The lobby outside the Missoula County Justice Court is a staging area where people who have had a run-in with the law await their appearance before a justice of the peace. On a recent Monday afternoon, a couple of dozen defendants fidget, mutter questions to their attorneys or sit silently, staring at the wall, just wanting to get it over with.
"I'm shaking," a young woman in a bright pink shirt whispers to a friend.
Nearby, another young woman, whose aviator glasses rest on spiky hair dyed reddish-blonde, takes a seat beside two young men she recognizes. One tells her he was busted over the weekend for underage drinking. He says it happened once before, costing him around $3,000 in fines and fees. "I'm just gonna man-up and take it," he says, elbows on his knees, head dangling in a flat-brimmed cap.
"I don't even know what my lawyer looks like," the woman says. All she knows, she says, is that he charged her $17 to leave a voicemail message.
The woman in the pink shirt and a few others enter the courtroom.
Across the lobby, near two humming vending machines, there's a mother and her tall, skinny, 18-year-old son. He wonders aloud if he should have dressed up; he's wearing jeans and a hoody. A lawyer comes over. "Standing-room only—must be a good show," the lawyer says. "The thing is to avoid curtain calls."
The woman in pink comes out of the courtroom and back into the lobby, blotting tears and mascara from her eyes with a wadded tissue. A clerk emerges and asks everyone who's there for a 2:30 appearance to enter the courtroom. No cell phones. No hats.
The courtroom's at capacity. Some family members are asked to return to the lobby, including the mother of the boy in the hoody. She stands outside the door, impatiently waiting for permission to rejoin her son. She says he's never been in court before: He just turned 18, he's charged with reckless driving, he was following friends down a gravel road near the Wye. He was only trying to keep up, she says. The Volkswagen hit a rise and he lost control and crashed, totaling the car. But he's a good kid, she says; his Hellgate High School robotics team was just on the news last night. He takes AP classes, has a full college scholarship. "And he's sitting in here."