Lyrics to an old
Johnny Cash song run through my brain with every trip to my mailbox.
Wanted man in Mississippi / Wanted man in ol’ Cheyenne
Wherever you might look tonight you might see this
Feeling like prey comes naturally to somebody who for
more than two years has been hounded by Dallas County extortionists
whose threatening letters begin with a warning — literally.
“WARNING!” (capital letters and exclamation point are theirs) is the
subject under the Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson letterhead. The
law firm goes on to demand $93 within five days. Nine of these letters
have graced my mailbox since November 2006, which means I’m just about
due for my next quarterly threat. The letters say a “warrant may have
been issued by the court!” and, in boldface, “If a warrant has been
issued, you may be arrested at any time by any peace officer.”
My crime: jaywalking — almost eight years ago.
My accuser: A Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) cop who
may have been cloned from Barney Fife.
My thorn: A court system designed to make you plead
guilty and pay a fine.
On Sept. 5, 2000, I was working as a reporter in the
Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Dallas bureau. That morning, a downtown
water main broke, flooding streets and interrupting service. I drove to
within six or eight blocks of the mess, parked, and spent the next few
hours talking to city officials, residents, and witnesses. Afterward, on
the way back to my car, I walked up to an intersection where two police
officers were standing. Together we waited for the pedestrian “Walk”
sign to light up. None of us spoke.
Seconds turned into minutes, and still we stood. I
turned toward the DART officers to say something like, “Hey, the
light’s stuck,” but one of them met my eyes and glared at me. He was
a sawed-off guy with a military haircut and an attitude, and so I said
nothing. DART cops are licensed peace officers with guns, pepper spray,
and handcuffs, and this one didn’t seem friendly. The three of us
waited in silence.
During a span of three or four minutes, hardly a car
passed, perhaps due to the nearby detours and blocked streets. The scene
was getting ridiculous, and I snickered out loud. The short cop stared
at me, then nodded to his buddy. They turned around and walked south, in
the opposite direction. I stood another 20 seconds, glanced over my
shoulder and saw they were a half-block away, and then I crossed the
still-empty street. Five steps into the crosswalk I heard a command
hollered from a distance: “Stop!”
Confession: I knew it was the DART cop with the
short-man syndrome, but I pretended not to hear. I kept walking. Before
long, a Dallas city police officer whizzed up beside me on a bicycle and
told me I was being summoned. We waited for the DART cop, who was
red-faced and hustling my way. “So, you wait until we turn our backs
and then walk against the light, huh?” he said, angry and out of
“That light’s broken,” I protested. The light
still hadn’t changed. (I returned the next afternoon to time it and
found that it had been repaired — the light was changing about every
The bicycle cop gave me a half-smile and all but rolled
his eyes as the DART cop scribbled up a jaywalking ticket and thrust it
“See you in court,” I said, cramming the pink slip
in my shirt pocket.
Little did I know I’d still be seeking my day in court
years later. Pleading guilty is no problem — send money by mail or pay
online (all major credit cards accepted). But try to plead not guilty,
and it’s hello Alice in Wonderland. The ticket instructed me to go to
a justice of the peace court in south Dallas to make my plea.
Turned out that the office was closed between noon and 1
p.m., making it impossible to conduct business during a typical lunch
hour. After it reopened, I stood in line and eventually told the clerk I
wanted to plead not guilty, but she said I wasn’t “in the
computer.” DART hadn’t sent my ticket information. “You’ll have
to come back later,” she said.
How much later?
“A week,” she said, not sounding as if she really
knew or cared.
A week passed, and I returned, but again the ticket
wasn’t in the computer.
“Keep checking back with us,” she said.
Huh? I was supposed to make regular visits to an
out-of-the-way office and stand in line to ask an overworked clerk if I
was in a computer? The clerk told me I could pay the ticket and be done
Not a chance.
Eventually, I went to work for Fort Worth Weekly and
forgot all about DART. Five years passed. Then one morning I opened my
mailbox and found a letter from a law firm working as a collection
agency for Dallas County, telling me to send $93 or face arrest. I
called to complain and was told to call the justice of the peace. On
Nov. 22, 2005, I called and talked to the justice’s court clerk,
Yolanda, who said my case file was being transferred but hadn’t yet
arrived. She told me to call back. I called a month later. It still
hadn’t arrived. I tried to ask Yolanda questions but got mostly
silence except for the telepathic message coming through loud and clear
over the phone line: “I don’t want to talk to you anymore, you pesky
person. Please go away.”
I persisted, and Yolanda told me to fax the court a
letter stating my intention to plead not guilty, which I did. More phone
calls over the next few months prompted Yolanda (who would not give her
last name) to tell me with more than a hint of frustration in her voice,
“We are waiting for the file to arrive. When it does, we will give you
By then, I’d noticed a Dec. 8, 2005, story by Dallas
Observer columnist Jim Schutze, entitled “Bus Gestapo,” about DART
cops who, according to witnesses, stopped Todd Lyon and his 14-year-old
son for jaywalking and, when Lyon protested, wrestled him to the ground,
beat him, handcuffed him, and Maced him. The boy was left to fend for
himself while his dad was carted off to jail and held for 11 days
because he didn’t post bond. Schutze tried to investigate but found
DART to be a stonewall fortress, a regional agency with a self-policing
police force and appointed (rather than elected) board members.
“They do not care,” Schutze wrote. “Their lawyer
wouldn’t talk to me. I called every DART board member from Dallas, and
they either didn’t return my calls or refused to talk to me... . Just
getting their phone numbers was an entire afternoon’s chore.”
The story struck a nerve with Dallas readers, and
Schutze said he heard from about 50 people with similar stories,
including calls from Dallas police “complaining about DART cops being
poorly trained and being cowboys,” he said.
Schutze wrote another story about Lyon (“Help, It’s
the Police,” April 20, 2006) after DART police allegedly spotted him
downtown and roughed him up while taunting him about the Observer story.
Last year, a DART cop shot and killed a 15-year-old boy who allegedly
leaped from bushes and attacked officers. DART claimed self-defense. The
boy was unarmed.
Shutze still hears from readers decrying a bizarre
system that steers DART citations to JP courts run “like a scene from
hell,” he said.
“You could say that this is a result of
disorganization, but it’s gone on for years,” he said. “There is a
point where you think maybe they know exactly what they are doing, that
the basic rationale is, ‘Pay the money.’ ”
Dallas County officials have little oversight —
justices of the peace are elected and answer mostly to voters. State
Commission on Judicial Misconduct executive director Seana Willing said
some courts become backlogged and are poorly managed, including a JP
court in Dallas that has been disciplined several times. My ticket is at
a different court but in the same precinct.
I told Willing about the collection letters, and she
bristled. “Only a judge can enter a judgment against you,” she said.
“Presumably that would be after your day in court.”
The intent of the letters seemed clear to her. “They
are just hoping you are going to pay, which means you are pleading
guilty and waiving your rights,” she said. “They are hoping the
average citizen will just be scared and pay it.”
She doubted the threatening letter would lead to an
arrest. “They are not going to be able to jail you, hopefully,” she
said. “This is just insanity.”
DART says it’s not to blame. “It’s not our process
— it’s the process that the justice of the peace has in place for
all of their tickets, like traffic tickets or anything else,” DART
spokesman Morgan Lyons said. Maybe so, but it’s the DART information
that never seemed to make it to the court’s computers.
On March 8, 2007, I called Yolanda to complain about the
threatening letters. But she said they would continue being sent
“until the day of court.”
Any idea when my day in court would arrive?
“No,” she said.
I called again just a few days ago. This time, a woman
named Brenda answered. I asked what I could do to settle this dispute.
She said she would request my file — the same thing Yolanda said two
There’s somebody set to grab me anywhere that I might
And wherever you might look tonight you might get a
glimpse of me