Guilty Until Proven Innocent

a guest post by Rev. Laura Collins

Here’s her story:

So today I had a strange and unsettling experience of finding out that there was a traffic court case that has been on my record for three years without my knowledge. But when a 2nd small traffic infraction got added this year (yes, that ticket I did get), my car insurance coverage was halved and the cost was doubled. When I called to find out why this had happened, the insurance company insisted that it was because of my driving record, though I have never in my life been in the County where the first (and more serious) infraction happened.

It’s a long, strange story but after 2.5 hours on the phone with at least 8 people in at least 4 different government agencies (and LOTS of time on hold) I discovered that a bureaucratic mistake had put another person’s infraction on my driver’s license. The woman who got the ticket lives in a different state. Her driver’s license number is not remotely close to mine. But her name is the same … and her birthday, too. It was clear in court records that the trooper who wrote up the citation and the court case held about it both had the correct DL info. Somehow, though, it got to the DMV and went on my license where it sat, unknown to me, until I got a “2nd” infraction. I had to have a “hearing” with an officer of the DMV to ask to have it removed. Their mistake, but my headache. It’s still not resolved with my insurance where I am guilty until proven innocent.

By the end of these crazy conversations, I was a nervous wreck. I took a walk around the block before returning to work. And in that walk I thought, “What if I did not have a forgiving job where what I thought would be a 5 minute personal call took up a good chunk of my work day? What if I had children I had to take care of while sitting on hold for 30 minutes at a time? What if I didn’t have the emotional where-with-all to have the same frustrating conversation with 8 different people, 7 of whom told me they couldn’t help me with the problem?

What if I didn’t have the intelligence to understand the questions being asked of me? What if I didn’t have the self-confidence to hold my own and keep insisting on my innocence when person after person kept referring to “my ticket” or “my court case” or “my infraction”? What if I just didn’t have the stamina or the time? What if I spoke with an accent or had trouble understanding the deeply southern accents of everyone I talked to? What if I didn’t sound white?”

I kept thinking about Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy” and the many innocent people, mostly black, who sit on death row insisting on their innocence and having to fight just to get the right person to listen and then having nothing and nobody in the system to defend them. Of being torn from their families and livelihoods because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time or had the wrong color skin or just didn’t look right or sound right.

The small feeling I had today of being guilty until proven innocent and feeling helpless to find the right person to help me is nothing. Even if it hadn’t gone my way today, I could hire a lawyer and make sure it did. But how quickly unsettled I felt made me cringe the way I cringed throughout my reading of Stevenson’s book. And it made me think of immigrants held without access to lawyers at airports this week and how frightening that must be. And it made me think of the refugees around the world who are fleeing for their lives for no fault of their own, simply living in the wrong place and time, or being the wrong religion, or even the wrong version of one religion.

I thought of how it must feel to be a woman trying to report a rape and being questioned about her clothes or where she’d been or how much she’d had to drink or how well she knew her rapist. I thought of being a woman in need of health care being yelled at by mean and angry anti-abortion protesters as she tried to make her way into a clinic for care. I thought of being a black woman pulled over for failing to use her turn signal. A black boy shot for wearing a hoody. A black man choked for selling cigarettes. A black child shot for playing in a park. A black teen left to die alone on a street with his body out in the street for four long hours after being shot by the police.

I thought of so many things. I’m still thinking about them. I won’t stop thinking about them.

~ Rev. Laura Collins, Asheville, NC

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I'm a Presbyterian pastor and the author of two spiritual memoirs. RUINED was recently named a "2017 Book of the Year" by Christianity Today.

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2 thoughts on “Guilty Until Proven Innocent

  1. This story gives me chills (and not happy ones). So frustrating. I hate to be inconvenienced by things that ARE my fault.

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