The squad car’s floodlight glares through my rear-view mirror. I wait, berating myself for being stupid enough to talk on my phone while driving in California. It’s night, so no one can see you, right? Wrong. The cop returns to my window with my registration and license.
“Ma’am, are you aware that your license is suspended?”
Wait, what? “Uh, no, it is?”
“It looks like it has been since last May.”
It’s been suspended for EIGHT months!? …WHAT?!
Rewind to November 2010, almost two years ago, in sunny Santa Cruz, CA. I executed a perfect California stop at a stop sign as I was turning right. Excellent form. Unfortunately, the motorcycle cop sitting across the street wasn’t impressed. I waited to get my ticket notification in the mail, cough up a painful amount of money, and just forget the whole thing. But the notice never came. I even called the traffic court (months later), but the line was always busy. I couldn’t find the citation number on my receipt, so I thought, “Great! He didn’t actually cite me. Case closed.”
Fast forward to August 2011. (My license is already suspended but I won’t find out about it for another six months.) I was lost in Berkeley and accidentally crossed Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard at 5:28pm. This is important because I, and the three other cars getting tickets, missed the tiny sign telling us it was illegal to cross MLK, Jr. Blvd. between 4 pm and 6 pm on weekdays. As expected, I received a citation notice in the mail (several months later) and planned to pay it on time like the law-abiding citizen I am.
So here we are again in January 2012. I now have two tickets—one forgotten, one yet to be paid—and I’ve just been told my license has been suspended. (Ironically, I was about to pay MLK, Jr.’s ticket before this all happened.) I’m essentially on house arrest for the next week and a half. I stew and fume and tell the universe exactly what I think of it for being so unfair…you try being stuck inside your parents’ house for a week. Then I decide to be an adult about the whole thing and look up traffic citation policies. I find out that notifications are mailed to your address as a “courtesy.” Apparently, in California at least, the driver is still responsible for paying the fine or going to court even if they don’t receive a notice. Ugh. Humbled by the traffic gods, any sense of ego is reduced to a pulp as I try to explain to my friends why they have to pick me up so we can hang out.
Nevertheless, I gather together what sense of self I have left, and start calling the various traffic courts and fee collecting companies. In case you find yourself in a similar situation, start by calling the traffic court in the county where you got the ticket that you forgot to pay. I call the Santa Cruz traffic court, because that ill-fated California stop happened there. Make sure you ask questions and understand how to best pay your overdue fine–every county operates a little differently. If it’s been more than a month or two, it’s likely you’ll have to pay an outside fee-collection agency, who will then let the traffic court know that you paid the fine. Once that’s done, the traffic court will clear your record, and you can have your mom a friend drive you to the nearest DMV to pay another fee to reinstate your license. They’ll give you a provisional piece of paper like they did when you were 16, and then you’ll get your new license mailed to you. So, a few days—and hundreds of dollars—later, I’m able to drive again.
Morals of this sad story? Always pay your traffic tickets, even if you don’t get a notice in the mail about your citation. Don’t cross MLK, Jr. Blvd between 4 pm and 6 pm on weekdays. And for goodness sake don’t hold your cell phone to your ear while driving…ever. (You can check your state’s specific cell phone laws here.) Especially in small towns where cops don’t have anything better to do than watch people drive around in the dark.
Oh, and there’s an epilogue! It’s juicy. I was moving out of my house in Santa Cruz a few months ago and happened to be sorting through a box of old papers and documents. You know, that box you keep for official-looking things that you probably won’t need again but feel like you should keep because you’re supposed to be an adult and that’s what adults do. Well, I came across an official-looking envelope, unopened. Guess what was inside? The original citation.
Photo by Meaghan Morrison