Witherspoon’s fine another case of Atlanta’s celeb justice

By Tom Baxter

Don’t get me wrong: I like Reese Witherspoon. A few years ago I was asked to suggest names for a list of outstanding young Southerners, and I included the Nashville native, as much for her business smarts  as a movie producer as for her acting ability.

But allow me to vent. After all, I’m a citizen of the City of Atlanta.

As practically everyone must know by now, Witherspoon was a passenger in a car driven by her husband, Jim Toth, when they were pulled over last April 19 by one a state trooper from the special Night Hawk division, patrolling Peachtree Street for drunk drivers. As she has since acknowledged, the couple had consumed “one too many glasses of wine” at an Atlanta restaurant.

The officer was in the process of arresting Toth after the breathalyzer and coordination-test routine when Witherspoon hung her head out the window of the car and told him she didn’t believe he was a real police officer. When he told her to “sit on her butt and be quiet,”  Witherspoon got out of the car and proceeded to get into it with the officer, who then cuffed her and took the couple off to jail. The dashcam videos of the dust-up became instant classics.

To her credit, Witherspoon was contrite after the incident, and with what was no doubt very competent legal representation, she and her husband got off relatively easy last week. He was put on  a year’s probation, ordered to perform 40 hours of community service and fined $600. All but one of the DUI-related charges against him were dropped. She was fined $100, which with court costs came to $313.

That outcome would be perfectly okay with me, except for this.

A few months ago, I made a stutter-stop at a stop sign down the street from my house.

Immediately, I saw the blue light of a police car which had being laying in wait for the unwary on the adjoining street. I pulled over right away, and when the cop wrote me a ticket, I didn’t give him any trouble. He told me I could contest the charge in municipal court, but I just asked him to show me where to find the phone number on the ticket so I could call to pay the fine with a credit card.

Later in the day, I watched with some chagrin at busier intersections than the one where I was stopped, as not one but two cars pulled out around me when I slowed for yellow lights and ran through the lights after they’d turned red. But as Toth rightly said to his wife after her run-in with the cop, the ticket was my bad. I don’t think I was reckless, but I hadn’t come to a complete stop. And I got it, that the stop sign trap was as much about bringing in much-needed revenue as it was about keeping the streets safe. The policeman was just doing his job.

A couple of days passed, and I called the automated number to pay the fine, but my ticket number wasn’t on file yet, and to my regret I forgot about it after that. A few weeks later I got a registered letter informing me that my license was being suspended for failure to appear in court.

Miffed that I’d let the matter slide, I set right out the next day to put the matter to rest. But because the letter had come from the state Department of Driver Services, I made the mistake of going first to their “customer service center” down on Capitol Avenue. I waited in line for nearly an hour, only to learn that I had to go to the municipal court building on Garnett Street and clear my fine before I could get in the queue to get my license restored. There, I learned that an additional $100 for missing the court date had been tacked on to the fine, bringing it to a total of $294.40. Then I went back to the DDS office, stood in line again to be assigned a number, and waited the rest of the afternoon for my number to be called.  A few minutes before 5 p.m., my number came up on the board at last, and I was given a piece of paper that said my license was clear.

I figure that the time I took trying to pay my fine was roughly equal to the time Toth and Witherspoon spent in jail. Her base fine for obstructing an arrest was about half my fine for not coming to a complete stop at a stop sign on a quiet street. If you throw in her court costs and my penalty for missing court, she paid the city $18.60 more than I did.

That, in my opinion, is a pretty good bargain for sassing a cop. And while I don’t argue with my fine, I think that if the city is going to soak its residents, it could get a lot more aggressive about soaking celebrities from out of town. Another grand, say, would have been no big deal to her, and our town needs the money.

This case is not the first in which the Atlanta police have been made to look heavy-handed in the national media, while the courts play nice-nice and avoid any negative publicity. In 2007, when the noted historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto was arrested for being unruly after a jaywalking violation, he waxed Dickensian in his denunciation of the police who arrested him and the city in general, which he described as “hideous – inoffensive to the eye only when shrouded by the often-prevailing fog.” But for the judge who let him off, he had nothing but kind words:

“It only took him a few minutes to realise that I was the victim, not the culprit,” he wrote. “The prosecutors withdrew the charges. The judge then proclaimed my freedom with kindly enthusiasm and detained me for nothing more grievous than a few minutes’ chat about his reminiscences of the Old Bailey.”

Cheerio. Wonder how many everyday Atlantans, hauled up before the court, ever came away with such a warm impression?

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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