“I’m pretty sure I can get the drug possession charge dropped in exchange for a fine for the paraphernalia charge.”
“And what kind of fine do you think I’m looking at?”
“And that’s it?”
“Yup, then you’re done. You don’t need to ever come back to Wellton.”
So I thanked him and hung up. Then I called a friend who is a law clerk in San Diego.
I explained my whole story, and afterward she explained to me that it is in the court’s best interest to expedite cases like mine. There was a strong likelihood that the Arizona justice system wanted only my money, that they didn’t want to rehab me, monitor my probation, or put me in jail. “The public defender in Wellton (who is called from a pool of PD’s in Yuma) has a responsibility to defend you, to also try to get your charges reduced, or to at least work on your behalf. Just like the lawyer who offered to represent you for a fee.”
I delved a little further, to see if I could find a lawyer who might work more cheaply on my behalf. I found one in Wellton (less travel time I figured than the big boys from Phoenix) who, in a photo on his website, looked like a cowboy with an old pickup truck. His offer was also a flat fee–based one. For $1000 he would do the same thing as the first lawyer but also submit the paperwork to get the conviction removed from my record (which might take several months, he said).
My wife and I discussed it for a week or so. She made the point that Arizona didn’t want to have to jail me, monitor my probation, or rehab me. They just wanted to scare me and get some money. Having weighed all my options, I decided to save some money (that we didn’t have) and take my chances. I would return to Wellton to face the music.
My wife was nice enough to make the drive back to AZ with me. Early on the morning of my court date, we headed east toward Yuma on I-8. Déjà vu all over again.
Before we got as far as Dulzura, California, we came upon a Border Patrol checkpoint. The same checkpoint a month before had been casual. They’d barely slowed us down, waving us through at five miles per hour. Today, they were all business. They had a dog, stopped us for a moment, and when the dog didn’t respond, let us pass. So now, my friends, be forewarned that well before El Centro, as you head to Ocotillo or points east of San Diego, you might be stopped in a place you least expected to be. And those dogs have amazing olfactory skills.
We continued heading east, the day was beautiful with no traffic to speak of, and we made good time. At about noon, we reached the Wellton exit and looked for a place to eat. Court time was 1:30 p.m., and according to my watch, we had over an hour to kill. To frequent travelers on the interstate, Wellton used to be known as a speed trap, a section of desert where there’s so little to look at you might be inclined to go faster than usual. It’s well past Yuma and on the way to Gila Bend, Phoenix, and Tucson. These days, it’s got a slow, sleepy, agricultural feel that underscores all the activity happening on I–8 nearby. The Border Patrol seems to be the largest employer in town. Their headquarters occupy a mesa near the courthouse, packed with patrol cars and portable trailers for their offices, a virtual city.
Geronimo’s was the only place in town that looked as if it had any customers. It’s a small Mexican café filled with what I guessed was off-duty Border Patrol agents (the military-style haircut is hard to miss), and my longish hair, goatee, and sandals were a bit out of place.
We sat down to enjoy a cold beer, and as we looked at the menu, we figured that with the drive behind us, we were doing okay. We ordered lunch. The food coming to other tables looked really good. As I looked around, I noticed a small plastic clock on the wall. From across the room, it barely registered, but it looked as if it was 1:20.
I got up and walked closer to the register and asked a customer who was leaving, “Is that the right time?” “Yup,” he answered. Yikes. We had forgotten about the time difference between California and Arizona. So I asked the waitress to cancel our food order, and paid for our beers, and we scooted out of there and headed over to the court with minutes to spare.
The courthouse in Wellton is hard to forget. It is a series of trailers, built into a semi-permanent structure. The courtroom is about 20 x 20 feet, with a simple facade to mimic a judge’s seat and give a basic courtroom feel. The room was full when I arrived. An extra chair would be wedged into the room each time another defendant came in at the last minute.
Court got underway right away. Family members and visitors were allowed to watch and listen to the beginning of the process from the hallway. The judge explained the process: you would be offered a plea agreement that you could accept or reject. If you rejected it, you would offer a plea of not guilty and then be offered a chance to speak with a public defender about your case. At no point along the way would the judge or the prosecutor answer our individual questions. Having said that, the judge left the court, and the door was closed so that visitors in the hallway could no longer hear the proceedings.
The prosecutor was about 35 years old, trying to be very serious, with short buzzed hair, wearing a collared shirt and slacks from a Lands End catalog.