Friday, July 21, 2006

Yes, I copped a plea! But I witnessed something amazing.

Over a month ago I was stopped while driving in the sleepy town of Riverhead, NY on Long Island. This East Coast Mayberry is in a prime location... close to the heralded Hamptons and the Long Island Wine Country while also being home to some of the best outlet shopping this side of QVC.

And of course the NY State Trooper was wrong.

I did not roll through a stop sign... He missed it... I know this because my bride was sitting next to me and I never roll through a stop sign when she's in the car (or any other time for that fact). My 14 years of clean driving aside, I was convinced that I had a case and made time to defend myself in Riverhead Town court on 7/20. Everything changed once I arrived. My actual court date was not 7-20, but the ADA agreed to see me after they dispensed with the cases already on the docket.

I had accidentally arrived in Riverhead Town Court on a day when they were holding Drug Court. So in order to expedite my situation, I needed to sit through drug court before dealing with my traffic ticket. The Assistant District Attorney met with me in the hallway and offered me a plea deal. If I would admit guilt, the offense would be reduced from a moving violation (WHICH I DID NOT COMMIT) to a "broken tail light". The town collects $185.00 and my record is without any moving violations! Everybody wins, right? Yes... but that's not what this story is about.

As I sat in the back of the courthouse, I witnessed what must be happening in courthouses all over America. People (mostly young people) were appearing before judges to deal with myriad charges related to their drug problems. Some were caught driving without a license, others had more serious offenses... but the most interesting part of all of this was the relationship between the "criminals", the court house employees, the police and most importantly the Judge.

Never in my life would I have expected to witness proceedings like this.

The Judge knew each and every defendant. He knew the ones that needed emotional support and those who might be better off with tough love. I recall him looking a 19yr old man in the eyes and asking him, "Am I going to read about you dying in a snow drift six months from now?" The same Judge made every effort to inspire a young mother (whose drug and alcohol problem made her appear much older than her actual age) to stay on the path of sobriety that would soon reunite her with the 3 yr old daughter who "no doubt misses her mommy."

Judge Smith gave each case the customized attention not seen in the most expensive restaurants in Manhattan... He made a special effort to show compassion, wisdom and fairness to each defendant. And when it came right down to it, he brought a smile to the faces of almost each and every one of the people who stood before him. That's important. He made them feel like people - not just bodies in a system that supports itself by routinely processing bodies through it's turnstiles. That just may be the most important gift he could give to each one of these folks. Confidence, belief, hope, and possibly a second, third or fourth chance.

And so to the men and women of the Riverhead Drug Court - I salute you. I thank you... The Bailiff, Asst District Attorney, Probation Officers, Court Officers and you Judge Smith. You choked me up, and made me realize just how fortunate I am. And how fortunate we are to have Civil Servants working tirelessly on behalf of all of us, but most importantly on behalf of the people who need you most - those troubled souls who find themselves in drug court, battling a demon 97% of us will never have to face.


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