Car ownership requires that you know the law—sometimes well enough to defend yourself in court
I’ve used my fair share of public transportation. Several years spent living sans automobile in Boston and Washington, D.C., taught me how difficult life can be when your schedule is ruled by train times and your wardrobe is ruled by the percentage chance someone on said train will vomit on you.
When I moved south it was with great pleasure that I returned to life as a car owner. When people complained about gas prices, I was happy not to be buying fare cards. When friends talked about the upkeep on cars, I just felt glad to ride in a vehicle that didn’t smell like urine.
However, a few months after my move I was pulled over in downtown Atlanta and I discovered one of the downfalls of car ownership. I was two days late on updating an expired tag. This should have been a simple case of replacing the tag and paying the ticket. But I forgot about the ticket. Which is how several weeks later I received a notification of a bench warrant for my arrest. This was my first time having a warrant out for my arrest, and I wasn’t sure how to handle it. I thought I should probably turn myself in.
I went to the Atlanta courthouse and explained my predicament. A woman behind the counter told me that I had to enter a plea before a judge. She put me on the schedule for a new court date. It was two days away. “But there’s a warrant out for my arrest,” I said. “I’m allowed to just walk out of here?” I gestured toward the two police officers standing at the door. I wondered if this was a trap.
She looked annoyed, nodded briefly, and then looked behind me, calling, “Next!” I walked casually past the officers, mentally preparing myself for them to start reading me my rights, but I was allowed to exit freely. Two days later, I returned. Looking around the courtroom, I saw that most of the other defendants had attorneys. Based on my extensive courtroom knowledge gained from watching Law & Order, I knew this did not bode well for me.
As everyone began to plead their cases, I realized that if I wanted to keep any kind of rep in this crowd, it would be best not to mention that I was only there for an expired tag. Everyone else had actual criminal charges. I’d intended to plead guilty, but as I listened I noticed that when all my fellow criminals sauntered up to the judge, they said, “I plead Nolo.” I had no idea what Nolo meant, but I did note that those who pleaded Nolo were able to walk out free men. I also noticed that it was important to look angry, cross your arms, and act as if you didn’t care if they sent you to prison for life.
So I imitated my fellow defendants and pleaded Nolo—something I later learned was a term that came from the Latin nolo contendere, meaning “I do not wish to contend.” I also later learned that you can only make this plea once every five years in Georgia. All I knew that day, though, was that it meant I got to leave handcuff-free.
As I left the courthouse, I had a new appreciation for my freedom—and for public transportation. Riding buses had never made me question the possibility of a life sentence. I’d never needed to know ancient languages when I rode the Metro. And while I’m willing to accept the risks of car ownership in order to ensure an excrement-free ride to work, the freedom of using public transit has its appeal—especially for those of us who have already used up our Nolo plea.