On April 16, I became a criminal almost without realizing it.

I let my dog off his leash in a public park.

Walking with some neighbors and their dogs, two of us had let our pets briefly run free. No one else was in that part of the park, so letting a couple of young and active dogs have a little fun seemed like the natural thing to do. (And we always clean up after them when necessary.) Plus, our frustration over Durham’s months-delayed opening of the dog park in our neighborhood was strong.

Our area has its share of petty crimes. An occasional minor burglary, vandalism or attempted scam seem to be common nearly everywhere.

But on Easter weekend, someone was arrested on my street for selling heroin out of his mother’s house. A woman was attacked on a jogging trail a few weeks ago. We’ve seen discarded condoms on the path to the dog park. An abandoned car sat across from a church for nearly a week before the police finally tagged it. (It took at least three phone calls.) And there are strong suspicions of drug deals happening in the park at night.

So the zeal of the Durham police officer who spotted us and pursued us through the park was particularly galling.

By the time he caught up with us he was out of breath, pale and determined. We were issued citations with $25 fines, plus $110 in court costs, and given trial dates. Yes, we could just pay the fines. Why was the court cost necessary if we didn’t go to court? “You’ll have to speak to the magistrate about that” was the answer.

It was straight out of Arlo Guthrie’s song “Alice’s Restaurant,” complete with Officer Obie.

So here we are, the owners of the largest (mine) and smallest (hers) dogs in our walking group from that night, demonized by the police for … what? Yes, there are signs saying “Dogs are to be leashed at all times,” but not that it’s against the law. Officer Obie said that we should have been glad that he liked dogs, because some officers didn’t. The implication was that we should be glad that it wasn’t one of them giving us our tickets. That didn’t make us feel any better, and if that was actually the case, why didn’t he, a fellow dog-lover, just give us a warning?

I’m willing to pay the fine (and will pay the court costs reluctantly) because the signs are up, and I suppose I did, according to the citation, “knowingly violate a rule or regulation … to wit: having a dog off-leash in a public park.” However, I’ve always believed that there can be no justice when laws are absolute. And it seems to me that there are plenty of actual crimes happening in the neighborhood, and the rest of the city, that the Durham Police Department should be targeting instead.

I’ll be a Neighborhood Watch block captain soon, if my “record” doesn’t prevent it.