September 2013

Earlier this week, I had a court appearance in Camden County, Georgia. Camden County is as far South as you can go on I-95 in Georgia without being in the Jacksonville, Florida, area. We have family close to there. So, I took my four-year-old son with me for a little time with his grandparents while I was out and about seeing my client and his family and taking care or business in court.

On our way home, we stopped in at a restaurant off of I-16 for a quick dinner. My son had been napping and was a little groggy and carsick when we came in. I was a bit tired myself. He told me he was feeling sick, which resulted in two trips to the restroom. Plus, he was whiney and not really in the mood to eat. Fearing that he might be sick there in the restaurant, I finished my food quickly to head out on the road.

When we were at the car (Acura MDX – hardly a kidnapper-mobile), I was accosted by the manager who told me he had been called there by some other customers because I had been “acting suspicious.” He demanded proof that my son was my son. Out the corner of my eye, I saw the patrons who had complained — two elderly white-haired folks. He told me that my license plate was photographed and that the police were on the way.

The encounter ended when I asked the owner if he was detaining me. It’s a question he couldn’t answer well. If he said yes, I told him I’d likely sue. If he said no, then there was essentially nothing for him to do. There’s also a chance that he just didn’t know the meaning of the word. I showed him my driver’s license and bar card and was on my way. All the way up I-16, I kept waiting to be stopped by a SWAT team or for an amber alert sound on my phone of which I would be the subject.

I am active in youth programs at my church, regularly attend my children’s functions, and have taught college undergrads and law students. I have been in and out of prisons, including juvenile facilities, throughout my whole career. If I put out a “creeper vibe,” it’s news to me.

I’m trying to think what I did to raise suspicion. Maybe lone men don’t come to restaurants with 4-year-olds in this part of South Georgia. Perhaps it was the whining, the trips to the restroom, and my desire to exit quickly. All of those things could be misread, I suppose. Yet, I also paid with my debit card and chose to go into a restaurant with my child. That behavior seems quintessentially non-suspicious. And, all things considered, the behavior was relatively subdued compared with children I’ve sat near on airplanes. Why are lone dads on airplanes with more upset children not viewed with even more suspicion.

I’ve thought back and wondered if I could have handled things differently. The detention question was, I think a good move. As was the decision to produce identification. There was no reason to do that. He wasn’t a police officer, and I’d done nothing wrong. If I hadn’t produced ID, I’d have almost certainly been stopped though.

I can also imagine ways that this could have gone much worse. I was offended, defensive, and humiliated. Those aren’t the best emotions for thinking critically. I can also imagine that much could have changed based on the dynamics of the people involved. If I had been questioned by the police, I’m assuming that the patrons/owner would have gotten the benefit of the doubt while I, the out of town white male with 4-year-old son in tow, would have been at a disadvantage. Also, I could have spoken out of anger and drawn some sort of disorderly conduct charge.

It was a bizarre scenario. It reminded me of how cases start where folks with active imaginations and misguided good intentions make bad choices on the basis of a rush to judgment (why not call the police themselves? Why did they call the owner to come to deal with me?). It also gave me sense of what it is like to be accused of doing something you haven’t done or to be viewed suspiciously. I’m not sure how younger men, angrier men, or men without legal training might have acted differently. But this could have ended much worse than it did had it been someone else or had it been me on a different day.

I also think I’ll be flying into Jacksonville on my next trip to Camden Superior Court.