LAST WEEK IN COURT

NOVEMBER 27 - DECEMBER 3

Last week, $10k bail was requested for a 17-year-old Black boy charged with Robbery in the 2nd, the ADA citing a serious felony in Nassau County as reasoning. His mother and social worker were present. The defense attorney starts off by stating the case has “extraordinary circumstances” and went on to describe that the accused ives in a shelter with his mom, suffers from extensive mental health issues, very complicated history in and out of hospitals, and that “Rikers could quite literally destroy his life.” He never missed a court date in Nassau, out of the 10 times he appeared so far- and is out on ROR on that case, which may end up being dismissed The Judge asked for social worker to approach the bench and ROR’ed the accused.

On November 29 in Brooklyn, despite reporting to have witnessed many complicated cases, one court watcher noted that Judge Dougherty “seemed to be thorough, made effort to fully understand cases and explain procedure to defendants.” “Judge Dougherty ROR’d many times, even when ADA Lopez requested bail”

  • In one case, ADA Lopez requested $7,500 bail for a young Black man charged with Robbery. The accused allegedly stole a tip jar from a pizzeria and displayed a knife. The accused said he was cheated by the pizza place earlier that day, returned to get his money, and was cursed at by the store manager, attempted to steal the tip jar, was beaten by the store employees, and subsequently denied medical attention. The accused also alleges that he was hit by a 2x4. Further, the defense attorney presented a good character case “no priors, college student” and the accused’s mother was present.

On November 29 in Manhattan, an ADA requested $20k bail for a Black man charged with Robbery in the 2nd, stating that had “an open case” and that the evidence against him was strong because he was “ID’d moments after.” He and his brother (arraigned separately) were alleged to have stolen $400 and a cell phone. The “open case” was revealed to be a DUI, while the police report contradicted the characterization of the accused having been “ID’d moments after.” The robbery had occurred at 3:30 am, the accused had been arrested at 4:30 am, the defense further highlighted that since it is dark at that hour, this likely inhibited the accuracy of the identification. The defense attorney also stated that only $12 and one cell phone had been recovered off his client. Before making his decision, Judge Tsai confirmed with the ADA, “so the people have no information regarding if anything was recovered?” The accused was ROR’d.

That same day, $10k bail was requested for a Latinx man charged with drug possession in the 3rd. The ADA argued that “despite” it being his fist arrest, the fact that it was “a strong case with serious charges” justified the high bail. Judge Tsai made a point to ask the ADA, why the accused's car had been searched in the first place- cops say because he had “tinted windows and a covered license plate.”


One complicated case arose in Brooklyn on November 30 in which a White man was charged with Criminal Mischief in the 4th after he allegedly broke a door in his mother’s apartment. The public defender explained that the accused has mental health issues and said his mother called the police because the accused would not take medication. She was not clear about how calling the police would affect her son and did not want her son arrested. ADA Anyaegbunam requested a full order of protection despite these facts, defense again explained to the judge the situation and how this situation is not ideal for the complaining witness or the accused. Judge Edwards asks the defense to call EAC- says they will connected with social worker and EAC but judge still grants full OP stating she will not release the accused without the full OP because EAC is not open until Monday and she wants services in place if he’s not on his medication.

Lastly, in court one day last week, a watcher tried to ask an ADA his name, he responded “It’s okay” and walked away.


Reflection from a Watcher

Lately when I have been court watching, I am aware of two main things. First, I am aware of how much of the process is out of the arraigned person’s control and left to chance. Depending on when you get arrested, the judge you come before could have a drastically different philosophy and the ADA you get could make a wide variety of choices. I once read an article about how the parole grant rate correlates to when the grant board eats lunch. Grant rates are lowest when they are hungriest.

Second, I am aware of how much about the person being arraigned is not considered. I rarely have seen a judge consider the arraigned’s ability to pay, and if they do, they often ask what is they maximum they can pay and set bail just above that. I also feel like often both sides of supporting evidence aren’t considered equally. For example, I saw someone recently who had a turnstile jumping charge from years prior. That seemed to count against him far more than it demonstrated (1) inability to pay (2) an incredibly mild record and (3) a likely pattern of racially-biased policing.

I struggle a lot with the idea that something so impactful is so unpredictable and often nearly impossible to successfully fight back against. How can an arraignment for the same low level crimes result in anywhere from ROR to years held on Rikers Island? And how can so many people be complicit in continuing to let that be a reality?

The court is a system that, to me, is designed to instill fear and lack of transparency furthers that. For example, while working in Manhattan, family and friends of the arraigned mentioned waiting many hours, but no schedule posted. I asked to have it printed. The clerk was nice and hung it, which initially felt like a victory. But why did it take me, a volunteer, not a family member or friend who could have really relied on that information, asking to get it posted? Why didn’t the clerk print it off when it became available? It’s a small thing but something that makes it all the more difficult for those trying to navigate the system.

Most of the small victories I feel when volunteering - getting the ADA’s name, judges name or schedule and being able to hear - I realize shouldn’t be things I’m excited to be able to obtain. These are basic and critical elements for transparency and accountability in the court that should be easily accessible to everyone, always.

Lastly, I wish it wasn’t this easy for people to be unaware of how the justice system works. I got through law school without understanding how an arraignment really works. I wish everyone, maybe in high school, had to take civics/legal courses that exposed them to these systems and emphasized the importance of electing decent judges and DAs.

Another Reflection from a Watcher

I've only done two shifts so far, but I've had some previous opportunity to observe in federal courts, and know a lot of people who have been through local criminal justice systems in NYC. So I had some idea what to expect, including the difficulty of locating any specific arrested person within the multiple stages in the arrest-through-arraignment process, never mind finding the docket sheet or a physical location. And I wasn't surprised to see only one White person arraigned in those two shifts combined.

But especially after federal courtrooms, these courtrooms are surprising for the sheer numbers of people within the large fenced-off "official" area: court reporters and clerks, multiple uniformed court officers (what do they all do?) a rotating group of PDs dashing to and from the holding-area to meet their new clients, their set of clerks, and of course the judge. As the accused, ADA and PD are all facing the judge, it's difficult for the people in the (public) gallery benches to hear any of the proceedings.

But who's missing here? There are almost no private lawyers (who can afford it?). Almost no family-and-friends. Lastly, it's hardly surprising, but is disturbing that most of the accused look so exhausted when they're finally brought from the holding cell into the courtroom. In some ways, they are also among the "missing."

LAST WEEK IN COURT

NOVEMBER 20 - NOVEMBER 26

Manhattan | Judge Clynes | ADA Benitez

  • A Black man was charged with Aggravated Harassment after a verbal altercation with an MTA employee. His defense attorney explained that he has a long history of schizophrenia and “feels like people are after him,” spends most of his time on the subway, and the vast majority of his priors were for turnstile jumping, over two years ago. ADA Benitez requested $1,000 bail, which the accused could not afford. His public defender explained that there wouldn’t be adequate mental health treatment if the accused went to jail, so the ADA made a plea offer to plead to criminal mischief, which is a misdemeanor, with a sentence of Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal (an ACD), which means they have to stay out of trouble for a certain amount of time and then the case will be dismissed. There were a lot of breaks in this arraignment because the accused had trouble understanding the “freely and voluntarily question” when taking a guilty plea. According to court watchers, the accused kept giving affirmative answers that were not simply yes, instead answering “freely and voluntarily.” In response, Judge Clynes said, “and if he can’t say yes not going to accept a plea.” Court watchers noted that the accused continued to be confused as to terminology and how to respond to judge’s questions and Judge Clynes ended up refusing to take the plea. Although calm and cooperative throughout the entire arraignment, court watchers noted the accused became agitated when ordered to the back of the room and did not move. Guards forcibly removed the accused from the courtroom while his public defender kept trying to encourage the judge to accept the plea and convince the judge his client gave an effective “yes.”

  • ADA Benitez requested $10,000 bail for a Black man charged with Petit Larceny, a misdemeanor, after he allegedly stole a handful of lipgloss and violated an order of protection that ordered him to stay away from the store which had previously been convicted of stealing from. His attorney highlighted that he had no resources and would be “stuck in jail on a misdemeanor case.” Judge Clynes ordered supervised release.

  • ADA Benitez requested $5,000 bail for a Black man charged with Assault in the 2nd after he was alleged to have hit someone with a makeup bag. The complaining witness did not want to press charges, this was also first arrest as an adult, he’d been last arrested in 1998 as a ‘youth offender’. Judge ROR’d with full order of protection.

Manhattan | Judge Alonso

  • An older Black man was charged with Criminal Possession of a Forged Instrument in the 3rd for allegedly being in possession of 21 bent Metrocards. The prosecution offered a plea to the charge and requested 60 days jail. The defense asked Judge Alonso for the accused to be enrolled in sessions with CASES program, and the judge agreed

Manhattan | Judge Thompson | ADA Schnepf

  • $10,000 bail was requested for a pregnant 18-year-old Black woman charged with assault in the 2nd. Court watchers noted that it “seems particularly unnecessary” to handcuff her since she was 7-months pregnant. The prosecution’s justification for bail relied on the fact that the young woman had 2 failures to appear for a warrant in Staten Island in 2017. The public defender explained that she had no actual prior history, explained the reasons for the two prior failures to appear, emphasized her family connections and also highlighted that if bail could not be raised- which would be very difficult at such a high amount- she would potentially be giving birth at Rikers. The Judge consented to release with a full order of protection.

Brooklyn | Judge Gerstein | ADA Anyaegbunam

  • ADA offered a Black man charged with Possession of Controlled Substance a plea to Disorderly Conduct Violation with Time Served. Upon hearing the offer, the Judge interrupted proceedings and stated “20 twists and you’re offering a violation charge? I am not happy about that.” And later suggesting “What about one of those programs?” The prosecution then amended their offer and added 5 days community service BJI with a 15 day jail alternative. One court watcher asked, “why did the judge interfere in the offer? Does he think that ‘one of these programs’ will help or that the original offer wasn’t strong enough?” The case resolved with the Judge telling the accused “Come right back here on Monday for BJI- don’t make it 15 days in Rikers.”


Brooklyn | Judge Perlmutter | ADA Langsam

  • $20k bail for criminal possession of a weapon in the 2nd was requested for two young people charged together - a Black man and woman. Their vehicle was approached due to “equipment violations,” and the car was legally parked when police approached, and apparently “pulled over in a car that wasn’t running.” The police account described by the ADA stated that the woman had a gun in her sweatshirt pocket and that the young man was heard saying “let me take that.” Both accused people were full-time students. The woman had a 4.0 GPA and was currently going through a divorce. According to court watchers, many people were present in the courtroom to support the accused man and the woman’s manager was present from her full-time job at Staples on her behalf. The accused man was ROR’d, and the judge set $7,500 bond/$3,500 cash for the woman.

  • A young Black man was charged with Criminal Mischeif in the 3rd after he allegedly threw a glass in his mother’s house. His mother stated that she was okay with him returning and did not want to press charges. The ADA consented to release the man and asked for a full order of protection. The public defender argued for a limited order and the Judge granted a full order of protection.

Brooklyn | Judge Mastofsky | ADA Lee

  • $5,000 bail was requested for a White man charged with Petit Larceny and accused of stealing $27 worth of toothpaste. The defense alleged that the complaining witness - the manager of the store - had assaulted the accused upon recovering the stolen property, requiring, and further asserting that “$5k is not misdemeanor bail on a case like this.” Judge Mastofsky responded that “this long record of failures to appear and convictions are forcing me to set some sort of bail,” and set bail at $150 cash/$500 bond.


A LOOK INSIDE THE COURTROOM

 The police put a dust mask on an accused person because he kept saying loudly that he can't go to jail because needed to go back to work. His defense attorney pleaded with the judge to release him under strict protection until he comes back to court because he potentially needed medical/mental health attention, so imprisonment will not help. A court watcher wondered: Perhaps the accused was just really anxious because who wants to go to jail especially if you can't afford bail?

The police put a dust mask on an accused person because he kept saying loudly that he can't go to jail because needed to go back to work. His defense attorney pleaded with the judge to release him under strict protection until he comes back to court because he potentially needed medical/mental health attention, so imprisonment will not help. A court watcher wondered: Perhaps the accused was just really anxious because who wants to go to jail especially if you can't afford bail?

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REFLECTION FROM A WATCHER

It’s 3 p.m. on Saturday, November 24, in Brooklyn. A family member in the audience asks a defense attorney if they know anything about their loved one who should be arraigned today — the attorney hasn’t seen their paperwork yet. An up-to-date docket is rarely posted for people to find the information they need. Court watchers know to ask the clerk for a printout of “the calendar” because we’ve been doing this for five months. If there’s a liaison for families of people who have been arrested to help them navigate the system, I’ve never seen them; just defense attorneys with giant caseloads and little time to explain things like “how long you’ll have to wait till your loved one’s docket is called.” The judge and a court officer are on their phones.

At 3:45, another pause in arraignments; an ADA flips through what looks like a catalog of Christmas decorations. I am reading a magazine, and a court officer comes over to tell us that “there’s normally no reading in the courtroom, but if you keep it low” — she gestures toward her lap — “it’s okay.” Once, a different court office told me to put away my e-reader because there can be “no recording devices in the courtroom.” As an observer (rather than someone whose bail status might be affected by the behavior of a supporter), I felt safe enough to question him: “Even though it has no recording capabilities, and it’s not connected to the internet?” “No electronics,” he said, and walked away. A court officer, a defense attorney, and the judge are on their phones.

Another officer yells across the room at someone in the audience to “take off [their] hat!” The whole pageant is set up to intimidate you, the outsider, into being too scared to to do anything but what the people in power want you to do. Most “justice” looks like “arbitrary enforcement of an arbitrary hierarchy,” and it’s amazing how relieved you'll feel when an ADA doesn’t request bail or a judge releases a defendant on their own recognizance. Thank you for not using bail as a punitive measure. Thank you for treating this human being with respect. “Justice” is an ouroboros, a tautology: The system can only exist this way because this is the only way the system can exist. We have to keep working to dismantle it.

LAST WEEK IN COURT

NOVEMBER 13 - NOVEMBER 19

Excessive bail requests:

  • A Latinx woman was arrested for allegedly selling heroin and fentanyl to an undercover police officer in Manhattan. ADA Schnepf asked for bail to be set at $150,000, however the woman’s public defender argued that the accused had no prior convictions and had family in the courtroom. Judge Tsai set bail at $150,000 bond/100,000 cash.

  • In Manhattan, ADA requested $75,000 bond/$50,000 cash bail for a 43-year-old Black man accused of attempted robbery. His public defender argued that there was a lack of evidence and requested more reasonable bail. Judge Clynes set bail at $50,000 cash/$25,000 bond.

  • In Brooklyn, ADA requested $15,000 bail for a 16-24 year-old Latinx man in alleged domestic violence dispute. The man’s public defender requested release, arguing accused is a low flight risk since his family and child live in NYC (and were present in the courtroom). Judge McCormack asked how much the accused can afford then set $2,500 bail.


Standout Cases:

  • A young Latinx woman was accused of attempted murder. ADA requested $150,000 bail, claiming video evidence that the accused fired a gun at somebody. Defense requested the woman be released on her own recognizance, arguing their client was not the person in the video and that the search warrant was actually issued for somebody else (defense also stated the gun in the video was likely a cap gun). Defense stated that the accused is very involved in her community, working in youth development and green energy, and has no criminal record. Judge Clynes set bail at $150,000.

  • A Black man was arrested for driving without a license and with no plates on the car. The Judge suspended his license. The Judge also noted that the accused had a warrant out that actually wasn't his. There was a mix up with his and another person's identity and the judge requested new fingerprints to make sure it didn’t happen again.

  • A Black man was accused of aggravated harassment following a family dispute over his deceased mother’s assets. ADA requested $7,000 bail, citing prior charges against the accused. ADA also claimed that the accused had been evading cops for months. The public defender pointed out that prior arrests included things like falling asleep on a chair at a homeless shelter. Contrary to the ADA’s charge that the accused was evading police, the public defender and social worker both stated that the accused is highly cooperative with authorities and has consistently showed up for court. The public defender requested the accused be released, given that he is indigent and currently living in a residential program. Judge Clynes denied the public defender’s request and set bail at $2,000.

Trends in the court:

Domestic Violence

  • The domestic violence cases were mostly violations of order of protections against female partners, however some cases stood out to court watchers. In one case a Black woman was arrested for violating an order of protection but was described as a victim and survivor of human trafficking. In another case a 19-year-old Black male was arrested for striking his pregnant former partner and violating an order of protection. The defense argued that he was stalked and attacked by the partner and was a victim of gender bias.

  • One watcher noticed that in almost all the cases they observed, the ADA requested a full order of protection, even when the accused and complainant were strangers.

Demographic Trends

  • During arraignments where court watchers were present, all or most defendants were people of color. In a 3-hour court watch shift on Nov. 15 in Brooklyn, 100% of defendants were people of color. In a 3-hour court watch shift on Nov. 15 in Manhattan, 88% of defendants were people of color, 77% were Black.

Policing Practices

  • In a 3-hour court watch shift on Nov. 15 in Manhattan, more than 20% of defendants were indigent/homeless accused of possessing crack. Court observers noted that arrests seemed to come from the same neighborhood. One observer questioned: “Is this stop-and-frisk?”

Other Observations

  • Watchers consistently said courtrooms were “chaotic” and difficult to hear: people were talking, cops talked to one another, printers were operating, and other distractions.

  • Most watchers described defense attorneys as well prepared, passionate, and ready to defend their clients. One defense attorney asked, “Is your Honor distracted by something” when the Judge failed to pay attention or listen to her arguments.

  • Judges Tsai and Judge Johnson were described as open and willing to listen, being objective and thorough in their judgments. Johnson was particularly described as spending time on each case and seemed very interested in hearing from defense. She gave detailed explanations of key terms to defendants and provided rationales for her decisions.

  • According to court watchers, Judge Quinones and Dougherty, however, seemed agitated and kept interrupting the defense. Judge Quinones continually called the complaining witness for the victim while some noted that Dougherty didn’t give justifications for bail amounts.


REFLECTION FROM A WATCHER

During my last court watching shift, two cases in particular jumped out at me. One case involved a black trans woman in her 30s and the other involved a 20-year-old well-dressed black man from Sweden.

The trans woman had a record that included 53 misdemeanors and 21 warrants, and as a result was going to get prison time if convicted of the robbery charge she was given. Her bail was set at $100K for allegedly attempting to steal a pork loin from a store. Her public defender pointed that there was no video evidence of the crime and that his client was injured after the incident, and moreover, that nearly every time he represents a trans person there is no video evidence. Nonetheless, the woman was held on $25K bail. Outside of the courtroom, the public defender explained to me and the other watchers that trans women often get attacked and when they try to defend themselves they get accused of a crime by their attackers and are arrested. My observation in the court was that it didn’t matter whether the robbery charge was legitimate: she was deemed responsible for any crime she was adjacent to regardless of whether she was the target or not. Trans women get minimal media attention when they are murdered; they get completely ignored when they are victimized by a punitive justice system.

The Swedish man’s case stood in direct contrast to the trans woman’s. When he walked into the courtroom, it was clear he was from a higher socio-economic class than almost every other accused person. He had a slew of charges after grabbing a woman’s bag and using her credit cards to buy rounds of drinks at a bar. The DA asked for $25K bail but the public defender persuaded the judge to release him on his own recognizance by arguing that he was in the country on a scholarship and that having him go to jail would affect his scholarship and the rest of his life. I agreed this time with the judge: a college kid shouldn’t have the rest of his life tainted from a messy bender.

Creating a more just justice system requires us to have a collective reassessment of our values. We ignore the systematic harassment of the vulnerable and consider any defendant with a rap sheet broken and unfixable. Only the defendants with a privileged education or economic success are considered redeemable. Empathy should be afforded to all.

LAST WEEK IN COURT

NOVEMBER 6 - NOVEMBER 12

UNREASONABLE BAIL

  • An older black man (45-54 y/o) was arrested and arraigned in Manhattan on a burglary charge for allegedly stealing detergent. Although he had many prior convictions, for the last two decades, they were all for turnstile jumping and misdemeanor drug possession. He has had no convictions over the last three years and lives in supportive housing with a caseworker. Prosecutor requests $50,000 bail, defense requested release (ROR). Judge looks to CASES to see if he’ll qualify for supervised release. Watcher did not see resolution.

  • Black woman in her early 20s was charged with trespassing and resisting arrest. ADA Schnepf requested $7,500 bail on the assault charge and $1,000 on the misdemeanor because the woman had open cases in two counties on prior assault convictions. Her defense attorney requested the woman be released on her own recognizance (ROR) because the accused has 5 children and lives with her grandmother. Judge Statsinger set $5,000 bail on the assault charge and $500 bail on the misdemeanor.

  • ADA Schnepf requested $50,000 bond for a Black man charged with assault. Judge Statsinger RORs because the accused waited more than 24 hours to be arraigned because he was in the hospital with a gunshot wound.

  • Three young Latino men were charged with 2nd degree robbery for stealing a cell phone. ADA requested $10,000 bail for two of the men and $15,000 for the third, who was also arrested for possession of a knife.

  • ADA asks for $25,000 bail for a young Black trans woman charged with possession of a gravity knife and shoplifting. Judge Thompson set $7,500 bail.

  • Latinx male facing drug charge. ADA requested $50,000 bail. Accused was deemed low flight risk by CJA risk assessment interview. Judge set bail at $10,000 bond/$7,500 cash.

STANDOUT CASES

  • Proud Boy: In Manhattan, a white man in his 20s was charged with 3rd degree assault and rioting in the 2nd degree for participating in the Park Avenue Proud Boys brawl. ADA Strickland stepped in for this arraignment and requested $5,000 bail. A court watcher notes, "the ADA’s description of facts of the case was bizarrely focused on “unidentified antifa” who refused to identify assailants to police or give their names...for the first 80% of the ADA’s discussion of the facts, I thought the accused was antifa, not a Proud Boy. There was no discussion of what the Proud Boys are (a violent misogynist and white supremacist hate group), but considerable discussion of the fact that antifa members had not been cooperative with police detectives." A private defense attorney argued for ROR on grounds that accused voluntarily surrendered, had family in the court room, and was only being charged with a misdemeanor. Judge Statsinger consented to ROR. A court watcher reflected on the disparities in outcomes in the courtroom: "one case prior, a young Black man had received supervised release for an unlicensed driving charge (and a condescending lecture from Statsinger about how he wasn’t allowed to drive while under supervised release). Bail was set in various other cases with charges far less severe than punching someone in the context of a larger melee sparked by the accused’s group’s white supremacist/misogynist hate speech. Generally, the juxtaposition between the RORed Proud Boy and bail set for other indigent defendants accused of less severe charges was striking and reflected badly on the court."

  • Cab driver: A young black man with no criminal history in Brooklyn was charged with robbery; a cab driver accused him of stealing $200 at gunpoint. The accused man was arrested at home several hours after the incident. Arresting officers did not find a gun or cash on the man, who claimed he hadn’t stolen cash from the taxi driver at gunpoint– he just hadn't paid for his ride. ADA Cotto requested $15,000 bail. Judge Doherty RORed the man with a lecture about not taking a cab ride if he can’t afford to pay. The public defender explained to court watchers that this kind of case is brought in from time to time: when a cab driver feels that police won’t respond to a report of a customer who hasn’t paid his fare, reporting a theft at gunpoint is a tool to elicit police response. Court watchers ask: But to what end? If police and ADAs are aware that this type of accusation is common, why arrest in the first place, and why ask for such a high bail amount? What if the judge had been less lenient?

  • College student: In Manhattan, a young Latinx woman’s arraignment for drug possession began with the ADA referring to the wrong docket, while both the judge and PD had misprinted dockets on which information had been cut off the page. The ADA requested $150,000 bail/$72,000 bond, citing “the amount of cocaine.” However, a low CJA score reflected that the accused was a low flight risk and recommended that she be released. According to the public defender, the accused, who is a college student living with her mother, didn't know about the drugs and police did not find money or a scale in her home. The judge set bail at $25,000.

  • $45 drug sale to undercover cop: A Latinx man was arrested after selling a controlled substance to an undercover cop (buy & bust)—both instances were for $45 or less. ADA requested $50,000 bail. The public defender said the ADA’s “bail request is ridiculous” and pointed out that the accused was deemed a low flight risk and had made all court appearances in a prior case (no conviction). Judge set bail at $10,000.


REFLECTION FROM A WATCHER

Much of my internal monologue as I found my way to the courtroom, sat behind NYPD officers sitting with distressed defendants answering to bench warrants, and began feverishly taking notes to keep up with the remarkably fast-paced casework, was whether I would witness something—anything—that jumped out as glaringly racist or wrong. Would I witness a wrongly-enforced marijuana misdemeanor? A nasty judge who would castigate defendants along socioeconomic divisions? I felt guilty even then, and much more on reflection, about my search—or perhaps even my subconscious desire—for a clear and cartoonish moral system to emerge before me.

But there was no such simplistic reckoning ahead. No one acted out, either in the prosecution or the defense, no voices were raised, no protests stage, few tears openly shed or protests mounted by defendants. But by the end of the three hours, after I had abandoned the naive search for something filmic and morally sharp, I felt a different kind of throbbing pain in the courtroom, having more to do with delineations of class that had made themselves known not through any abject act of horrific treatment, but in the tone and energy of the public defenders in contrast to the privately-hired defense attorneys.

The harried public defenders scrambled from defendant to defendant doing their best to comprehend the perspectives of the working-class accused, while coiffed lawyers emerged for the far more serious charges against the white and wealthy. One particularly dramatic gun charge—loaded hollow-tip guns and illegal batons in a central car console, levied against a well-dressed nutritional supplement entrepreneur—was particularly staggering. The lawyer made a point multiple times that the accused's brother, who was dressed to the nines in the courtroom, lived in the West Village, that the car in question had been a Range Rover, and that both brothers had attended respected universities. None of these specifics were offered for any other defendant during the session, and were clearly designed to showcase not morality, not community ties, but wealth and power.

Or the man accused of choking his wife and throwing her on the ground, whose private attorney clearly knew every detail of the case down to the dimensions of the defendant’s bedroom and stressed his economic success, the fact that his wife—also a respected professional—was in the courtroom supporting him, that he didn’t have any prior brushes with the law. He walked free that evening.

Or, alternatively, the Black 18-year-old with 11 prior arrests, involved in a convoluted stabbing in an unclear way that his public defender, scratching his head, suggested was too complicated for an arraignment and shrugged as the judge set bail. Had the accused been at the scene of the crime? Did he own the knife? Had he tipped off his friends to the victim’s location? Nobody seemed to know. The accused, head hanging down with his mother and sister stoically watching in the row in front of me, seemed aware of just how little his lawyer comprehended in the few minutes they had together before the arraignment, how hard his public defender—a passionate 60-year-old white man with a quivering voice—wanted to get the facts right and was failing. Failing to know the accused, to find the salient pieces of positive spin that might have allowed him to leave the courtroom with his family that day, to get him a path to seeking help outside bars rather than to suffer within them.

I’m new to this and I am still learning. And I know I will see more egregious miscarriages of justice in coming weeks. But even in this comparatively even-keel first session, I came away with a sharp new knowledge of the optics between public and private defense. I understood with new clarity that until each defendant has access to the same level of care, support, preparation, and expertise from their lawyer, then America has little chance of fully undoing the prejudices that continue to imprison minority, marginalized, and poor bodies while letting their wealthy counterparts off the hook.

REFLECTION FROM ANOTHER WATCHER

Overall, given that it was the end of the week, a Friday night, and I was told that judges at this time are normally harsh, the judge on this day was fair in hearing all the cases presented to her. In most of the cases, she did not agree with the prosecutor’s recommendation and released most of the accused without bail as long as they agreed to return to court.

It was my first time observing and I didn’t expect that the proceedings in court to look just like a regular day at work. Both prosecutors and public defenders had their section with computer monitors they look at and the cases seemed just like paperwork they go through and present to the judge.

A case that stood out to me was a Black teenage boy who was being charged with marijuana possession. The judge immediately recognized that the charge the prosecution was leveling was unreasonable which the public defender pointed out that based on her investigation, a specific cop was targeting this teenager because the arrest was not the first time and the incident surrounding it was clearly uncalled for.

LAST WEEK IN COURT

OCTOBER 30 - NOVEMBER 5

Risk Assessments

  • A man with no criminal record, charged with violating an order of protection, was given a high C.J.A. score, which suggested he was a high risk to not appear back to court. The ADA cited the high CJA score when they requested $3,000 bail. However, factors beyond his control seem to have contributed to the high score, including the fact that his existing order of protection prevented his family from attending the arraignment and also rendered him unable to retrieve legal documents from his apartment.

  • $3,000 bail was set for young man accused of assault, based on the strength of a risk assessment which was conducted without an interpreter (accused’s primary language is Russian.) The accused is a long-haul trucker and claims that his truck GPS will show he was out of state at the time of the incident.

Predatory Policing

  • A young Black man was arrested when two undercover police officers came up to him because they claimed they smelled marijuana. Under this pretext the cops felt his bag and arrested him because something in his bag “felt like a gun.” Court watchers reflect that searching a bag because of the smell of pot is a clear pretext stop, especially as low-level marijuana charges are (ostensibly) no-longer prosecuted in Brooklyn. On top of this, the accused has previously been arrested for a marijuana offense by the same cop. The prosecution requested $15,000 bail.

Unreasonable Bail

  • A middle-aged Latinx man was arraigned for burglary in the second degree in Brooklyn on November 1st for allegedly stealing a child’s painting set. The accused said he didn’t enter the complainant’s home and claims he saw the painting set in the trash/recycling bin and picked it up. The prosecutor requests $10,000 bail and an order of protection, citing the man is a flight risk. The public defender contested this request and asked the accused be released on their own recognizance because his last failure to appear was 10 years ago, he’s currently in a drug treatment program, has a part time job and has lived with his mom for over a decade. Judge Ambekar set $5,000 bail and two full orders of protection. A watcher reflected, “The fact that bail was set at all for a man who stole a child’s paint set from the trash is an injustice.”

  • ADA Reno requested $25,000 bail for a 19-year old Black boy with no prior record charged with gun possession in Brooklyn, based on the seriousness of the current charge. The prosecutor alleged the boy placed a loaded revolver in a plastic bag under the seat of a taxi cab that was pulled over for running a stop sign. Court watchers question the validity of the search, wondering why the kid, who was a passenger in the taxi, was searched when it was the driver who ran the stop sign. The public defender explained that the accused was currently working, was not a flight risk, and that his mother was present in the courtroom. Judge Ambekar set $15,000 bond/$10,000 cash bail.

Collateral Consequences

  • An order of protection was requested, preventing a young mother, accused of trespassing, from seeing her baby, who is still breast-feeding, as well as the baby’s father. The defense argued against a full order of protection because her child is breast-feeding and also because if the accused loses her child she will be displaced from her family shelter. Despite this, a full order of protection was set.

Domestic Violence

  • According to court watchers, a judge in Manhattan court consistently sets bail higher in domestic violence cases than in other cases with similar bail arguments. A court watcher also stated, “The purpose of bail is to compel the accused to appear in court so it should never be used punitively. However, in several domestic violence cases the Judge set bail even though in otherwise similar non-domestic violence cases, the accused was released on their own recognizance.”

  • In one domestic violence case, a middle aged woman’s bail was set at $1,500 even though she is the primary caretaker of her daughter (who suffers from M.S.) as well as her mother and three other children.

  • In another D.V. case, the judge granted the prosecution’s request to set bail at $750. The defense argued the accused had community ties and no criminal record and the prosecution offered no counter argument, but the judge still granted the original request.

  • In a third D.V. case, bail was set at $7.5k despite conflicting testimonies, and little evidence. The justification for bail was the accused’s criminal record, however the defense noted his only violent offense was in 1987. The accused makes minimum wage and could in no way afford $7.5k.