Stories From My Father: Contempt of Court

Before I tell you this story, I must provide a background item of high importance: My father has an extremely ordinary and very common name. Let’s call him, for the time being, ‘John Doe.’ This became relevant in another story from my father than I may tell at a future time if someone reminds me, but it’s important to know here.

In the heady days when my father attended university, the protest movement was in full swing, and I daresay some students spent more time on the streets than in class. My father was never one to miss a good public event, and he routinely showed up at protests with flags waving to heckle the police and frolic pantsless on green lawns that undoubtedly had never known such a grave insult before in their lives. Not for nothing did my father later acquire the sobriquet ‘The Party Animal,’ shall we say.

At any rate, one fine day when the protest spirit ran high and the university students ran bored, a mass protest of some form or another was organised and students boiled over into the streets of the city. It evidently wasn’t a headbreaking day, or the police were afraid of too many news stories about breaking the heads of college students, so they stood by relatively patiently while the protest went on, until it extended into the late hours and started disrupting the peace of Upstanding Citizens, at which point the police felt obligated to step in and take action.

However, the sheer numbers of protestors presented a significant challenge. Simply rounding up enough paddywagons to arrest them all would take hours, and it was hot, and humid. The police certainly didn’t relish the thought of standing around trying to keep high spirited students corralled while dripping sweat in their woolens, and there may have even been a handful of concerns about heatstroke and that sort of thing. At any rate, the police decided that in the interests of saving time, they would cite all the students and then release them.

Citation notebooks were whipped out left and right and the police started processing the students. They quickly ran into another obstacle: The students, no strangers to protests, had wisely left all of their identification at home. The officers knew that the students were from the university, though, so they had at least one advantage on the students. Presumably the students couldn’t give false addresses and then vanish before they had their day in court. Once this was impressed upon the students, the students agreed, and then, by unspoken consensus, all decided to give the same name to the police.

Now, remember, this is the story that my father told me. If it stretches the boundaries of your belief to think that the police would happily process hundreds of people who all had the same name, well, it stretches mine too, but this is my father’s story, and not mine, and stranger things have happened. Maybe the police were hot and tired and just wanted to get it over with. Maybe they were sympathetic to the students they were citing. Maybe they weren’t. Anyway, the point is, according to my father, every student gave the same name:

John Doe.

My father happened to be working for the maintenance office, which became important in this story because he had an office and a phone. One day he was sorting paperwork and a phone call came in from the mail room. They had, they said, a problem that they needed him to come deal with. My father worked primarily in student housing, so wasn’t sure why they needed him in the mailroom, but he dutifully hung the ‘will return’ sign on the door and traipsed to the mailroom, where he found a sack of mail waiting for him.

It contained hundreds of court summons, all addressed to John Doe at the university. All for the same date, court, and time, as evidently either the police were wise to the student ruse, or thought it best to process the students en masse rather than trying to deal with them individually. The mailroom had no questions about the contents of the sack, and mainly just wanted my father to take it away so that it would stop taking up space in the mailroom, which he did.

My father thought long and hard about how to approach the problem. He considered handing out court summons to every student he saw. He thought about not going at all. And, eventually, he decided that he should respond to the summons, because otherwise he might jeopardise his financial aid. As the only John Doe at the university, any failure to comply would fall on him, and the university, while tolerant of protest activity, did have limits.

So my father borrowed a suit from a guy down the hall and showed up in court on the appointed day, where he found a bemused judge and court clerk, and a few milling individuals. He brought the entire mail sack with him, with the goal of demonstrating that every protestor had given his name, perhaps planning to point out that it would be difficult to prove that he was at the protest under those circumstances.

When he arrived, he fished a summons out of the bag and handed it to the clerk, who reviewed it, and looked at my father, and said:

‘What’s your name?’

‘John Doe,’ my father said.

‘Are you kidding me?’

‘No,’ my father said, ‘it’s my name.’

At this point, the judge became involved, leaning over from the bench. A bailiff was summoned to rifle through the bags and verify that yes, my father had in fact showed up with a mail sack filled with identical summons in his name. The judge looked at my father askance, surveyed the stacks of summons piling up in every corner of the court, and promptly fined my father for contempt of court and told him to leave before the judge changed his mind and had the bailiff take him into custody.