7/23/2010

How to Go to Court in Taiwan

The distance from the curb, where the taxi dropped me off, to my front door in Monga (艋舺), Taiwan


It started a few months ago. I was coming home from a kiddie birthday party in Hongshulin (紅樹林) with my daughter. I got out of the cab at 11:00 p.m. and realized my wallet was still inside the car. So I did jumping jacks behind to get the driver to stop; alas, he drove on and away into the night. I immediately scurried up to my apartment and called the cab company. In Taiwan, you can phone for a cab instead of hailing one on the street. People prefer this for several reasons. First, it ensures safety. There's a record. If something happens, the taxi company and driver will be known, and held accountable. Cab companies advertise, stressing this point, constantly: "Just give us a call!" they claim. Strangely, the cab company I was involved with did not have the driver's cell number on hand: "We'll call you back in a few minutes," their operator promised. At 11:20, the cab company got back to me with a number.

When I called the driver, he sounded vexed: "I don't have your wallet. And your daughter left a candy wrapper on the floor. Shame on you!"

"Alright, sorry about that. I had my hands full," I explained. "Just bring my wallet back." It hadn't registered with me what was going on. "Start up your meter and then bring it back to me. I don't mind paying. It's only fair," I explained. I could hear the sound of traffic on the other end of the line; I concluded he was driving around now and was naturally worried he'd pick up another passenger while my wallet was still on the back seat or floor of his cab.

"I don't have your wallet!"

"Please have another look," I insisted. "I had it in your cab. I took it out to pay for the ride." It had been an NT$600 ride. I figured the taxi driver would have appreciated that.

"There's no wallet. And by the way, you're drunk." True. I had had some drinks at the party and was definitely over the legal limit. That's why I called for a cab - to avoid a long and tedious ride on the MRT. But I didn't figure I was drunk drunk. I was just tired. And, oh yeah, if I were truly drunk, I would not have been able to take care of this, in Chinese, which isn't my mother tongue. Or how would I have done what I did next, which was to go to the police station and spend three hours filing a report?

The police station was an experience. It didn't actually take them three hours to do the paper work. For the first hour, I sat in their lounge watching baseball, waiting my turn. Taiwan's Kuo was on the mound for the Los Angeles Dodgers, so I discussed his merits with the policemen that were watching, carefully laying out why he with his 96 mph fastball, and not Wang, was the best Taiwanese pitcher in the majors. Finally, I was called to a computer and asked to take a seat. The officer was humorous and thorough. "Kuo's my favorite player," he said. "He's great!" The officer started to take down relevant information. He photocopied my ID and patiently walked me through Taiwan's law, stopping to explain every question I'd ever had about it, stuff I've been curious about for ages. Then, wrapping it up at around 3:30-ish, he warned: "Taiwan's police are not like America's police. We don't have any power," he said, dangling his pinkie to represent their lack of power and respect they often feel they face in Taiwanese society.

I slapped the officer on the back anyway. I appreciated his effort and was sure he would do a good job. I didn't think that I'd ever see my wallet again. The idea of him talking to the cab driver gave me some comfort. I figured the case would cause the driver, if nothing else, a degree of anxiety. After the cops talked to him, he'd think twice about ripping off future customers. In total, I lost NT$8,000. That's roughly how much cash I had on me. Plus there was the inconvenience process and annoying fees of replacing plastic. Pictures of my family were inside it too; I felt my privacy had been invaded. The wallet had been a birthday present from my wife a few years back. But the police vowed to put the dukes to him just for me. Like I said: what bunch of nice fellows. I sincerely mean that.

Case closed? I thought so. I promptly forgot it and got on with my life. Then last Thursday I received in the mail a summons to be in court the next morning at 10:15. My wife looked worried, but I assured her: "What are you talking about? Surely the police have found something. That's why we're going to court."

"What am I talking about?" she answered, lifting an eyebrow. "The police in Taiwan don't investigate stuff like this. It's not even considered a criminal issue. They simply pass the paperwork on to the court! LOL!" When I showed up at the court the next morning, I found out that she was right. The cops hadn't done any legwork whatsoever.

The courtroom was a tiny room, consisting of a judge, record taker, police officer, the taxi driver and myself. The judge asked me if I could speak Chinese. Then the taxi driver took the floor. After establishing that I had been drinking, he claimed to have dropped me off at Youth Park, a couple of blocks from my home. Why I would be going to the park at 11:00 p.m. with a toddler who was totally spent from a kiddie party should have raised some doubt, and I suppose it did. He continued: "He crossed the street and that's where I saw him drop his wallet."

"What are you talking about?" I interrupted. "You dropped me off at my house. I didn't cross a single street. Even if you had let me off at the park, I still would not have crossed a street. There's no need to do that." The judge warned me not to butt in. But what was I supposed to do? In Taiwan, we get 15 minutes in court. This guy had talked non-stop for eight of them and was getting ready to polish off the other seven. Another thing I found interesting was that he had turned into a deaf person. In the cab, he could hear everything crystal clear. We had argued about the best route home and his hearing had not been an issue. Now, every time the judge spoke, he shouted: "What?" and then leaned his ear toward the court police officer to get her words relayed into his ear.

I was just starting to make my case: namely, I did not cross a street and the taxi drop-off point was some 15 paces from my front door when he interrupted, taking the judge to task about being called "a thief." He said I was slandering him. Actually, it hadn't occurred to me to call him anything. But I was about to say if the shoe fits when the judge cut me off, warning me that I could actually be guilty of slander if I proceeded. Then she explained to the driver that "foreigners" don't understand Taiwan's law.

At the end of the day, I didn't get a word in edgewise. The judge told me to leave. She kept the driver in the court, however. This is where it got interesting and strange. She asked me if I could return. She wanted to question my three-year-old daughter on whether we crossed a street. "Can she speak Chinese?" I was asked. "And when will you be free?"

"She goes to preschool in the afternoon. Any morning will be fine." We made a date and I was excused, wondering what on earth a judge would call an infant as a witness for. I didn't like that I was leaving the court with the guy I was suing still inside, free to say whatever without me calling him on it.

This is a long post and I'm tired. I'll do a "Day Two" later on. I did go out to take pictures, so the judge would understand how close the taxi drop-off place is for my home. I've put one above. As you can see, there's no street crossing involved.

My friend Steve, whose daughter's party went to, has had this cab company banned from his building.

6 comments:

Terry J. Benzie said...

So, the drive filed paperwork to bring you to court? What could he have been thinking that he would gain, other than launch some kind of pre-emptive strike in the event that you were going to do the same?

Patrick Cowsill said...

No, I think I brought him to court. I'm still not 100 percent clear on this. Does every case that's filed at the police station go to court? Needless to say, I was surprised (and impressed) that it didn't end up in the garbage can.

I also don't like what this does to the cops. They don't investigate. They're just like secretaries.

Robert said...

Hi, Patrick,

sorry to hear the story of your lost wallet. I had a similar incident. I lost my wallet on MRT. But I think I was very lucky. My wife, who is Taiwanese, called the MRT offices (lost and found) and really someone found it and brought it to the lost and found office where I could get it back. The luck maybe was that on MRT are honest people and not so honest people. I was lucky that my wallet was found by someone honest, since every little thing which was in my wallet was still there when I got it back, including some NT$ 2,000, my credit card (from a German bank!), etc.

You forgot your wallet inside a cab. Cab drivers are quite often ex-gangster, ex-thieves, etc. So I would say they are not the most honest people. Maybe it depends also on the cab company. May I ask what cab company it was? I think if you use a cap from e.g. "Taiwan Da Che Dui" it shouldn't happened with them...

Only what happened at the court is maybe typical Taiwanese? The "need" to explain the law to a foreigner?

MJ Klein said...

Patrick, how about a follow-up to this story?

blobOfNeurons said...

So if you left your wallet in the cab, how did you pay him?

Patrick Cowsill said...

"So if you left your wallet in the cab, how did you pay him?"

With an NT$1000 bill, from my wallet. I left an NT$7,400 tip, I guess.