Judgment Day for Evading an Officer in a Stingray

       The next morning after my arrest for trying to out-run the Highway Patrol I contacted the base administration office asking if they knew any lawyers for an officer with a legal problem. They recommended Tom Barton and I made an appointment with him at the Sanford Naval Base. He arrived sharply dressed in a three-piece, pin--striped suit, white shirt, and tie with dazzling flamingos, palm trees, and colorful hibiscus. His slick dark hair was sprinkled with grey. Henry Fonda flashed in my mind. Embarrassed revealing my recent behavior, I detailed my feral recklessness. “Your awareness of the gravity of speeding and evading charges and recall of events show your strength as a witness. You’re lucky they didn’t charge drunken driving.” My description caused me sobering sorrow and fear of the consequences. “What do you need for representing me?” “I don’t charge naval officers for services. It’s my privilege to serve your legal needs.” His response floored me. How could he, with a coveted license to practice law, handle a serious traffic violation free? Navigating a Navy jet did not entitle me to a free ride. The next day we appeared in the Sanford Municipal Court for the arraignment and entered a not guilty plea setting the matter for an afternoon appearance in a month. Before the final court date we met at his office. “You must impress the judge this incident doesn’t reflect your true character, you have a perfect driving record, and of your desire to pursue a naval career. Tell him you respect the law, will never do anything so foolish again, apologize, and convince the judge of your sincerity.” He paused and spoke slowly, with conviction. “He could throw the book at you. Give no excuses. Convince the judge that you aren’t like repeat offenders. I’ll tell him of your background. Don’t give him a reason to question anything about the plane, the program, or your lack of enthusiasm for it.” His sound advice made me respect his profession and think someday I would love to act as an attorney. To have learned the law and experience problem solving that goes along with legal expertise seemed well worth the years of study. To advise a floundering defendant lacking knowledge how the judicial system works impressed me with its awesome responsibility but doubted I could qualify for law school, graduate, pass the bar, and become an attorney. I would have to learn how to communicate confidently as my lawyer did before highly skilled advocates and a demanding judge—that was a pipe dream. My court appearance came. I entered the courtroom in my white dress uniform, pressed trousers, white shoes, and socks. The gold solid ensign stripe on my black shoulder flaps, my gold buttons, and gold anchor on my white cap, contrasted with the other defendants awaiting their turn. My future rested in the hands of a stern white-haired judge. More than a hundred strangers, lawyers, a bailiff, and a few clerks mulled about. In black robes the judge looked down from his high perch in the courtroom and studied me. As coached, I looked him in the eyes standing at attention with a serious expression. “What have you to say about this defendant’s charges of reckless driving, speeding, and evading a patrol car in our quiet town?” he said, shifting his gaze to my attorney. My lawyer stood tall, took a deep breath, and looked confidently at the judge. “Your honor, my client, Ensign Daniel C. Lavery, graduated from the United States Naval Academy, qualified as a naval aviator at the Sanford Naval Air Base and flies in the Vigilante, a Mach 2 reconnaissance carrier based jet aircraft. He trains daily for an assignment to the fleet protecting our nation from our enemies and comes from a long line of dedicated servants to our country. His father graduated from the Academy in the class of 1932, served in World War II and Korea, and commands naval ships all over the world from his desk in Washington D.C. Dan’s brother graduated from the Academy in 1960 and serves as a weapons officer on a nuclear sub. My client has a perfect driving record except for this one event, completely out of character for his twenty-five years on this planet. A dedicated patriotic citizen, he follows in the footsteps of an impressive family of naval officers who every day give their best to our country. Ensign Lavery has a few words to say your honor regarding this aberrant conduct that brings us together, so different from the rest of his impressive life. I ask you to consider the young man’s words when you decide what sentence to impose.” “What do you have to say, sir, about the charges against you and your conduct?” the judge said looking at me from his elevated position on the bench. “Your honor, I’m extremely sorry for the way I behaved that night,”I said shaking, nervous, and afraid, as my eyes met his, “and apologize for the danger I could have caused to anyone on the highway that night and the officers who pursued and arrested me. They may have saved my life. I’ve embarrassed myself, my family, and my fellow officers by acting out of character. With no excuses, I assure you I’ve learned my lesson from this experience and will act responsibly behind the wheel for the rest of my life.” “Your conduct fell far below what we expect of you,” he said sternly with glaring eyes that were intimidating. “You acted irresponsibly. The Court expects you to pay for your conduct to ensure you uphold your promises.” His eyes fixed on mine and with wrinkled brow, and pursed lips, his expression said he expected far more from a naval officer. “I accept your plea of guilty, fine you $75.00 payable in thirty days, and place you on summary probation for one year. Drive safely and obey the laws. Don’t ever let me see you here again. Do you understand?” “Yes, your Honor. I assure you I’ll never appear before you again.” I really wanted to yell, “Hooray, hallelujah, thank you,” but sat down and shut up. We walked out of the courtroom past many people waiting their turn into the hall, and then into the Florida sun and breeze. My lawyer had lifted a heavy burden from my shoulders and I could relax and breathe easy again. I thanked him profusely for his skill and generosity having dodged a bullet aimed at me, my career, and future.

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About Daniel C. Lavery

Dan’s writing shows his transformation from a child to an athlete and a Duke pre-ministerial student where he began to question ancient and arbitrary dogma. He graduated from Annapolis, navigated a Navy jet, and a ship to Vietnam, fell in love, turned peace activist and a civil rights lawyer for Cesar Chavez's UFW. His memoir, "All the Difference," describes the experiences, some humorous and others deadly, that changed his consciousness from a pawn to an advocate crusading for justice against some of the most powerful forces in America.

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