Taking on the justice system with the "Red 'Ped" | First Person | Indy Week
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Taking on the justice system with the "Red 'Ped" 

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY V.C. ROGERS

My red Daelim-Cordi moped was a sort of concession birthday present from my sympathetic parents when the courts revoked my driver's license the day before I turned 21. Three months earlier, Asheville City Police arrested me for driving while intoxicated; my chemical analysis registered only a .01, but North Carolina is stringent on young people who drive after consumption. For someone who has never even shoplifted, my record is permanently tarnished.

Dazzling, shiny and red though it was, that moped symbolized everything I'd come to despise about the so-called justice system. The night of the arrest was a frigid February night, and while I successfully counted backward by even numbers from 48 and recited my ABCs, when the officer asked me to hold my arms and one foot out, I had trouble keeping my balance on my high-heeled boots because I was shivering from the fierce cold and nervousness. The arrest also yielded a conviction for drug paraphernalia when police found a glass marijuana pipe in my car. Paraphernalia is a harsher charge in this state, where the courts make no distinction between a bong and a heroin syringe. The final blow was a fraudulent cocaine charge, which was thankfully dismissed without leave by the DA, although he still felt it necessary to mention to the judge before the decision was passed on my driving privileges. Whether that accusation was a fluke error or deliberate irresponsibility on the officers' part, it cost me a night in jail, a $2,500 bond, and every iota of respect I ever had for law enforcement.

Suffice to say, I was angrier that day at the system than I was excited to have the moped. I didn't care so much that my parents could afford efficient transportation for me—I wanted my rusty, trusty Mitsubishi Mirage. I had no trust in the moped, whose engine sounded like the low growl of a dangerous wildcat and which would leap forward with the slightest turn of the accelerator. I lost control of it the first time I attempted to turn right and crashed into a wall. The accident left me petrified and sore with a bruise the size of a lily pad on my leg, while the moped was unscathed. After that, I treated it with the same fear Calvin treated his bloodthirsty bicycle in the Calvin and Hobbes comics by avoiding it at all costs.

My male friends coveted the moped, which to them was the next best thing to a motorcycle. They were flabbergasted at my refusal to ride it. I knew that my ability to commute quickly and travel substantial distances was contingent upon my ability to conduct the moped, which made me ashamed, but no less reticent. I spent several weeks of the summer riding on the back of the scooter while my more confident guy friends did the steering (and speeding), constantly assuring me how much fun it was, and how easy, and how could I possibly be scared? Tentatively, I began to toodle around on it during the witching hours, and eventually felt the sweet summer night winds of liberation in my hair. Soon, I was cruising instead of toodling. That brought the same sense of elite accomplishment that came with learning to ride a two-wheel bike in the second grade. I officially dubbed my new friend "the Red 'Ped."

Unfortunately, like the second-grader who finds out the consequences of popping a wheelie to wow the first-graders, I learned the consequences of showing off my newfound coolness for my friends one night and wiped out in a parking lot near my house. The injuries weren't serious, although the scrape on my foot forced me to miss a week of work. It might have even been something to laugh about later, but in the midst of dressing my wounds at 3 a.m., I neglected to lock up my moped. When I hobbled downstairs the next morning at 11 a.m., the Red 'Ped had vanished. Leaving out the more private, melodramatic details, like the fist-shaking tirade I unleashed at God for being such a jerk the past few months, I immediately called the police department. The woman in the detective's office said this was not uncommon. Mopeds are popular in Asheville, as are all kinds of hard drugs, and thieves will dismantle the vehicles to sell different parts for drugs and/or weapons.

I was more fortunate than 99 percent of people in my predicament. My parents, who were tickled pink at the prospect of a cute and fuel-efficient scooter the day the courts revoked my license, offered to purchase a new one right away. It made sense in the long run because they intended to use it once I could legally drive again. With gas prices on the rise, they will pay $5 for a tank when the rest of us have to pay almost $50. Furthermore, while I couldn't shake the sentiment of rich-white-college-kid guilt, it satisfied me to imagine the thieves passing by my house only to behold a brand new Red 'Ped, arisen like Aslan with the same color, make and model, secured to the porch with a thick cable lock.

My friend Max, who lives in a house three blocks from me with several other mutual chums, had a sleek black moped. About a month after mine was snatched, Max woke up one morning to go to class and discovered his scooter was gone, too. There are at least three other moped owners in our sphere of friends, and Max was lucky enough that one of the guys wanted to sell his old moped for a reasonable price. Despite the sheer coincidence involved in the crimes—nature, proximity and time frame—and the fact that Max and I both filed police reports, the investigations delivered no results. How difficult would it be for police to set up a sting, particularly when such incidents are so frequent? As far as anyone knows, the culprits are still at large.

Reflecting on the crimes that now grace my permanent record, and the crime of which I was a victim, prompted me to pull up some numbers. According to U.S. statistics, a child goes missing every 40 seconds. Someone is sexually assaulted every two and a half minutes. And every year, roughly 750,000 Americans are arrested for so-called crimes related to marijuana. Since 1997, FBI crime reports show that marijuana arrests outweigh arrests for violent crimes by 100,000 or more. It's impossible to know how many real threats to society slip away for every 30 seconds an officer spends patting down a pothead for his or her stash (or for that matter, how many truly drunk drivers weave away while officers handcuff 20 3/4-year-old underage drinkers).

To emphasize that point, three students at UNC-Asheville died in the past year from opiate abuse. Whether the school kept the details mum to respect the deceased families' wishes or to protect its own reputation or both, administrators responded by launching a crackdown on substance abuse in the dormitories. They successfully busted and evicted many residents in the midst of reefer madness or a round of PBR. The heroin and pills slipped through the cracks in the meantime.

On Nov. 8, after squandering an entire day to get the 'ped's battery replaced, I learned the appeal for my driving privileges was denied due to the spurious drug charges involved. As the city bundles up in apprehension of a tough winter, I will leave Asheville and the Red 'Ped in February for a semester abroad in Australia, in a coastal city where it is summertime and I will not have to cut through freezing temperatures at 45 mph. Until then, my love-hate relationship with the Red 'Ped vacillates hour to hour. I navigate and squint through whatever debris flies in my face or whenever rain falls, and I must dodge reckless speed demons who still possess their licenses. I love it whenever I refill the tank for $1.50 a gallon and for all the parking availability it allows. Nevertheless, I still can't help but see it as a symbol of a system with skewed priorities. It is my punishment for victimless crimes and a reminder of how I've been subsequently victimized. But instead of playing that role, I've cultivated an angry sense of purpose that blazes through the editorials I write and recently prompted me to join the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). Whether one is a scapegoat or a bystander, certain laws make it easier for criminals to flourish and others to suffer in their wake. With that always in mind, the constant conviction to speak out against—and with effort, change—these failures in the justice system ride with me on the Red 'Ped.

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