Inefficiency By Design: A Day Trip to the New Hanover Courthouse

I had the displeasure of appearing at the New Hannover District Court today regarding a speeding ticket I received some months ago (two nights before my wedding, driving home from Wrightsville beach, and hurrying just a little too much so I could get home and catch the last hour of the season finale of Lost). Never have I witnessed a more backwards public institution.

NHcourthouse / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The citation itself plainly stated my court date, and even the room number and time at which I should appear… but neglected to state the address of the courthouse, or even a vague estimation of the time necessary to make an appearance. On arriving to the address obtained using google maps (admittedly, a bit of a mistake, but who uses a phone book anymore..) I realized that the building I was fruitlessly attempting to enter was one of Wilmington’s wonderful historic buildings. A quarter given to an opportunistic passerby obtained clear direction to the actual courthouse half a block away.

Entering a courthouse is much like boarding an airplane, and I did appreciate the attention payed to security. In fact, this was probably the quickest leg of my journey, but it was a little disconcerting to be ogled as a potential prisoner so soon. Entering the courtroom with a dozen other traffic violators was a herky jerky affair, with court officers hollering vague and contradictory directions from two sides of the courtroom. Upon finally being called forward, I expressed my desire to refute my speeding violation, at which point the person addressing me (who at no point stated there function or relation to the justice process) stirred slightly from his glossy-eyed beurocratic routine.

“We’ll have to set up another court date”, he said. “But your chances really aren’t very good.”

“I’d really like my due process”, I replied..

Long story short, my options were, come back later and face the officer in court, or get my citation reduced to 15 miles over the limit by attending traffic court. I opted for paying my fine and never entering another court-house for as long as I do live.

Simpler said than done. Two floors below in the Cashiers office, the cashier informed me that my citation would have to travel downstairs, and that only cash or check were accepted as payment. After visiting the court-house ATM one floor above, she told me that travel time for my citation (located two floors overhead and a room or two over) would be roughly six hours.

Three days later, on Monday morning, I paid my citation. Fifty dollars in fine and one-hundred and twenty dollars in court fees, plus one dollar for ‘telephone costs’ (really?). My question is, why would I not simply be told to attend traffic court in the first place (along with the other twenty people in court that morning), at which point payment or court date options could be presented. I am nowhere near a legal expert, but it is a fact that there is backlog in the court system in the United States, and there is so much potential for improvement. Modernization and de-paperization could go light-years towards improving the legal process. But whoa unto the poor sap that gets to try and implement so much change…