizant of the adage that he who represents himself has a fool for a client.
I had months to mull my plea as the case dragged on through four pretrial hearings at which my matter kept getting postponed and postponed. Finally, the city prosecutor offered to drop the charge if I paid claimed restitution of $235, based on a body shop’s estimate. I balked a little because there was no evidence that the driver had actually repaired what the police report described as a ding, just as he hadn’t repaired several previous dents. But ultimately I paid up since the charge was dropped.
Appearing in court four times allowed time for observation.
First, such slow-moving justice has consequences. I’m a retired guy, but imagine the economic penalty to a worker to have to take time off four different mornings.
Second, it’s one thing to read studies of racial bias in the justice system. It’s another to show up and find yourself the only white defendant in a courtroom of black and brown faces.
The experience came close to adding me to the one in four Americans with something besides a traffic ticket as a criminal record. And as the group We Are All Criminals (weareallcriminals.org) reminds us, four in four Americans have done something defined by the law as criminal, the difference being who among us got caught.
When a candidate for county attorney emerged this year to challenge the current prosecutor with strategies to instill more racial justice in the system, I knew which campaign I’d sign up for.
I had just disposed of my case when weeks later I found myself on the other side of the law as a victim.
After an eye exam one morning, I showed up at the gym for my usual weight room workout. Walking past the weight rack, another lifter and I bumped slightly against each other. He said nothing, so I moved on.
A few minutes later, I had just parked myself at a weight machine when a blow seemingly out of nowhere landed on my cheek, the sucker punch sending my glasses flying. I looked up and the same guy stood in front of me, saying nothing when I asked incredulously what that was for. With the help of another exerciser, I found the remains of my shattered frames.
By that time, staff told me that the perpetrator had also struck a much younger guy, likely breaking his nose. The Y staff was great, immediately banning the offender and summoning police. Both of us pressed charges. His was third-degree assault because of the broken bone, while mine was a mere fifth degree since the blow left no visible mark. I mainly wanted restitution for the glasses.
It turns out that, between my medical insurance and the state crime victim compensation fund, I’ve been made whole without restitution. But the man who struck us was committed as mentally ill after evaluations and was sent to a mental hospital for a competency restoration program.
At this point, my hope is that the gentleman gets the help he needs rather than seeing him punished. But this brings up a larger issue in the criminal justice system, where at least one-third of those populating the jail are there for allegations stemming from their mental health issues: Adequate treatment programs might prove much more cost-effective than jail time.
Meanwhile, my wife extracted a promise that so far I’ve kept — no more banging on illegally parked cars.
Steve Brandt retired from a 40-year career at the Star Tribune in 2016. He lives in Kingfield.