In the late 1980s and 1990s, one of Howell Associates’ most important clients was a large, faith-based, seniors housing company based in Evanston IL. On one trip up there in 1990 a young associate and I were headed back to O’Hare in a rental car to catch the 7:30 PM flight back to Washington and were patiently waiting for a red light to change. I was driving when we were passing through Niles, a white, working class community adjacent to the more affluent Evanston. It was in the winter on a Friday evening, a little after five, and the sun was close to setting.
A car rammed into the rear end of our car throwing me into the steering wheel and my associate into the dashboard. Fortunately, we both had on seat belts, or we could have been injured. We were dazed and shaken, and it took several minutes to regain our bearings. Stunned, I did not try to restart the car or know what to do next. Our car and the one behind us, which had plowed into us probably going 10 miles an hour, were blocking the intersection. Horns from the cars behind us were blasting, and soon we heard a police siren. The cop who arrived, a thin guy, in his 30s and balding, ordered us to move both cars to the shoulder, which relieved my concern that our car might not start. He came to my window, ordered me to stay put, and then ordered the driver of the other car to get out and follow him to his police car. I could see from my rear-view mirror that the car was packed with a lady in the front seat and several children in the back seat. The driver who emerged from the car wore a large brim, black hat, had on a long black coat and had a full, reddish-brown beard and pigtails on both sides of his head reaching down almost to his shoulders.
I commented to my associate, “Well, this guy is in deep trouble. He is obviously a Hassidic Jew tying to beat the sunset on a Friday evening, which starts the Sabbath, plus he is surely guilty of reckless driving. The cop is probably going to really let him have it.”
In less than five minutes, the driver emerged from the police car running, jumped into his car and roared off. I noticed that the front of his car was smashed and was surprised that the motor even started.
“Well, that was interesting,” I commented.
I was next. The cop rolled down his window and motioned for me to come to his car. As I left the car I glanced at the rear end. It was mangled so badly I figured the trunk would not open. Fortunately, we had thrown our bags into the back seat.
The cop scowled at me and in an annoyed tone, asked for my driver’s license and proof of car insurance. I handed him my license but told him I did not have my proof of insurance on me.
“What? No proof of car insurance?”
“No one has ever asked me about that before.”
“Well, buddy boy, you are not in DC, you are in Illinois where everyone is required to have proof of car insurance on their person. Everyone. No exceptions. Not to have it is a felony.”
“So what should I do?”
“It is the slammer for you, kiddo. I am going to take you to the Cook County Jail where you will stay until you produce the insurance information!”
I was speechless. Then, I burst out, “Look I was stopped at a red light, minding my own business, and obeying the law, and some guy plows into me. We could have been injured. And you let him go in five minutes and you are threating to put me in the Cook County Jail? Why did you let him off? I can’t believe this. This is outrageous!”
“Letting him off is my business, not yours, and I’m not threatening to throw you in jail. I’m doing it! Watch me.”
He then paused for a minute and looked me in the eye. “Do you have anything else to say to me?”
“Well, I want to call my lawyer.”
Another pause and then he shook his head.
“Well, your lawyer better have a license to practice in Illinois or he is worthless. I will give you 10 minutes to make the call. You can go back to your car, and when you return, you better have a plan for providing proof of your car insurance. Tell someone to Xerox it and then fax it to police headquarters.” He then scribbled down a phone number and handed it to me.
Of course, I did not have a lawyer and certainly not one licensed to practice in Illinois.
I raced back to the car, explained to my associate that we had a problem, which I would describe to him later, and frantically called Embry on my cell phone. No answer. She was probably on her way home from work. I then fumbled through my address book, hands shaking, found my insurance agent’s contact information and called him. No answer. I realized that it was an hour later on the East Coast, and on a Friday no one would be working at 6:30. I noted that the sun had just set. I wondered if the guy who plowed into us made it home before sunset. I then made a desperation call to my client in Evanston and got him just as he was leaving work. He said he would look into getting a criminal lawyer for me, but it might be Monday before he would have one. He volunteered that he was unaware that not having proof of car insurance on your person was a felony and confessed that his proof of insurance was in a drawer at his home. But that was little consolation. I was about to be taken to the Cook County Jail.
I felt my stomach churning. The Cook County Jail! I would be toast for my fellow inmates whom I imagined to be murderers, rapists, armed robbers, violent gang leaders, drug addicts and spouse abusers. I considered bolting, turned to my young associate, and told him that he would have to drive the car back to the airport if I did not return in a few minutes or if the police car drove off with me in it. He looked at me in disbelief. I stumbled back to the police car with one minute to spare, got into the front seat on the passenger’s side and sadly reported that I had been unsuccessful in getting someone to fax the policy, explaining that my insurance agent had left the office. I would not have a lawyer until Monday. I gritted my teeth, preparing for the worst.
The cop looked at me and paused, showing a faint touch of sympathy. “Okay,” he said, “I will give you another 20 minutes, but if by six o’clock if the folks at headquarters haven’t gotten the fax, I am taking you to the jail and that is a promise, and that is where you will stay until the proof of insurance is received. One second late and to the slammer you will go. Do you understand? No exceptions. Zero. None!”
As I was getting out of the car, he pulled on my coat. “You are not going back to your car. You are an escape risk. Make your calls here.”
By this time I had only 18 minutes and no one to call other than Embry. I was pretty sure I knew where the proof of insurance was—in the glove compartment of our car. But what if she was still en route home? On the third or fourth feverish attempt to reach her, miraculously she answered the phone. She had just walked in the door. I explained that I was sitting next to a cop who in eight minutes and 11 seconds was going to take me to the Cook County Jail where I would be locked up indefinitely, told her where she could find the insurance certificate, and that she should copy it on our home copying machine and then fax it to the number I gave her. I held my breath. She had less than eight minutes to get all this done.
The cop then commented, “I don’t know what your wife will be able to do, but frankly, I do not give a damn. The only thing that counts in my book is a call from headquarters saying they have received the fax. Otherwise, it is the slammer.”
He concluded his comments with a smirk, “Good luck, buddy boy.”
He then looked at his watch and commented, “Seven minutes and counting.”
If you are wondering how the conversation went with Embry, here is my recollection. Note that the cop heard only what is noted in black:
Me: Hey, Embry, great to reach you! I am in a bit of a pickle.
Her: What’s happening and where are you?
Me: Well, I am sitting in a police car in Niles, Illinois, besides a policeman, who will have to put me in jail if you can’t come up with a fax of our car insurance certificate. You have about six minutes to fax a copy of it to the police headquarters in Niles.
Her: Are you ok? What is going on?
Me: I am fine except I need you to fax the car insurance right now to police headquarters in Niles. Right now!
Her: What have you done? Are you sure you are ok?
Me: Well, not exactly, but I will fill you in later. I am sure the police officer wants to do the right thing. Some guy rammed into our car, but because I do not have proof of insurance, he has to put me in the Cook County Jail where I will remain until the Niles police receive proof of my car insurance.
Her: Are you serious? Are you sure you are ok? What is going on? You are going to jail? This makes no sense.
Me: I am sitting next to him as we speak and do not have time to go into detail…. You have to go now, NOW, we only have five minutes. Get the policy out of the glove compartment of our car, copy it, and fax the copy to….
Her: Oh, good heavens!
The phone went dead. I looked at the cop and tried to manage a confident smile. He had a smirk on his face and was looking at his watch. “It will never happen. Impossible. You have only four minutes…”
The next four minutes were like a countdown for a blastoff at the Kennedy Space Center. I was petrified. At every minute, the cop’s grin grew wider and with 30 seconds to go, he announced. “Your goose is cooked. It’s over.” He started up his engine.
With 15 seconds to go his cell phone rang. The call was from headquarters. They received the fax!
The cop looked at me and frowned. He snarled, “Well, this time you got off, you lucky bastard.”
Post Script: I learned from the criminal lawyer who called me on the following Monday that not having proof of car insurance in Illinois only applied to Illinois residents and that it was not a felony. We managed to get to the airport with a few minutes to spare and turning the car into Avis with its mangled rear end did not raise any eyebrows. “Hey, “ the agent said, “we lease more cars at O’Hare than anywhere in the world. We get wrecks like this all the time. No problem.”
Several months later I was telling this story to a friend who lived in Chicago. His reply was this: “You did not realize what was going on? Everyone in the Chicago metro area knows the Niles Police Force is corrupt. Cops there get paid so little they depend on bribes to put food on the table and pay the rent. Why do you think in only a few minutes he let off the guy who rammed into you? The driver of the other car had to have paid him off , and the cop gave you the opportunity too, but you missed his signals. Being from out of town, you did not understand the way things work in Niles. Good heavens! It probably would not have cost you more than $100 and would have saved you a world of worry.