To the editor of THE EAGLE:
Imagine an 83-year-old man, with a heart condition, driving up North Street on the way to BMC for a CT-scan appointment. Anxious to be on time, he unfortunately committed a traffic violation by going through the yellow light and was stopped by a cruising patrol car and asked for his license.
The police officer quickly noted it had expired. In the past, the old gentleman had obviously relied on the renewal reminder from the Department of Motor Vehicles -- a practice abolished several years ago as a cost-saving measure.
Well, what happened next was outrageous to say the least. The old man was arrested, handcuffed, charged with a felony, and booked as a common criminal. Allowed one phone call, he called his wife who happened to be in Pittsfield for a doctor’s appointment. Read the Miranda Rights, the old man was frisked, fingerprinted, and asked about any physical disorders or suicidal tendencies he might have. Measured for height and photographed, he was confined without his shoes in a small unappetizing cell with a stone bench, a tiny metal toilet, and a non-functioning water faucet. He was told it would be a matter of some 20 minutes before being taken to the courthouse.
Except for another "criminal" (a young fellow charged with a break-in and theft) in the next cell, the booking room was left unmanned and no amount of loud and intermittent banging on the cell door after half an hour had passed yielded a response. The old man was getting increasingly upset, worrying about the whereabouts of his wife, and his heart condition.
Finally, after an hour, the assistant clerk from the magistrates’ court came by the police station on her lunch hour to see if she could possibly help resolve the situation. She turned out to be a compassionate and calming person as she arranged for the future court appearance date, as the judge was unavailable on the day of the incident.
It should come as no surprise that this is not an imaginary case. I was the old man in the above account. I might add that my encounter with the police in Pittsfield evoked, albeit in a minor key, the indignities and emotional trauma endured as a youngster in occupied Denmark in 1943. I had several nights of nightmares and insomnia -- and to think that an expired driver’s license was the cause of it all. Truly unbelievable! Fortunately, the presiding judge in his humane wisdom (and learning that I had immediately gone to renew my license upon my release from jail) dismissed the case out of hand several days later for which I am most grateful.
Surely the police had discretionary alternatives in dealing with someone such as myself who obviously was not a criminal and did not resist arrest.
At a minimum, the police department ought to review its procedures to avoid a repetition of the sort of unwarranted treatment of others in Pittsfield and, of course, everyone ought to check the expiration date of their driver’s license -- until the Motor Vehicle Bureau reinstates its traditional reminder practice.