To begin with, in spite of my lifestyle, I am actually a fan of around 80% of most laws in currently in place. Despite the feelings that well up inside me when a foot traffic jam is created by a large family walking five abreast on a busy sidewalk, I’m glad that for the most part- depending on your ownership of a badge or economic standing- murder is illegal. I loathe stealing, and it brings me comfort that in our societal panopticon that we all seem just fine with, civilization as we know it is ruled by the fact that there could be and, in many cases, should be comeuppance for misdeeds and wrong doings. Yes, there are a host of laws that are insane. Laws that disproportionately target the underprivileged, the poor, and minorities, while at the same time systematically empowering those in control.
However, today Critics Digest will be exploring a much sillier law. A much less consequential law to be sure, but a law that, though on an egregiously lesser scale is equally unjust as an offshore tax haven.
Currently, according to the Oregon State Marine board and Clackamas County’s laws therein, one must be in a life jacket on any kind of floatation device at (almost) all times. While under many circumstances I could be persuaded to see why this is a reasonable law, the law itself makes no distinction about the aforementioned floatation devices. Whether you are on a boat or a canoe, or, in my case at the time, in the middle of a giant innertube, justice, to Oregon, remains blind. And this lack of distinction is why I had to appear in court in the summer of 2012.
One balmy August afternoon, a dear friend of mine and I decided to cool off in one of the best ways that the fairytale like landscape of my home state affords: a delightful river float. One lazily ambles around the bends and over soft rapids while in the company of friends and cheer as pieces of the cottonwood trees are blown over brow and underfoot as if it is a snowfall in summertime, and the air is rich with the smell of evergreen and fir. With regards to the float itself, independent of the presence of law enforcement, I cannot recommend a summertime activity enough. It will bring you just as much if not more inner peace than any selfie motivated trip to Bali and cost a fraction of a fraction of what it would for you to fly halfway across the world and pester Balinese natives into making you a detox smoothie- whatever the fuck that is.
After two hours enjoying abject and unadulterated peace and serenity, the float was beginning to come to a close. Only about another quarter of a mile was left on this perfect afternoon. However, like a sleuth of hungry bears reawakened and fiendishly hungry after months of hibernation, Oregon Troopers laid in wait. Hungry to pounce on anyone who had enjoyed themselves too much that afternoon. Their mouths filling with saliva and their balls of their pens with ink at the thought of making a few extra thousand dollars for the state in the name of our safety and best interest.
We were corralled by the flow of water to a bottleneck by a small flotilla of police boats, a strategy clearly inspired by the Spartans of old at the notorious Battle of Thermopylae. Then, with a long, corked hook, one by one our innertubes were caught and dragged ashore. I stood, damp, half naked and defenseless as Office Bartlett issued me a citation for ‘improper floating’ to the tune of three hundred motherfucking unbelievable ball crushing dollars. For a recent graduate of the University of Oregon’s Theatre Arts program, compared to this economic blow, I would have rather been escorted to the pillory and stocks were that available. This was even more embarrassing; heightened even further by the fact that I had not at this point worked into my reflexive memory to never cooperate with police if one doesn’t absolutely have to.
Nobody had their ID on them, we were in the river after all. My friends acted quickly and gave a fake name and address, and their citations, it is rumored, are still in circulation; periodically being sent back to the station in the name of Caroline Bigolo of 742 Evergreen Terrace.
I however, still but a novice, 135 pounds, and soaking wet, disclosed everything. Everything. In the panic of the moment it’s possible I even told them my big sisters address for good measure and offered a blood sample should they want to corral my entire genealogy to pay for this infraction.
Later that evening back at home, I realized that I had been hoodwinked. Bamboozled by a system and their slipshod club-brandishing goons that claim to speak for the Pagan gods and goddesses of the rivers and streams to whom it is my right to sacrifice myself to in any way I deem fitting. Was I wearing a life jacket? No. That was undeniable. I would have to pay the fine one way or the other, and if I wanted to make this swift, I would plead guilty, put a check in the mail along with the ticket, and that would be that.
That would have been the easy thing to do. But I’m not one for the easy path. Any asshole with a pencil and a pulse can shamble their way into a state university get a law or a business degree and guarantee themselves financial security for themselves, their family, and even future generations. I am not made of such mettle. I decided to get an arts degree. Live my entire fucking adult life on “expert mode.” No security. No mercy. Nothing to lose. Everything to gain.
So, one month later, I took a bus to the Clackamas courthouse and decided to make the most out of an already ridiculous situation. I realized that morning that I still had a small amount of cocaine leftover from a party a month earlier, so I packed that into my messenger bag along with my deflated River Rat innertube that the county deemed insufficient to prevent my death in a shallow August river surrounded by hundreds of people doing the same. I entered the courthouse, registered, was told my waiting block, and then was instructed to wait in the adjacent room until the judge would see me and the five other offenders for the same violation in a few minutes.
Why bring the cocaine? Well, the beauty and the problem with cocaine is that it heightens any interaction. An already incredible party or suaré can become the stuff of legend. Conversely, a rather lame situation can actually be kind of fun; sporting even. It can open your heart and wring out dopamine like a wet towel into your brain and psyche with such speed and intensity that even in a courthouse awaiting my judgment for a ridiculous violation- I could still manage to have some fun.
Thus, after excusing myself to the bathroom to rifle this horridly stepped-on powder up my nose and then re-inflate my innertube, which took about five seconds given my accelerated heart rate, I entered the courtroom with confidence and aplomb. Setting me apart from the rest of the flock who looked bored at best and hideously put off at worst.
Eventually, my number was called. This was my one moment to make my case. I stood up with the same sense of purpose as a latter day, geeked out, and astonishingly less intelligent version of Atticus Finch and placed my innertube over my head and around my waste.
“How do you plea?” The judge inquired.
“Not guilty, your honor.” I replied.
“Were you wearing a life jacket at the time of the issue of this citation?” She continued.
“No your honor, however, I was fully engulfed in and surrounded by the device that you see me in here. And in my estimation, though this was not a state licensed floatation device, you can clearly see that a man of my build was in no way more of a risk of drowning than anyone who happened to have a jacket lazily draped around their necks.”
The judge then looked up at me. She noticed my nonverbal communication of the absurdity of this situation, and for me, in this odd sense, that was enough. Whatever the outcome. I had made my point. I swear she cracked an infinitesimal smile at my charade, though only noticeable under a high-powered microscope.
“Okay. Here’s what’s going to happen. A not guilty plea means you have to come back. A no contest means that you can continue the trial by affidavit. Do you really want to get representation and come back here and do this again?
In spite of my altered state, that didn’t seem pleasant at all. That was an insurmountable option.
“No.” I sighed.
“Okay, then no contest?”
“Yes. No contest.” I concluded.
“Very well. You’re dismissed.”
With my head held high, quite high actually, I walked out of the courtroom knowing that if I wasn’t going to win, I was at least going to waste several peoples time. I submitted my papers a few weeks later for my trial by affidavit, which, though found guilty, I managed to lower my fine to 200 dollars instead of 300.
A victory? No. A loss? Not entirely. And that might be the most positive possible critique that I can give of the Clackamas County’s aquatic laws, or most laws for that matter.