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Column: Old ticket becomes insurmountable obstacle
by Thornton Kennedy
Neighbor Newspapers Columnist
March 19, 2014 11:02 AM | 4571 views | 1 1 comments | 79 79 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Thornton Kennedy
Thornton Kennedy
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The chairs in the Atlanta City Detention Center downtown belong in a museum of contemporary design.

They seem to be cut from a single sheet of heavy plastic, folded and bent into the shape of a chair. There is nothing inside them except air and not a seam to be seen. They are light and comfortable, but the unidentified stains and streaks make it difficult to relax in them.

When you spend half a day in jail you struggle to find positives or you will slowly lose your mind. These chairs were the only positive I could find.

There were no windows. The air was filled with a plethora of overwhelming odors that were repeatedly held in check by an industrial disinfectant only slightly better than what it was covering up.

There were human beings everywhere. There were outbursts, yelling matches that erupted for no reason, only to be subdued by louder corrections officers. The unmanageable were moved to cells that lined the wall where they continued their tirades, kicking and screaming behind closed doors.

On a Thursday in January I participated in this bizarre bureaucratic ballet in all its glory for an excruciating 12 hours. I was in there for a traffic violation — failure to yield to be exact — from 2006. That is not why I was down at the city of Atlanta traffic court that particular morning. I was there for a traffic citation I received in December.

I arrived 30 minutes early for my 8 a.m. court time, was dressed in my usual business attire of slacks, collared shirt and a sports coat. I addressed the judge with the utmost respect and deference.

And then I was handcuffed without explanation. I threw a little fit but two court officers warned me that apparently it would do no good and, to the contrary, could get me into more trouble.

It wasn’t until I arrived at the jail that I learned of the failure to yield ticket from eight years ago. I hadn’t received any notices from the city. I had renewed my license without incident several times since. I had even been pulled over twice since 2006 and not once was I told that I was a wanted man.

I remember paying a fine associated with the ticket back in 2006, but I didn’t have to go to court. But the Atlanta City Detention Center is not lacking people proclaiming their innocence.

I was told I would get to see a judge at 3 p.m. It was 9:30 a.m.

Several of my fellow inmates suffered from profound mental health issues and talked nonstop, whether anyone was listening or not. For lunch we had two slices of Wonder Bread, a slice of baloney, a slice of cheese and a mustard packet. I gave my lunch away when someone asked for it. I did not hesitate.

When the appointed time came the officers led a large group of us to an unused cell block with several closed-circuit televisions connected to the courtrooms. Again we waited until a public defender read through our offers. I accepted the deal before me, pleading “no contest.”

Even though I had paid the fine, all I wanted was to get out. Unexpectedly the judge sentenced me to a year of probation for my crime.

Instead of being set free the guards took me back to the windowless room with the functional plastic chairs, where I remained until 9 that night.

It was a surreal experience. I finally talked to a lawyer the next day, who was able to close everything and get me off of probation, but that couldn’t undo the day I spent staring at those plastic chairs and my shaken faith in the city.

Buckhead resident Thornton Kennedy is a sixth-generation Atlantan and a former news editor of this paper. He can be reached at thorntonkennedy@me.com.
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Jim K.
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March 20, 2014
And that's what happens to you for just a traffic ticket when you have the ability to pay the fine and obtain a lawyer. For the people without financial resources and without legal recourse, simple offenses wind up making their lives unbearably complicated, thanks to court systems that are heavily reliant on computers and private contractors instead of public servants. Be mindful of how you treat the least among you ...
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