You’re driving your car at night, going a cool 35mph in a 25mph zone on a residential street. The streetlights are sparse. The roads are cracked and uneven. You yawn and look down to change the music to something that doesn’t sound plucked from the playlist of your dentist’s waiting room. Then you — dog. There’s a dog in the road in front of you. You swerve. And hit a fire hydrant. A small dent disfigures your bumper.

When you take your blemished vehicle in for repair, you tense your jaw waiting for a diagnosis from the mechanic. He tut-tuts as he cranes his neck around your automotive injury. Then his eyes drift to the rest of your car. He mutters about coolant flushes, airflow sensors and your engine light. His pen scribbles an alarming amount of numerals on a grease-stained pad of paper.

Reginal Johnson is in court today for his preliminary hearing facing the charge of vehicular vandalism. He squirms in his chair, his fluff of grey hair bobbing with his head to a silent beat while the attorneys address themselves to Judge Teresa Sullivan.

Johnson is a homeless man, known to amble and ramble on the campus of The University of Southern California. Students are familiar with the mischievous magpie, known for his classic shtick. “Hey you dropped twenty dollars!” When one inevitably looks back, he smiles with a glint in his eye. “Gottcha!”

But according to a student-housing manager, on the night of September 24 at 11pm Johnson “snapped.” He allegedly ran into the middle of the street in a frenzy of rage, throwing traffic cones, upending metal barriers and kicking road signs. Traffic screeched and swerved to avoid his erratic movements until Johnson made it across the street to the Felix Chevrolet. In the shadow of the car dealership’s colossal cartoon cat, Johnson jumped on top of a Chevy Impala. He stood on his tip-toes and pulled down an American flag strung up alongside a sign that screamed “LOWEST POSSIBLE PRICES.” Johnson flung the star spangled banner around his neck like a cape and leaped onto the roof of a Chevy Malibu, then leaped once more to a Chevy Cruze, before bounding down to the pavement and sprinting up the street where officers intercepted him.

Originally, a deputy public defender argued that Johnson was mentally unstable, but at a mental competency hearing a judge found Johnson capable of standing trial. Now, at the preliminary hearing, Johnson’s state of mind is sidelined for a much more fiscal issue: the estimated auto damages for the three used cars.

Chevy Impala: $6,809.66

Chevy Malibu: $2,115.86

Chevy Cruze: $4,623.50

That’s a total of $13,549.02 in damages.

Deputy Public Defender Dana Branen reads over the repair estimate from Gold Star Auto Body, which itemizes the required services. Her thick, blond bob jostles as she shakes her head.

“What does airbag replacement have to do with the roof of a car? Or new right and left license lamps or hazardous waste disposal?”

The list of seemingly non sequitur repairs goes on: replaced front bumper covers and rear bumper covers, rear combination lamps and front combination lamps, back panels, side panels, and side-view mirrors. Every single one of these repairs and their corresponding cost matters because the higher the damages, the less likely it is that Johnson’s charges will be reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor.

In California, vandalism resulting in over $400 in damages is a wobbler, meaning that it can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony. In this case, the prosecutor has charged Johnson with a felony but Branen will make a 17B motion to petition the court to reduce the charges to a misdemeanor. Misdemeanor vandalism can result in a sentence of up to one year in county jail and a fine of up to $1,000. Felony vandalism can result in a sentence of 1 to 3 years in jail and a fine of up to $50,000.

In other words, those replaced airbags could cost Johnson thousands of dollars and years in jail.

If you Google “car roof dent repair cost” you will find message boards flooded with answers ranging from $300  – “Can be fixed with proper suction” – to $10,000- “Bro, you might as well get a new Mazda.” As far as the Internet goes, roof dents might as well be the tea leaves of the automotive world. You can stare at them all you want with your untrained eye but only a mechanic can really see them. And God help you when they discern the meaning.

I don’t know if the auto body technicians that assessed the vehicular damages for Johnson’s case were accurate in their estimations. I don’t know if they were aware that their computations would be used in a court case – that any inflated estimates could result in a man spending more time in jail. But I do know that, whether crooked or stalwart, most autoshop workers are driven by their own economic interests, just as all businesses are driven within the context of a capitalist system. But the judicial system is different. It is not supposed to be driven by money, but by justice. That’s why it feels strange when the cost of the repairs is considered more than Johnson’s own mental state. Even if the court found him capable of standing trial, it’s clear that Johnson has some psychological impairments, a factor that ought to be a mitigating force in the determination of whether his crime is judged as a felony or a misdemeanor. The court aspires to ascend beyond self-interest in service of the truth, which is a moral victory, not monetary. When fiscal grime seeps into the court, the gears grind. There’s a problem with the alignment of values.

Judge Teresa Sullivan squints and frowns at the repair estimates for the three cars. She futzes with her red barrette and sighs as she looks at the defendant. Sullivan is skeptical about the estimates, especially because the technicians didn’t come to court to testify. As the deputy DA reiterates the damages Sullivan snaps at him “What evidence do you have about the three vehicles and this individual? That’s why we’re here!” There is evidence: eyewitness testimony, officers on the scene, and partial surveillance footage. It seems that the estimates are the primary source of her indignation. Sullivan breaks for lunch and tells the attorneys that she will review the transcripts of the hearing before making her ruling.

When we return from the hour-and-a-half break Sullivan’s consternation hasn’t subsided. She shakes her head but she upholds the felony charge. 

Reginald Johnson stops bobbing his head to the invisible beat. His hands tighten their grip behind his back. When the bailiff ushers Johnson back to the holding area he doesn’t walk, he does a slow shuffle.

The mechanic hands over the estimate for your repairs. You have a clogged radiator and coolant loss. Your mass airflow sensor needs to be replaced. And then there’s the dent from the fire hydrant, the one you came for in the first place. It turns out you need a whole new bumper.

The total estimate is scrawled at the bottom of the list.

But those aren’t numbers. It’s a word.


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