The first thing that struck a visitor stepping inside traffic court was that the judge was wearing a sand-colored flight suit.
That’s the thing about Guantánamo. Commanders compare the 45-square-mile outpost to a small town of maybe 6,000 people. Sailors police it, from its suburban-style homes for troops with families to the bars, bowling alley and McDonald’s that are beyond the better-known Detention Center Zone.
It’s the kind of place where a night bartender at the Irish pub, O’Kelly’s, can turn up the next day behind the commissary’s jewelry counter. A firefighter can do reception shifts at a hotel on this base serviced by some 2,200 Pentagon contract laborers, mostly Jamaicans and Filipinos.
So it was with only mild surprise that a reporter realized that July’s traffic magistrate was Navy Lt. John Medved, the man who piloted the twin-engine turboprop that brought her to the base five days before.
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At Guantánamo Navy base, the top speed limit is 35 mph on a stretch of road to the Detention Center Zone.
In a session that was shorter than an episode of “The People’s Court” the officer stripped a civilian worker of six months of driving privileges for falling asleep at the wheel one afternoon and smashing his vehicle into a fire hydrant. A bus driver who exceeded the 5 mph speed limit on John Paul Jones Hill got 2 points on his record. So did several troops and civilians who were cited for rolling through stop signs on this outpost where the only traffic light is an artifact in the base lighthouse museum.
“This is purely administrative here,” said Medved who carried out most of his hearing in hushed tones that were so quiet that people in the spectators’ gallery could only hear bits of it.
At Camp Justice, where the speed limit is 7 mph, actual military judges don black robes to hear the terror cases, some of them seeking the death penalty. The pilot presides at the Navy base commander’s discretion, and wore his workaday flight suit in court. Everybody got to watch in real time, no 40-second delay.
One female sailor got fatherly advice: “Exaggerate your stop,” the magistrate said. A petty officer was called up and stood at parade rest. “Have you had any other traffic violations here?” the pilot inquired. “Negative,” the sailor replied.
The Navy allowed a reporter to witness the drama on condition she get permission from those who went before the court to be named in this article. No one except the judge granted it. In fact, most slid out of the hearing room, past a paper sign taped up on the door before the session was over, gone before anyone could ask permission.
People got to watch in real time, no 40-second delay.
It was Medved’s third time sitting as judge on what is typically a second Wednesday of the month session. He moved it to Thursday because he had to fly a mission that day.
The most troubling episode to Medved was a civilian worker who struck a “fire hydrant at 3:30 in the afternoon.” He’d fallen asleep at the wheel, with a buddy in the passenger’s seat. He was charged with impaired and reckless driving, violations that combined could lose a miscreant motorist driving privileges for a full year.
Instead, the judge slapped him with a six-month revocation, the minimum, then inquired whether the worker would be able to do his job. Yes, he replied softly, explaining that he worked in tandem with another contract laborer, who could drive.
“I would say this is a big deal. You could kill your buddy or yourself,” said the judge, who asked the man standing before him how many hours sleep he got the night before the crash. Five, the worker replied.
“A fire hydrant at 3:30 in the afternoon could’ve been a kid,” the judge remarked afterward, shaking his head in annoyance. “The friend could’ve been the driver. Silly.”
Guantánamo has ‘zero tolerance’ for people driving government vehicles. Even .01 gets you a DUI.
A traffic court judge cannot impose fines. A driving under the influence arrest with proper paperwork gets an automatic one-year suspension, and the trooper’s commander gets a copy of the police report, possibly a pathway to more discipline.
In his three times as judge, the pilot said he had never handled one — something that may be credited to the base’s frequent “sobriety checkpoints.”
Some nights, Navy police set aside their radar guns for Breathalyzers on the base, which has a zero tolerance policy for people driving government vehicles. Even .01 can get you a DUI, if you’re driving a military-owned minivan.
“Get the word out,” Medved said. “Enough people know not to mess around.”