Do you remember the television show “The Dukes of Hazzard” (CBS Jan ’79-Feb ’85)? Even if you aren’t old enough to have waited anxiously on Friday nights for each new episode like I did, you may have seen reruns on CMT. No? Well, it was a pretty simple premise-a family of cousins with the last name Duke get mixed-up in the schemes of County Commissioner Boss Hogg, who along with his sheriff, Roscoe P. Coltrane, enjoyed trying to put Bo and Luke Duke in jail for cause or not. Filmed in California, but set in a rural Georgia community known as Hazzard County, the show depicted a sleepy town where not much would happen without the money grubbing ploys staged by Boss Hogg to line his pockets. Does Hazzard County, GA actually exist? Not on any map, but speed traps targeting out of state drivers to generate revenue for Georgia towns are a reality. This vignette is my personal experience of being pulled over by a local county sheriff in Georgia.
Traveling in the middle of a three lane stretch of I-95, I cruised along with predominantly Georgia plated cars. When blue lights flashed behind me, I pull into the right-hand lane to allow the policeman to pass by and ruin someone else’s day. Inexplicably, he stuck to my rear bumper until I eased onto the shoulder. When the policeman insisted I was driving 87 in a 70, my jaw dropped, but as much as I wanted to call out his BS, I was wise enough to restrain myself from arguing with this local county mountie on the side of a highway. Few laudable accomplishments remain in my mid-life pocket, but a clean driving record was one I intended to preserve. After accepting the ticket, I scanned it quickly to find out which day I’d be returning to clear my name it in court.
In my younger years, I received speeding tickets in other areas of the country, but in those instances, I was guilty. So, I paid the fine by mail and moved on with my life. This time I was ready to fight. Besides, the officer would not bother to show up and the judge would let me off. Isn’t that’s the way traffic court usually works? Well, not in Hazzard County and like that soundstage in Hollywood, this little Georgia town ran its circus a bit differently from most. The two-story brick courthouse was tucked off the main drag just behind town hall. After parking under the moss covered oak trees, I took the five minutes necessary to stroll around town. I read the requisite civil war placard, admired the tidy brick buildings with painted wooden calling cards above the doorways, and marveled at the solitude. Neither tourist nor resident strolled the abandoned sidewalks at mid- day and no cars needed wait as I navigated the four-lane main drag at a snail’s pace in my black flats. This little town was lost somewhere too far from either I-95 or the ocean to be relevant.
After waiting on a hard wooden bench outside the court room where the other speed trap victims gathered, we were eventually ushered in a slow moving mostly straight line into the old-fashioned wood paneled court room like a chain gang headed for sentencing. Before court began, a jester-like bailiff explained how the judge would call each of us by name and ask how we chose to proceed. Since more than 50 anxious out-of-staters like me fidgeted on the now thinly cushioned benches, it appeared that proceedings might take a lot of time, but she assured us that things would move quickly. “You’ll see” she winked. The judge entered and everyone stood. After being instructed to sit, her honor explained that each of us would be called by name. When our name was called, we should stand, and let her know which if the two options we chose. Option 1: Speak with the prosecutor, or Option 2: plead “not guilty” and set a future date for trial. The crowd began to murmur, but she assured us that after the first few, the rest of us would “get the hang of it”.
We learned fast that despite the illusion of choice, only one correct answer existed. “I’d like to speak with the prosecutor ma’am” is what her honor wanted to hear. If anyone insisted on pleading “not guilty” she re-instructed them to speak with the prosecutor. After every single person in the room relented, we were lined up in two rows and hurried through our chat with the prosecutor based on our violation. Anyone driving less than 90 mph (in a 70 mph zone) had their charges dismissed as long as they forked over the $180 fine plus court fees (a total of $240) in cash. Luckily, I came prepared after noticing the large bold print at the bottom of my summons indicating that no credit cards or checks would be accepted. Easily 85% of the culprits were set free after paying the fine, though I did see one woman escorted to the pokey (as Sherrif Roscoe P Coltrane of Hazzard County called it) after it turned out she had been speeding at 107mph and (I’m guessing), she was not so flush with cash.
After walking out of court, I felt certain to spy Boss Hogg in his white three-piece suit checking his pocket watch as he crossed the town square with Roscoe hot on his heels. I took one last look around the little town that was not named Hazzard but probably should have been, and thought about how I could have insisted on having my day in court where I called out the system for its unfair targeting of out of state drivers and questioned the legitimacy of my infraction, but that would have required a second trip to rural Georgia to defend a not guilty plea. So, myself, and most of my fellow victims (one man drove down from Baltimore, MD to fight his ticket) sold out for an expunged driving record and no need to travel hundreds of miles for a second court appearance.
I believe we all do our best to stay on the right side of the road in life, but when the potholes grow deep and there is no money to fix them, blazing a new route is the most sensible way to keep moving forward. I could see that this town needed help to survive. It didn’t have appeal enough to draw industry or forward thinking to encourage innovation. Maybe they identified with Hazzard County a little too much. To an outsider like me, it seems unfair and dishonest to prop up a town with revenue gathered from unsuspecting passersby, but it is this subtle style of moral degradation that increasingly permeates current American society, and no one complains too loudly as long the targets are strangers rather than neighbors.