Seaton: Crime and Punishment, Pandemic Edition

What you’re about to read was written initially during the first lockdowns as an absurd mechanism of coping with the pandemic. I set it aside at the time as it didn’t seem right then to share it. I hope you enjoy it.—CLS

Carl checked his watch as he made his way to the jail doors. The time was 1:45. I should make my two o’ clock on time, Carl thought. Clients always appreciate punctuality.

Although times were different, Carl made a point to wear a fresh three-piece-suit and carry his leather briefcase to every client meeting. He firmly believed keeping up appearances gave clients a sense of safety in a world gone mad.

Pressing a button on the door’s intercom with a touchpad stylus, Carl waited for the response. The speaker above the button crackled to life.

“Can I help you?”
“I’m here to meet a client.”

“You have an appointment?”
“Two PM. Carl Douglas.”

The solid steel exterior door of the jail slid open as a buzzer sounded. Carl stepped into the antechamber and waited for the door to close behind him. Another speaker crackled to life.

“Are you currently experiencing a fever or a cough?” the voice asked.

Carl rolled his eyes, sighed, and said “No.” He’d been asked this question three times this week.

“Out of an abundance of caution please remove the non-contact thermometer from the box on your left and take your temperature.”

Carl did as he was instructed. “Ninety-eight point six,” Carl said, eyeing the display.

“Hold the display closer to the camera.” Carl did just that.

“Display your credentials.”

Carl held up the plastic document container holding his picture and his Bar card.

“Thank you for your compliance, Attorney Douglas,” the voice said as the inner door slid open. “Return the thermometer to the box for sterilization and enter the booking area.”

A pair of deputies manned Booking. Each wore a face mask, a plastic face shield, and surgical gloves with their uniforms. Carl eyed the pair with curiosity.

“You boys sure all that’s necessary?”

“New standard operating procedure per Sheriff’s orders,” said one in a thick Southern drawl. “Some fool meth head tried spitting on one of us when we were processing him recently, so now if you work booking you wear protective equipment.”

“Who are you here for?” asked the other deputy.

“Bob Thomas,” said Carl.

The deputy in front of a computer pressed a button on his walkie-talkie. “Is there a Bob Thomas in the isolation wing?” the deputy asked.

“Negative” came the voice from the walkie-talkie.

The deputy then tapped a few keys on the keyboard, looked at the monitor, and then pushed another button on an intercom. “Bob Thomas’s mouthpiece is here,” the deputy barked.

Carl smiled. Times may be different, but some things never change, he thought. “Are you sure touching multiple objects with those gloves doesn’t defeat the purpose?” Carl asked.

The deputy shot him a look. “We get one pair at the start of shift. We get another under emergency circumstances, like if a fight breaks out.”

“Do I have a meeting room available?” asked Carl.

“You’re going to have about a twenty-minute wait for that,” said the first deputy. “We’re still deep cleaning and sanitizing a meeting room from the last attorney-client appointment.”

Carl frowned. This meant the meeting wouldn’t happen at two precisely. “I’ll wait.”

Twenty minutes later, Carl found himself in the jail’s meeting room. It was a rectangular room with a six-foot-long table. Chairs were at either end. A bottle of hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes were in the center of the table, and Carl wiped the table down first, then his briefcase before applying the hand sanitizer.

Once Carl finished this process, a deputy escorted Bob Thomas into the room. Eyeing the zip ties binding Thomas’s hands, Carl said “Remove the restraints, deputy.”

This deputy wore safety goggles in place of the plastic shield. “They’re for your protection.”

“My client allegedly violated a health inspector’s orders, deputy. It’s not like he’s a violent man.”

“Suit yourself.” Thomas gingerly massaged his wrists once the zip ties were cut.

“You may go now, deputy.”

“Heard this one’s a health risk. You sure about that?”

“Times may be different but attorney-client privilege still exists. Please leave now so I can meet with my client.”

“Fine. Take your chances.” With that, the deputy left the room and the door locked with a whirring click.

“Okay, Mr. Thomas, or do you prefer ‘Bob?’” Carl began.

“Bob’s fine, Mr. Douglas.”

“Okay Bob, what do they have on you?”

Bob Thomas massaged his temples. “This is all about a cough. They said I created a public nuisance!”

“The actual charge is creating a public health risk,” Carl replied, eyeing a sheet of paper. “Start from the beginning.”

“I run a pizza place. I worked with my father once I graduated high school and the place became mine when dad passed. My wife works the register and my two kids bus and wait tables. We were doing really well over the last three years so we hired this guy and his wife to work as a line cook and waitress.”

Carl nodded.

“Well when the governor issued that ‘Safer at Home’ order, I had to lay off Jennifer since we could only serve takeout or delivery. I felt bad so I let her husband Greg stay on as a delivery guy. My son Colin took his place in the kitchen and my daughter Katie helped Glenna take orders and clean everything.”

“A couple of weeks ago the County Health Director issues this Executive Order 117A. Now I’ve got to watch out for ‘feral respiratory illness symptoms’ in all my staff. I tried looking that stuff up on Web MD. All I could read is it leads to cancer. Everything on that site leads to cancer.”

“It’s actually ‘febrile respiratory illness symptoms,’” Carl said. “Runny nose, coughing, sniffling, fever. Stuff like that.”

“Yeah, I got flustered,” Bob said. “Glenna said we should get thermometers for everyone in the restaurant but you can’t find them since the virus hit. Every morning people panic-buy up all the goddamn thermometers. So I put everyone on the honor system. I told my people if they even felt the slightest bit sick to take two weeks off.”

“And how did that work out for you?” asked Carl.

“How the fuck do you think it worked out for me?” Bob shot back. “One day the Health Inspector drops by my pizzeria. I’ve never flunked a health inspection. I’m quite proud of that. Greg comes in to pick up a couple of pies for delivery and he coughs once while the inspector’s there. Once. He’s got seasonal allergies, Mr. Douglas! Pollen is a bitch right now!”

“I’m aware.”

“Next thing I know the inspector’s in my face grilling me about my methods of testing for illness. I’m trying to explain things to this broad but she calls the cops. Then I end up in here. They said my bond’s $5000. I don’t have that kind of money!”

“Easy there,” Carl mused. “I’ll get you in touch with a bondsman I know. It’d be ten percent, so $500. Think you’ve got that much to get out?”

“Yeah, I guess, but when would be my trial?”

“Hard to say. The State Supreme Court’s postponed all in-person hearings indefinitely until this pandemic ends. And we don’t know when that would be. Plus there’s the matter of the ‘Public Health Risk’ notice sitting on the door of your restaurant now.”

“WHAT?” Bob exploded. “Someone put a public health risk notice on the door of my pizza place?”

“Per Executive Order 117B any individual found non-compliant with Executive Order 117A can, at the discretion of individual health inspectors, have a ‘public health risk’ notice placed on the door of their residence or place of business. The notice can be removed by a payment of no less than $500 and no more than $1500. In your case the damage will be…” Carl punched at his iPad. “$1500. You really pissed Inspector Singh off something fierce, didn’t you?”

The color drained from Bob Thomas’s face. “After your fees…what should I do, Carl?”

“Honestly, your best option is to plead guilty. I spoke with the ADA on your case and she’ll let you go with a $500 fine. How long have you been in here?”

“A day, I think? Time kind of bleeds together in here.”

Then pay the fine and removal fee super quick so your business isn’t significantly impacted. With luck and time this will blow over.”

“I didn’t create a public health risk! It was a damn cough! I’m innocent! So’s Greg! Don’t we have constitutional rights anymore?”

“We do, Bob. People just tend to forget them when they’re scared. So people take action in the name of public safety or say they’re ‘doing it for the children’ and the public gladly gives their individual freedoms away.”

Bob Thomas stared at the wall. “Ok. I’ll plead. When can I do it?”

“Right now,” Carl replied. Snapping open his briefcase, Carl removed a laptop and monitor in sealed plastic bags. He set the monitor up in front of Bob and pressed a button. The monitor flashed to life with a logo reading “IPlead.”

Once the iPlead logo faded away, a video screen popped open with the head of ADA Helen Penrose staring at the monitor. Helen’s eyes narrowed on the screen. “Is your counsel present?” she asked.

Carl leaned over the monitor. “Hi Helen!”

“Ye gods, man, social distancing!” the woman’s head exclaimed.

“Don’t blow a gasket, Helen, I’m just getting set up.” Carl returned to his laptop at the other end of the table and opened his iPlead app. Now that both attorneys were logged in a fourth window opened saying “Your Judge Will Be With You In Five Minutes.”

It took less time than that for Judge Robert Neery to pop onscreen. He quickly put down his bacon double cheeseburger and assumed a formal tone. “Case number 854-2117, People v. Robert Thomas, I see an agreement has been reached in this matter.”

“Yes, Your Honor,” Carl said. “The defendant will enter an Alford plea of ‘Guilty’ today for the listed charges.”

“Mr. Thomas, you’ve entered a plea of guilty at this time. Has your attorney explained your rights to you?”

“Yes, Your Honor,” Thomas said.

“And you understand by pleading guilty you are waiving your right to a trial in this matter?”

“Yes, Your Honor.”

“And you are pleading guilty because you believe it’s in your best interests to do so?”

“Yes, Your Honor.”

“Very well, I accept your plea of guilty at this time and find you guilty of creating a public health risk. You are hereby fined $500 per the terms of your plea agreement and sentenced to time served. Restitution is $1500 for removal of the Public Health Risk notice.”

Bob stewed in his chair.

“That concludes this matter, if all parties are in agreement,” Judge Neery droned.

“Can I say something?” Bob blurted.

“Don’t do this, Bob” Carl said, a nervous tone in his voice.

“Mr. Thomas, I want to impart a bit of wisdom from my time in the criminal justice system,” Judge Neery glared through the monitor. “When people ask to say something in my court, I will let them speak if they so choose. I usually find what they have to say is counterproductive to their case and their counsel rues the day the clients open their mouths. Now that I’ve told you this do you still wish to say something?”

Bob sat for a full minute. “No, Your Honor, I do not.”

“A wise decision.” Judge Neery smiled. “That will be all for today then.”

The screens went black.

“Smart move, Bob” said Carl. “Let’s get you out of here. You should be through processing in a few hours and back home tonight.”

“That was bullshit,” Bob said, “And you know it.”

“No, that’s part and parcel of how the criminal justice system works these days, Bob. Let me know if you need anything else.”

“Fuck off, Carl.”

“Your business is greatly appreciated,” Carl said as he left the jail’s conference room.

Clients really didn’t understand how unfair the criminal justice system was until they went through it, Carl thought as he sat in his car applying hand sanitizer and wiping his briefcase down with disinfecting wipes.

“At least the check cleared,” Carl muttered out loud. That counted for something.

6 thoughts on “Seaton: Crime and Punishment, Pandemic Edition

  1. Bear

    Was Bob there long enough to get jailhouse pizza for lunch? It’s important to keep up with the competition.

  2. Guitardave

    That wasn’t funny…but I think Fyodor would be proud of your ability to use reality to scare the shit out of people. Excellent post, Chris.

  3. L. Phillips

    “It took less time than that for Judge Robert Neery to pop onscreen. He quickly put down his bacon double cheeseburger and assumed a formal tone.”

    Classic prose.

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