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How I Learned The Truth About The State

June 23, 2011 by  

How I Learned The Truth About The State

I’ll never forget my last visit to lovely Hinesville, Ga. For it was there that I learned a valuable lesson, one I shall never forget: In a police state, we’re all criminals.

Think about it: How many laws have you broken today? This week? This month? Have you changed lanes without a turn signal? Exceeded the posted speed limit? Hired a neighborhood kid to cut your grass and then paid him under the table? Engaged in commerce with someone who is in the country illegally? Bought lemonade from an unlicensed “dealer” in the form of an innocent child?

In Hinesville, I was accosted for “animal cruelty.” We were traveling to visit family in the southwestern part of the state. In the car were my wife, my two young daughters and our two dogs, Methuselah and Garibaldi.

The older of my two daughters had a rash, so we stopped at Walmart to get her some antihistamine cream. We emerged from the store, less than 20 minutes later, to be greeted by an animal-control officer and the stereotypical police officer, complete with a Napoleon complex and cheesy mustache.

You see, we left the dogs in the car, with the windows down and a dish of water to drink. A noble citizen watched us emerge from the car and promptly called animal control. An agent was dispatched to rescue our persecuted beasts.

I was informed that I was being charged with criminal animal cruelty, subject to appear in court at a later date. Apparently, the fact that my dogs were panting was proof positive that they were at death’s door. Never mind that they always pant, even in an air-conditioned house.

The officer informed me that I was going to have to take the dogs to the vet to be checked out before we would be allowed to continue on our way. I am reasonably sure that such a request is outside of their official authority, but I agreed to comply upon the premise that they would drop all charges when the dogs were given a clean bill of health. As I suspected, they balked at this idea.

I tried another tactic. I calmly explained to the animal-control officer that we were not from the area and asked if he could simply levy some kind of fine, rather than require a court appearance. This is when things got fun. “Animal cruelty is a warrant offense,” I was told. It requires a court appearance and carries the threat of jail time. Then I made a crucial mistake; I asked a logical question of a law-enforcement officer.

“At what point,” I asked, “was I in violation of the law? When I left the car? Five minutes later? Ten minutes?” I wanted a specific definition for the cruelty in which I was supposedly engaged.

He couldn’t answer, but the heroic policeman — let’s just call him “Vic Maldonado” — sprang into action. This innocent question left him no choice but to pull out both his baton and Taser and charge toward me. When I raised my hands as if to say, “I am unarmed, and that is an unnecessary show of force,” I was ordered to turn around and place my hands on the police cruiser. I asked why; no answer was given, except to radio for backup and claim that an officer had been “assaulted.”

To this day, I am glad that he didn’t take the additional step of searching my car, wherein were two legal, loaded pistols. I shudder to think what might have happened.

I was cuffed and escorted to the back of the squad car. I sat in the car for half an hour, while my wife and children sat and watched. When the backup arrived, I watched and listened through the open front window as “Maldonado” reenacted the confrontation. I was particularly interested in the part where I physically slammed the officer against the car and he somehow found the restraint to not shoot or Taser me.

Eventually, I was let out of the car and cited for disorderly conduct. The animal-control officer apologized for harassing me and promised to see to it that the judge dropped all animal-cruelty charges. He was clearly shell-shocked by the escalation he had witnessed. The fine for my “disorderly conduct” was $300, and the court date was set for 7:15 a.m.

This made it reasonably certain that, even if I chose to fight the charge, it would require an overnight stay, the hiring of a lawyer and the incurrence of expenses far exceeding the cost of the fine. I think this was not a coincidence but rather a calculated way of raising funds.

I intended to pay the fine in legal-tender pennies, but was dissuaded by my father-in-law, who informed me that a Georgia judge had held someone in contempt of court, subject to another fine, for just such an offense.

Melodramatic prison movies always use corny lines like “prison has a way of changing a man.” I didn’t experience a prison visit, but my brush with the law certainly changed me. The last shred of the veil of naïveté was lifted; the myth of “Officer Friendly” was banished forever. What was once merely a vague sense of distrust has given way to a much stronger feeling: I hate the state.

The irony in all this? My family and dogs sat in a hot car for more than an hour while the police harassed me. Apparently, animal cruelty can be perpetrated only by citizens, not by the soldiers of the crown.

–Stefano R. Mugnaini

Stefano R. Mugnaini

is the minister of the Essex Village Church of Christ in Charleston, South Carolina. He holds a master of divinity from Amridge University. View his blog.

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