I didn't believe I was going to jail—actual jail—until the door to the women's holding tank in the Denton City Jail shut behind me and I stood there facing a room lined with slim metal bunks, two occupied by my cellmates. I sat down on an empty bunk, clutching the tattered piece of standard-issue blue flannel around my shoulders, shocked. I'd gone out to get a cup of coffee and now I was in jail on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.
Turned out there was a warrant for my arrest, and I was here until someone showed up to pay the $838 cash bond. According to the Denton County warrant office, they don't go after people with "traffic violation-related warrants," but if you get pulled over and have one, unless you've got the money to pay, you'll be going to jail. The number of people arrested for traffic-related warrants increases this time of year since the police are already out in droves looking for DWIs. If you have a habit of speeding, getting caught and not paying for it, your odds of seeing the inside of a city jail increase significantly during the holidays.
"We will be doing more traffic enforcement during the holidays," says Senior Corporal Janice Crowther with the Dallas Police Department, so the odds are definitely up that anyone with outstanding traffic tickets could find themselves celebrating the new year in a holding cell.
The holidays are a busy time for Department of Public Safety troopers too. Last year, DPS troopers issued 28,000 citations and 14,000 warnings during the Christmas and New Year's holidays.
Depending on who pulls you over and what jurisdiction you're in, an unpaid ticket doesn't mean an automatic arrest, however. In Dallas, officers have some discretion in whether to haul you in or issue a second citation for failure to appear on the original offense. In other words, if you're the forgetful sort and have a lead foot, be polite to the nice police officer standing by your car door.
"You do not want an 'attitude adjustment,'" Crowther says.
In my case, the police car had zipped out of a darkened parking lot to pull over my car. If I'd realized how fast I was going a second before he did, this night might have gone a whole lot differently. A Ron Howard lookalike strolled up to the side of my car. I peered up at him, dark circles under my eyes, no makeup, wet hair, and what I hoped was an appealing grin on my face.
"Do you know why I pulled you over?"
I dug furiously through my purse, searching for my driver's license and, still being charming, answered, "Yes, officer. I was speeding. I've been working on a paper, and I had an idea about how to write it. The excitement got to me, but I slowed down as soon as I realized how fast I was going [45 in a 35]. You've gotta believe me, it was an honest mistake." Opie smiled down at me, and glancing up from the clutter in my bag I knew I wouldn't be getting a ticket.
Well, I was right on that point. When a blond officer with a pig-like face walked up to my window, she didn't hand me a ticket. "Step out of the car, ma'am."
I smiled and asked why. She repeated her line while I, feeling my heart begin to hammer, repeated mine. Resisting arrest was mentioned; I got out of the car and proceeded to panic as they put the handcuffs on me. "But I can't go to jail! I have to write a paper!"
I got a speeding ticket in April 2007 and had promptly forgotten about it (since I never had the money to pay). Subsequently, when they put the handcuffs on my wrists, I was pretty confused, half expecting them to apologize, saying something like "So sorry, madam, for the mistake."
It's not easy to find out if you even have a warrant, especially if you don't realize you should be looking. While you'd expect to receive notes like "Pay up or we're coming to get you," there isn't a notification requirement and odds are they won't bother coming to your house or place of work to arrest you unless you've done something more serious than failing to pay a traffic ticket.
Cities and counties keep regional databases of those with warrants issued for arrest, but they don't have to tell you about it, and aside from flagging down a cop, the only way to find out if you've got a warrant in the area is to go down to a warrant office and ask in person.
They took me in through the back, and after being photographed, fingerprinted and searched (everything from my shoes to the contents of my purse—including 87 orange ibuprofen, one very suspicious-looking white one and 232 pennies) I found out I had a warrant for a speeding ticket in Carrollton. The jail cell was freezing and stuffy with dingy gray walls and the words "help me" written on the ceiling with what looked like snot.
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The other two occupants were a blue-eyed, cherubic 17-year-old shoplifter and a brassy older blond woman, also picked up for a speeding warrant. Blue Eyes sat huddled under her blanket, all cried out, while Brassy Blonde talked loudly about her yellow Corvette and called the officers names. She said she'd been here for two days already, despite having paid her $2,400 bond, and still had one more day to go because Euless, the town with the warrant, had a hold on her (which is much like a hold on a library book or DVD rental except, you know, for a person).
At this news my heart started thudding, and I went back to the phone to find out where my potential very-best-friend-in-the-world-because-he-got-me-out-of-the-human-pound was. Despite the fact many people don't have landlines anymore, you can only place expensive collect calls to those who do. Two days before a holiday in a college town I had to find someone who hadn't gone home yet, had a landline and could come up with a lot of cash.
Finally, at 5 a.m. the door swung open. The guard seemed insulted because I rushed from the cell. "It's not that bad," he said. While my friend paid the bond, counting out $838 cash exactly, I pursed my lips, keeping my mouth firmly closed, afraid the guard might put me back in.
Walking out of the jail in the early morning light I was certain of two things: I would always pay my tickets from now on; I would probably still drive too fast.