Reflection from a Watcher

This was not my first shift in Queens, so I was not surprised by the courtroom's strict protocol. At the beginning of the shift and every time a new group of audience members arrived, as well as any time anyone was seen with a cell phone, it was announced that cell phones were not only to be silenced, but powered off. Whispering among audience members was also not tolerated, though the court officers who enforced this policy often whispered among themselves, making it difficult to hear the proceedings, since no one used a microphone.

One trend I noticed was that the prosecutors rarely made offers; few cases were resolved with a guilty plea at arraignment today. Another was that Judge Peterson often (though by no means always, as you'll see) released the accused people on their own recognizance even though the prosecutor asked for bail.

In one case,a black man was charged with violating an Order of Protection. The accused, who sometimes turned to whisper insistently to his lawyer, looked immediately familiar to me -- I thought I had seen him in another court watch shift. Since he had prior convictions and had previously failed to make court dates, the prosecutor requested $1,000 bail. The defense attorney asked that his client be released on his own recognizance and explained that the defendant had multiple mental health problems, which he had learned about from the defendant's mother, who lived with her son and was in the court room that day. Judge Peterson called the mother up to the bench and asked her if she was willing to take her son back home. Heartbreakingly, the mother responded, "I'm going to be perfectly honest with you -- no. My son is mentally ill and he needs help. Every time he is checked into the hospital, they release him. He does not need to be incarcerated, he needs HELP." Judge Peterson set $1,000 bail.

Two individuals were arraigned together in another case, a husband and wife who were both charged with assault. It became clear as the prosecutor served notice of their confessional statements that they were each accused of assualting the other. Judge Peterson ascertained that the defendants, who were also the complainants, were interested in mutually withdrawing charges, but the prosecutor objected to this outcome, so a court date was set and, with the prosecutor's consent, the couple were released on their own recognizance for the time being. The prosecutor also asked full orders of protection, stating that it would be best if the two individuals had nothing to do with each other anymore, but the defense argued that since the couple no longer lived together, limited orders of protection would be sufficient. The judge agreed that "in a case like this where they both want to withdraw" she preferred to sign limited orders. "Over my objection," the prosecutor reminded her. "Noted," said the judge. As for mutually withdrawing the charges, the judge implied that without the prosecutor's consent, her hands were tied.

In another case, the prosecutor requested $30,000 bail for an elderly black man who was limping, charged with assaulting two people using a sharp metal object. It initially sounded like a very serious crime, but the defense attorney provided more context: the complainants had stolen the defendant's backpack, and the defendant, who was homeless at the time, was trying to get it back from them. Both the theft and the retaliation were caught on video. The judge set bail in the amount of $15,000 bond / $7,500 cash, confirming my suspicion that the world conspires against the homeless from all corners.



Reflection from a Watcher

This month I've been thinking a lot about the families of people who are incarcerated, how an arrest can have a ripple effect that extends to parents, children, siblings, grandparents, and beyond. On a recent Wednesday night in Manhattan criminal court, the first person who spoke to me was an officer asking if I was looking for a family member. It reminded me that the arraignments I was about to witness were not just about deciding whether an individual will be released or sit in jail, but about all of the people who depend on that person, emotionally, physically and financially. When I went inside, the courtroom was unusually busy, full of an ever rotating group of people waiting to see their loved ones, talking to lawyers in hushed voices, leaving the courtroom, then coming back to wait some more.

A few years ago my little brother was arrested on a felony drug charge. My mom went to his arraignment, and afterwards I remember her telling me that the sight of him in handcuffs made her black out, her brain so stressed that it couldn’t store any memories for two entire days. That night in Manhattan there were several young men being charged with drug felonies, and I watched their families and wondered how they would cope with that stress.

Last week in Queens I saw a judge order a secured surety bond for the first time. I couldn’t hear very well, but I found out after a google search that this is where friends or family of the defendant put up personal property or real estate of the same or greater value as the bond, and if the defendant doesn’t show up for court, they forfeit the property. The grandfather of the teenage defendant posted the bond, and I was struck by the personal risk he was assuming for the love of his grandson, a risk he took on immediately and without hesitation.

One of the many reasons I believe that criminal justice reform is urgent and necessary is because of the damage that the current system does not just to individuals, but to entire families. I witness it every time that I watch court.

Last week, a Brooklyn judge asked a court officer to remove any children from the court room. The judge stated, “I don’t think this courtroom is a good place for children to be.” On top of that, the judge didn’t want children alone in the hallway either, so the older children who were in the courtroom had to accompany the younger kids into the hallway.

That same day, a homeless man who resided in a shelter with his family was arraigned on a felony charge. The defense attorney asked the judge to release the man because if he didn'’t return to the shelter at 9pm sharp, his family would no longer be allowed to stay at the shelter. The accused man was currently working, homeless, was on parole/probation, and his defense attorney stated that his prior missed court date was a long time ago. Judge set $1,500 bail. Court watchers noted that since the man was homeless, he likely would not be able to afford bail (and since the charge was a felony charge, he was also ineligible for bail funds to pay his bail) — effectively remanding him and removing his family from the homeless shelter.



A man who did not speak English was arraigned in Brooklyn last week. A translator was requested but hadn't yet arrived by the time the arraignment started. ADA Rossman asked for $75,000 bail plus passport surrender, citing seriousness of charges and flight risk. The man's public defender pointed out that no CJA score had been given because CJA does not have an interpreter either. Judge reduced bail to $25,000 bond/$10,000 cash bail and supported passport surrender.

In a case of a middle-aged Latinx man charged with a violation of an order of protection in Brooklyn, the ADA asked for $2500 bail. The defense attorney, who had represented the man for over a year, pointed out that the ADA was reading evidence from a previous indictment -- the wrong case. Despite the misinformation, Judge Douglas set bail at the amount requested: $2500 bond/$1,000 cash bail.

Reflection from a Watcher

I’ve been a resident of Queens for 6 years, but my first visit to Queens Criminal Court was last week. Compared to Brooklyn’s & Manhattan’s criminal courts, which are near multiple subway lines, in bustling business districts, near universities, restaurants, cafes etc., Queens Criminal Court is in a somewhat desolate area, difficult to get to, and the actual arraignment courtroom is in a basement. I walked in the building with my bright yellow Court Watch shirt and felt immediately seen—by the security guards at the entrance and the eight or nine police officers, the judge, and the two ADAs that were in the courtroom preparing and waiting for the 5:30pm shift to begin. As I waited for the court to begin processing cases, I was struck by all the paperwork traveling around the room . . . stacks of paperwork on tables and in crates, papers being organized, stapled, torn, filed, shuffled, stapled again, put into other piles, handed between police officers, the bridge officer, ADAs, and Public Defenders. It’s obvious to point out how bureaucratic our criminal legal system is, but when you actually witness it in real time—all the paperwork, the clear hierarchy, the procedures, the jargon, the assembly line of stakeholders going in and out of the room—it’s quite shocking, especially when you see about 30 people—the vast majority of which were people of color—being processed & churned through it.

Many of the cases my Court Watch partner and I saw were processed in under two minutes and involved accusations of marijuana possession, domestic squabbles, fights, and driving under the influence. For many cases, we could not hear the specific charges being brought against the person because the bridge officer rattled them off quickly and quietly via a string of numbers and acronyms—yet another way the courtroom is inaccessible. One case that stood out to me and my partner involved an accused man being brought into the courtroom in handcuffs who was having difficulty walking upright and seemed barely conscious. Immediately after the police officer took of his handcuffs and stepped away, the man passed out and fell backwards. The loud “thwack” his head made on the floor was terrifying. We were all evacuated out of the courtroom and made to wait in the hallway until EMS arrived. This man was clearly unwell and yet he was sitting in holdings for probably several hours and then expected to appear before the judge in court.

While I think many of the charges I witnessed shouldn’t be criminal charges at all (marijuana possession, for example), there were some cases that did involve harm. Yet it was crystal clear to me during my shift that our criminal legal system was not created to deal with or respond to harm in a way that’s fair, equitable, and restorative.

I hope that as more New Yorkers learn about what’s going on in criminal courts and the decisions that prosecutors carry out in “the people’s” name, the public will not only demand change and accountability, but they will also work towards building alternative structures outside of the criminal legal system that empower community members to prevent and respond to harm.

Poem from a Watcher

Girlfriend stands

and leaves in a rush

in a huff

Full order of protection


despite her plea

No order, please

Judge did not listen

to She



Brooklyn Criminal Court, February 2019

Brooklyn Criminal Court, February 2019

>> On Tuesday, February 19th 2019, a black man between the age of 35-44 was brought up on petit larceny and drug charges. ADA Rossman requested to sentence the man to 90 days in jail, for a disorderly conduct violation. The defense rejected this resolution and argued that the accused’s prior convictions were in 2005 and 2009 and instead, the man needed help due to his physical and mental health problems and that penalizing him would not improve the situation. ADA Rossman requested $3,500 bail, arguably due to prior arrests/convictions and having current open cases. The defense further argued that bail would hurt his client financially. The man would not be able to afford the bail and he could end up losing his apartment. Due to the accused’s inability to afford bail along with his physical and mental health problems, his defense attorney requested ROR or supervised release instead. Judge Petersen seemed to agree with the defense and was seemed interested in avoiding a sentencing that resulted in jail time. The judge adjourned the case to MBTC for drug treatment and issued three full orders of protection.

>> In another case, there was a brief fight over misgendering of an accused person. Everyone in court kept referring to the accused as “she” and although the accused continued to say “I am a man” no one clarified or amended how they referred to the individual.

>> In Brooklyn, a black man and a black woman were charged with petit larceny for shoplifting $216.00 worth of food. ADA Rossman recommended that one individual plea to a disorderly conduct violation and the other plea to the top charge, with time served for both. The defense attorney and Judge Petersen accepted the DA’s sentence. The case resolved with both accused people taking a plea and both were ordered to pay $250.00 by May 31st. Court watchers wondered if the accused would be able to pay the $250 fine, considering they were arrested for allegedly shoplifting food (seemingly a crime of poverty).

>> A Latinx man between the age of 45 and 54, was charged for robbery and assault. The ADA requested $2,500 bail, citing that the man was a high risk due to prior convictions. Defense rejected this saying that everything on the man's rap sheet was wrong and his 2013 charge was actually an error. The defense requested the accused be released (ROR'd), citing ties to the community and the fact that the man is currently on parole/probation. Judge Petersen set $5,000 bail and issued a full order of protection.



Hearing complaints continue in Manhattan and Brooklyn. in Manhattan on February 14th watchers could not figure out the judges nor the ADAs names for the entire shift, and in Brooklyn on February 16th watchers reported around seven police officers in the court and ADAs speaking loudly off to the side throughout the arraignments, preventing them from being able to hear the court proceedings.

In Manhattan, a young Black man was arrested for his use of a bent metrocard and was released on his own recognizance. Court watchers ask: what is the point of arresting someone for a bent metrocard? Threat of spending the night in jail? Putting it on the record? Also in Manhattan, multiple petit larceny cases were ROR’d and referred to CASES program. Court watchers wonder again, what is the point of arresting someone for petit larceny in these instances?

In Manhattan, police arrested a Black man who has a full time job, works six days a week, lives with his mother, and does not live in the apartment where the drugs in question were found. The co-defendant told the police the drugs were hers, but ADA Mauck requested bail at $50k and Judge Thompson set $15k.

In Brooklyn on February 14, Judge Gingold welcomed a group of visitors (potentially judges?) from Japan and repeatedly delayed hearings to explain the court proceedings to them. In one case, she forgot to sign a form because she was distracted, “Wait, don’t go anywhere, I forgot to sign because I’m telling them what I’m doing.” Another observer remarked, “They do more talking than working in here!” The same judge took a phone call in the middle of the defense’s plea for a defendant, who she then remanded.

In Brooklyn, a 24 year-old Black man with epilepsy and ADHD was arrested for grand larceny and fugitive warrant for a misdemeanor case (possession of small amount of marijuana) in Pennsylvania. His family was in the courtroom and ready to take him back to PA. Defense requested medical attention, food, and psychological treatment for the accused. In the middle of the defense’s plea, Judge Gingold took a phone call and left the courtroom. When the judge returned she remands the accused man, sending him to Rikers with no bail. Family sobbing, audibly concerned about their family member’s wellbeing.

Reflection from a Watcher

The entire night I only saw one white defendant and he was escorted to a different room. It was all men of color, primarily Black. Not one case expressed social harm; they exacerbated it. I saw a theft of services (turnstile jump) case that was dismissed, but he brought in in handcuffs and handed a metrocard to go home. Why not NOT arrest him and save all the time, trauma, and money? Another man in cuffs was brought in on a warrant from 20 years ago for walking in between subway cars. How is that even a crime? He got an ACD. Why not a dismissal? I saw another man plead guilty for possession of cocaine and get 30 days. Everyone knows that’s not going to help, including the judge and DA. No one cares.

Reflection from a Watcher

There were two judges sitting in arraignments today because the more experienced one, Joseph Gubbay, was training a new judge, Kerry Ward, who was just appointed by De Blasio last month. Both judges seemed very much on the same page, and both were outraged at the ADAs' leniency. In at least three cases, the ADA explicitly consented to ROR and one or both judges (sometimes when Ward was sitting Gubbay would break in--at one point he even said something like "I don't mean to double-team you, but...") set bail anyway, berating the ADAs in the process. Nearly every time bail was set, defense counsel explained that the client couldn't pay and asked to be allowed to pay by credit card, and the court always refused. In one additional case the judges set bail without even hearing from the ADAs, and in another case where the defendant had warranted, Judge Ward set bail even though defense counsel had stated the accused was homeless. (I'm not sure if the ADA was given a chance to take a position on bail in that warrant case.)

For example, one accused person was arraigned on two cases; the former was a DV case, and in the latter he allegedly threatened a stranger with a knife. The ADA requested orders of protection and consented to ROR, but Judge Ward questioned the ADA, asking why they weren't seeking bail. The ADA didn't budge but Ward clearly wasn't satisfied and turned to the defense. Defense counsel disputed the facts of both cases and stated the defendant's last contact was 7 years ago, he's employed full-time, cares for his two minor children, and if bail were set he could lose his job. Judge Ward asked the defense how much bail the defendant could afford and didn't seem to be paying attention as the defense said none. Judge Ward set bail at $1000.

In another case, the accused person was charged with reckless driving and other offenses and the prosecutor offered a plea to VTL 509 with a fine. The defense agreed but Judge Ward rejected the offer, and Judge Gubbay appeared to jump up to yell at the ADA, saying that failing to install an interlock device was a "very very serious crime," as was reckless driving. The ADA continued to consent to ROR but the judges refused and ordered defense counsel to make a bail argument. Defense counsel continued to ask for ROR, but Judge Ward, after asking about defendant's ability to pay and hearing that he had only $100, set bail in the amount of $1000 bond/$1000 cash. Defense asked for unsecured or credit card bail and Judge Ward refused.

In another case, Judge Ward opened by instructing the ADA not to make an offer because she wanted the case to go to MBTC (a drug treatment court). The ADA nevertheless made an offer on the record of a plea to the charge (an A misdemeanor) and time served. Judge Gubbay then stood up and intensely berated the ADA for making an offer when Ward had told him not to; Gubbay complained that if an offer of time served was on the table the accused would surely take it, and "you are undermining" the judge's intention for the case to go to MBTC. At one point in his tirade from the bench he even stated that this was "off the record," though I don't know if the court reporter stopped taking it down or not. Gubbay closed by saying, "No offer is to be made if it's being transferred to MBTC." The ADA, chastened, mumbled an apology, and the defense counsel explained that they had already agreed on the offer, the ADA was merely holding up his end of the bargain, and the client did not want treatment. The case was nevertheless sent to MBTC.