I grew up believing I was created for something gigantic. “I don’t know what it is yet, but the Lord has a big plan for your life,” my mom would tell me when she prayed for me at night. I don’t think I’ve ever completely come to terms with how that affected me. I’ve always expected a lot from myself and others, maybe too much. I overthink things and I feel strong emotions. I’ve gotten better at controlling it, but I can still fly high and crash hard. Every moment has the potential for an exaggerated sense of importance. One such moment happened in the summer of 1989.
Betsy and I were living in Springfield, a couple of blocks from the campus of what was then Southwest Missouri State University, in a pink, two-bedroom, 1920s bungalow worthy of a John Cougar Mellencamp song. The paint was peeling, the bouncy wood floors made it impossible to dance without skipping the needle on our records, the heating and cooling functions of the vintage turquoise kitchen appliances weren’t always reliable, and our landlords were old, eccentric brothers who sometimes snuck into our house when we were out, but the rent was cheap and we had good neighbors. Betsy was about seven months pregnant. We had finished our first couple of years as teachers. She taught first grade at a Title I school in a struggling neighborhood, and I had just accepted a new position as a high school debate coach, where I was replacing Bob Bilyeu, a retiring legend and national hall-of-famer. Neither of us had begun work on our masters degrees yet, so this summer was an opportunity for us to catch our breath a little and dream about all the good things ahead for our family.
It was a quiet, sunny Saturday afternoon. We had worked around the house that morning. Betsy was decorating the nursery, and I was on the couch reading the paper, when there was a knock at the door. A man in a tan uniform stood on our front porch holding a catch pole looped around the neck of our husky/shepherd mix, Banjo.
He asked me if she was our dog. I said yes. He took off the lead and released her into the house. I thanked him and started to close the door.
“Can I see your license, sir?” asked Officer LeGere from Animal Control. “I need to write you a citation.”
“Why, was my dog speeding?” I asked, always the smartass.
“I was called out to check on a nuisance dog running free around the neighborhood. I need to cite you for a violation of the leash law.”
“Oh, wow, where was she?”
“No, I caught the other dog and wrote its owner a citation, and when I was driving by I saw your dog up here sitting on your porch.”
“I’m confused. You’re citing me for my dog sitting on our porch minding her own business?”
“Under city ordinance you are required to keep your dog behind a fence or on a leash.”
“Seriously? Slow day for you, huh?”
I handed him my license and he triumphantly handed me a ticket in return.
What Officer LeGere didn’t know was he had just gotten adversarial with a debate coach who had some time on his hands and was inclined to see most conflicts as a cosmic battle between good and evil.
I showed up at the municipal court building a few days later, where I could have paid the small fine and been done with it, but I had something else in mind.
“Not guilty,” I answered, when asked how I plead. The judge and prosecutor seemed incredulous.
“It seems pretty straightforward,” the judge replied, with a raised eyebrow. “Your dog was either on a leash or not.”
“Perhaps, Your Honor,” I replied.
Over the next several days, I spent some time at the library (this was a few years before Google and Westlaw) to prepare for my day in court. My strategy was twofold: first, to demonstrate that I had met the literal standard of the law; second, to question a strict application of the law as counterproductive in achieving its aim.
I entered the court, fresh haircut, in my best debate coach suit, carrying a briefcase. It was a heavy docket that day. The courtroom was full of hard-worn defendants and attorneys who didn’t appear to be attending their first rodeo. I don’t know if there was a concerted effort to dispatch with the foolish fancy boy early in the day or not, but my case was up first.
Officer LeGere appeared, pursuant to the subpoena I assume he had been issued. The prosecutor was seated at opposing counsel’s table. She seemed impatient to get this nuisance of a case over with and get on with her day. Years later she became a bestselling novelist, also my friend and neighbor. At least I think it was her, but I’m not sure; my memory is a little hazy about her name, and for some reason I’ve never asked my friend if it was her.
The judge called the case. The prosecutor called the animal control officer to the stand and in almost a perfunctory fashion asked him to recount the events of the day in question. He said he had approached our property, saw our dog loose on the porch, captured the dog, and issued the owner a citation. The officer, the prosecutor, and the judge all wore bored looks of condescension one expects from impatient adults who are required to indulge a child.
“Your witness,” the judge said to me.
I rose and approached the stand, “Officer LeGere, could you describe the ‘capture’ you performed on my dog?”
“Um, I walked up on the porch and dropped a lead around his neck,” he laconically replied.
“So, she didn’t threaten you or anyone else in any way, and you didn’t need to chase her down?”
“Yeah, she’s pretty easygoing and happy to be helpful,” I remarked, getting a bit of a glare from the dogcatcher. “And what was the specific violation you witnessed?”
“As I’ve already said, the dog wasn’t on a leash or in a fenced yard.”
“But that’s not exactly what’s required in the ordinance, is it?” I handed him a sheet of paper. “The law says a dog is considered ‘running at large’ if it’s not on a leash, or…could you read the highlighted portion of Section 18-1 of the Municipal Code?”
He took the paper and read, “…confined by a fence or other boundary so as to prevent its straying from the premises.” (Note: In later years “boundary” was changed to “device,” to account for the proliferation of electronic fencing systems.)
“So, what evidence did you have my dog was not confined by some form of boundary?”
LeGere was getting agitated, and shifted in his seat. “It wasn’t on a leash or in a fenced yard!”
“But that’s not what I asked you, is it, sir?” He grew red-faced and the prosecutor began to scribble furiously on her legal pad. I continued, “Do you have children, Officer LeGere?” At this point there was a swell of sound from the back of the room as the courtroom veterans began to murmur in support of the fancypants sticking it to the man.
“Would you say they have boundaries?”
“Yes, I guess—”
“I mean, there are places they don’t go, things they don’t do or say, right? If your child is confined to his or her bedroom, you don’t put a padlock on the door, right? They could leave if they wanted, but they won’t because you’ve taught them…boundaries?” A few actual giggles emerged from the gallery, provoking a stern look from the judge.
“If I told you that my wife and I despise it when pet owners don’t control their animals, and because of that we put extraordinary effort into teaching our dog not to bark and to stay in her yard, and that you could have walked up on the sidewalk with a pork chop in your hand and you couldn’t have lured her off her property, would you say we had effectively created a ‘boundary’ for our dog?”
“Um, I’m not sure.”
“One last question, sir. Was my dog ‘running at large’ or ‘straying from the premises’ when you captured her?”
“So, you had no evidence that our dog had created any harm to the community and no real evidence she was not confined by a boundary then, did you?” He stared at the floor. “Thank you. I have nothing further.”
The prosecutor moved to redirect. “Officer LeGere, how is this ordinance commonly understood and enforced?” He straightened in his chair, with a fresh determination.
“It’s understood to mean they gotta be on a leash or behind a fence,” he declared, with a fragile smile. The prosecutor sat.
I rose to offer the second prong of my case. “Your Honor, I’d like to make a statement, if I could.”
My specific memory of the speech I gave next is hard to reconstruct, but it was a hobbled mess of self-important speculation on legal history and precedent, and a soaring oration on the transcendent objectives in the social contract. I spoke on how modern legal understandings of property were derived from British common law, where “boundaries” were often established by landmarks or low stone walls, which wouldn’t actually contain livestock. And I invoked the likes of Shakespeare, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and the Bible in arguing the superiority of the spirit of the law over the letter of the law in moral relevance.
I ended with some sort of proclamation like, “In this case, the court can rest easy. We have done both. We have fulfilled both the letter and spirit of the law by responsibly establishing boundaries, and by assuring that the objective of the law was achieved. Our dog was, is not, and never will be a threat or a nuisance to our neighbors. Penalizing us for violating a limited understanding of this ordinance is to expect far too little of us as citizens. I hope you will expect more from us, Your Honor.”
By this point, the judge is covering his mouth with his hand, and there are outright cheers coming from the peanut gallery. I take my seat, certain I had struck a blow for truth and justice.
The judge began his decision by correcting my understanding of legal history and precedent. I don’t remember what point of law I had mangled, but I clearly was not an attorney.
“However,” he continued, “I agree that we should ask more of the public than simple obedience to the written law. If everyone would take their responsibilities as seriously as you and your family have, we would all be better off.” I sat straighter in my chair. “So, I find you guilty…” I slumped, “…with no conviction. See the clerk down the hall.”
I was very confused when I made it through the line to the clerk. She looked at my paperwork and laughed. “Do you know what this means?”
“No, please tell me.”
“This means the judge wants to return a guilty verdict, so the city sees he enforced their ordinance, but you pay no fine and there is no penalty.”
I’d like to say I folded that experience into some kind of volunteer work, or pet owner education effort, or a campaign toward reforming animal control. Nope. It was about the fight. And winning. Even though the case had no real impact on anything and didn’t matter to anyone other than me, it was the need I had to see myself as a righteous warrior…a need I have been trying to shed for years.