Orders of protections are being used punitively. During our shift, we watched a man essentially lose his home, and consequently his chances of receiving the state ID that had been mailed to him and landing one of the jobs he’s been applying for, because the full order of protection requested by the ADA and granted by the judge — despite the man’s Legal Aid attorney arguing that 1. he had no record, 2. he’d never even seen the man he was accused of assaulting (in the third degree) before because 3. they live on different floors of the same shelter and 4. he said he’d been acting in self-defense when the alleged assault took place  — prevents him from returning to his place of residence. The Legal Aid attorney asked for a limited order of protection, but Judge Darkeh granted a full order of protection. What’s going to happen to this man? I guess he’s supposed to feel lucky the ADA consented to his release on his own recognizance. But until his case is heard on October 18, a full 38 days after his arraignment, what is he supposed to do? Where is he supposed to go? (And why do we never give the same weight to the defendant’s response to the allegations against them as we do to those making the allegations? Like how police officers have a lot more leeway to act in self-defense than, say, a person of color living in a men’s shelter?)

If all Watchers aren’t talking to the public defenders, I’d recommend it. We spoke with them at the beginning of our shift, to let them know we were present and to ask them for information we couldn’t get from the court — for example, the names of the two female ADAs. One was Jones — “Cory,” per an NYC citywide payroll document for fiscal year 2016 — the other they didn’t know, and of course if she ever identified herself it was impossible to hear in the courtroom. It’s always impossible to hear everything. But the public defenders, who this evening were all Legal Aid Society lawyers, answered all the questions they could, and some even tried to speak more loudly and clearly. They are the only officials in the courtroom who seem to care one iota about the defendants: how bail and orders of protection might affect their clients; how things like typos, missing information in reports, and even weirdly stapled paperwork needed to be addressed right away — trying to rectify mistakes in their records their clients might not even have been aware of, but which could have serious consequences. They’re also the only ones who acknowledge what a byzantine nightmare the criminal justice system actually is. It makes me wonder how the people charged with enforcing the laws really feel about their work upholding the system.

Every shift makes me sadder and angrier. I feel deep relief when anyone is in the audience (“audience” is a macabre semantic choice) waiting for a defendant. People who’ve been ROR’ed or released on bail sit in the front row, awaiting their paperwork, having to put on their belts and relace their shoes, and I just want them to be able to stop feeling like they’re on display. Everyone who’s flown commercially in the past 17 years has experienced the now-banal loss of dignity going through the screening process — at best, having to remove your shoes, go through a full-body scanner and/or be patted down; at worst, be sexually assaulted and humiliated. Imagine being the only one in the room who has to put themselves back together while other people chat and joke about how “you really have to try to get arrested in weather like last night’s.” Why does our definition of justice require ritual humiliation?



Cases of Note

A prosecutor requested $20K bail in a case in Brooklyn where an elderly black man was charged with petit larceny, assault on a police officer, and resisting arrest after allegedly stealing 34 deodorants from Walgreens. Although the accused has misdemeanors and other felonies on his record, plus four other open cases, the defense noted that their client is on disability, lives with their mother and has doctor’s appointments twice a week. The accused was ROR'd.

A Brooklyn man was charged with driving without a license, possession of burglary tools, and possession of a blank check after a plainclothes officer in an unmarked vehicle pulled him over for failure to signal for a parking spot. ADA requested $2,500 bail, but $1 bail was set at public defender’s request. A court watcher noted Judge Laura Johnson saying: “Sounds like a terrible search to me.”

A black man plead guilty in Manhattan for a petit larceny (shoplifting) charge over toenail cream. DA requested either CASES Newstart program or 10 days jail time. Man sentenced to mandatory program, or potentially have to spend 10 days in jail, for stealing toenail cream.

Prosecutor requested $5,000 bail for black woman who was arrested on charges of possession of firearm and some drug possession charges. The accused, however, says she was babysitting a relative and claims the items in question were not their own and they cannot be held responsible for a gun in the residence. The accused claims when one of their family members had an altercation with the police the officer stated, “now we’re taking you all in,” and arrested everyone in the house as retaliation. The prosecutor brings up accused's past cases/convictions but defense mentions accused's previous felony is being dismissed due to lack of evidence and also their enrollment in PLAN program. The defense requested the accused be ROR'd and the Judge consented to ROR but noted that “all bets are off” if she misses her next court date.

Individual with a private attorney in Brooklyn charged with Menacing in the 2nd Degree. Prosecution requested the accused be ROR'd with an order of protection and the Judge consented to ROR with no order of protection.



Statistics of Injustice

  • Out of all the cases watched this week where court watchers recorded the gender of the accused (41 total), roughly 70% were men and 30% were women.

    • According to one court watcher, over the course of one three-hour shift in court, the Brooklyn judge misgendered three different defendants.

  • Out of the cases where court watcher recorded the race of the accused (34 total), 50% were black, 26% were Latinx, and 17% were White.

  • Out of the cases where the charges were recorded (27 total), 22% were driving infractions, 18% were drug charges, 17% were petit larceny, and 14% were assault charges.

  • Out of the cases where the duration was recorded (30 total), 50% took between two and five minutes, 30% took under two minutes, and 20% took longer than five minutes.

A few cases from last week

  • In Manhattan, a black man in his sixties was charged with petit larceny for stealing 2 face creams and 3 bottles of shampoo from a Duane Reade. ADA Molly Mauck offered a plea and Judge Adams sentenced him to the CASES program and 30 days jail time, though the defense asked for less jail time.

  • In the same courtroom, on the same day, a man and a woman were both charged Grand Larceny for stealing cosmetics from Duane Reade. ADA Mauck argued that because the male defendant was homeless, he had no ties to the community, he requested bail be set at $15,000. The judge instead sentenced him to supervised release through the CASES program.

  • A white man in his sixties was charged with trespassing. ADA Kelly Stankiewicz argued that he was a “chronic offender,” having been arrested 42 times, having been charged with trespassing at the same building three times in a row. The defense asked that he be given time served or supervised release through CASES. The ADA argued that he was not eligible because they could not verify his address, and Judge Adams agreed, refusing to grant time served or supervised release.

    • Said one courtwatcher: “No big crime is being committed, sounds like he’s very annoying to these residents…If these types of minor incidents keep occurring, it’s clear the court’s solutions have been ineffective in getting him to stop/change his behavior. Not sure what the solution is, but clear there hasn’t been one. Is there one?”

  • A black woman in her sixties was charged with possession of contraband for trying to smuggle a phone into a correctional facility. She was already in state custody for a felony and was brought into the courtroom in chains and handcuffs (despite the fact that she used a cane). ADA Mauck requested bail be set at $1,000, but the judge set it at $1 instead.

  • A sixteen-year-old boy was charged with 2nd degree robbery in Manhattan. The defense noted that it was his first brush with the law and denied the allegations, saying “I don’t believe this case will proceed.” ADA Mauck made no offer or recommendation, requesting an order of protection and supervised release for the accused. Judge Adams called the boy’s father to come up to the bench and asked him if he would make sure his son followed an 8PM curfew. The boy was released on his own recognizance but with an 8PM curfew.

  • An ADA in Manhattan moved to dismiss marijuana charges against a Latino man, “in the interest of justice, due to the DA’s new marijuana policy.” However, K2 continues to be prosecuted: a young black man in Manhattan was charged with possession of a controlled substance in the 7th and sentenced. The defense argued that the compound seized was “unidentifiable” and that the DA’s marijuana policy was still relevant to this case and requested that the charges be dismissed. The judge responded, “make your motion on paper,” sentencing the defendant to time served and suspending his license for six months.



A few cases from last week

  • ADA Meghan Dunigan requested $5k bail for a black male defendant charged with assault in the third degree. Defense argued defendant had ties to community and was both working and going to school. Even though the defendant had to pick up his child at 3 pm that day from school (and the child is not co-parented with anyone else), judge still set bail at $2k.

  • ADA Meghan Dunigan requested $5k bail for black male defendant charged with assault in the third degree. Defendant had an open warrant for the same charge. Defense argued defendant was indigent and unable to pay bail. Judge set bail at $2,500.

  • ADA Meghan Dunigan requested $7,500 bail for a black female defendant charged with assault in the second degree. It was the defendant’s first arrest, the defendant had family/friends in the courtroom, and she was eligible for Mental Health Court Advocacy monitoring, judge denied defense’s request for release on her own recognizance and set bail at $2500.

  • Defendant was charged with a misdemeanor for aggravated harassment in the second degree. Defendant tried to speak directly with the judge but was denied. An example of how defendants have their freedom of speech restricted in court and cannot participate in their own defense.

  • Defendant was charged with attempted petit larceny and possession of “burglary tools.” Any tool could be a burglary tool. Even the ADA Meghan Dunigan quoted the defendant’s explanation of his possession of a crow bar, “I use this for work.”

  • ADA Meghan Dunigan requested $750 bail for white male defendant charged with “possession of weapon,” in this case, some type of razor blade or box cutter. This defendant has no criminal record but three failures to appear in court. Defense said that in prior discussions, ADA Dunigan had consented to ROR but switched at the last minute to requesting bail, so the defense had no time to prepare. Judge released the defendant on his own recognizance.

  • An elderly Latino man pled guilty to Petit Larceny and Possession of Stolen Property after allegedly stealing 10 bags of frozen shrimp from Whole Foods. He was sentenced to the CASES program with a 15-day jail alternative.

  • Judge Herbert Moses denied an elderly Latino man an Access Order to retrieve belongings from his own home after the defendant had violated a previous Limited Order of Protection against his roommate. The accused, currently charged with Harassment in the 2nd, was the leaseholder of the apartment and was accused of making threats against his roommate. The defense stated to the judge, “You are basically making my client homeless with no personal property.” The judge repeatedly answered, “He can make alternative arrangements.”

  • A black man was charged with Grand Larceny in the 3rd after allegedly stealing a $4,000 handbag from Saks. The man had been released from a drug program 4 days before the alleged incident, was currently homeless and was awaiting sentencing on another case. The defense stressed that his client could not afford any bail. ADA Meaghan Dunigan requested $60k bail, Judge Herbert Moses granted $30k.

  • ADA Meaghan Dunigan requested $1,000 bail for a man arrested for kicking a radio in a police precinct. He was present at the precinct to help the police identify a suspect. Judge Moses ROR’d.

  • ADA Dunigan requested $50k bail for a Latino man charged with Grand Larceny and Criminal Possession of a Controlled Substance in the 7th. The accused had allegedly snatched a gold chain off of someone’s neck and had been found with a crack pipe in his pocket when arrested. The defense highlighted that her defendant had been stopped and searched by the police without any probable cause. Judge Moses granted $25k bail.  

  • During one three-hour shift in court, out of the cases where court watchers recorded the gender of the accused (51 total), 88% of accused people were men and 12% were women. Out of the cases in which court watchers recorded the race of the accused (48 total), 64% were Black, 19% were White and 17% were Latinx.

Reflection from a Watcher

This system seems hopelessly ill equipped to handle the bodies it claims dominion over. This was apparent to me on day one, when an attorney called into the courtroom I was attending for help from court officers. A dozen sprung up immediately and bolted towards the door until the attorney noted “someone is having a seizure”, when then all but one or two of those officers turned around, almost disappointed, perhaps realizing their training prepared them to deal with bodies in a very different way than helping someone in need.

This was made apparent to me again, when a man in an interview room became frantic over a 32 year old warrant that was about to prevent his release. “32 years!”, he yelled over and over again, until he sprawled out on the floor inside the interview room and the judge casually left the courtroom. There, another detained person on the bench pointed out to the court officers that the man in the interview room had asthma, and was hyperventilating. So they took the man back into the Tombs, where he immediately started throwing up, and an enraged court officer brought him a trash can. Twenty or so minutes after the man went behind the closed door to the Tombs, and the judge had returned, medics passed through the courtroom. “Twenty minutes for medical attention for an asthma attack?,” I thought to myself.

I find many of the court workers to be callously engaged in their personal conversations while this all is going on, and my hand is covering my mouth, agape. I suppose I can’t blame them, this is how one adapts to seeing this sort of thing every day. But still, these detained people have been brought here under the state’s discretion. The state wants them here, and therefore should be responsible for what that entails. In the outside world that often requires tremendous networks of support from families and friends, that allow us to stay alive and functioning each day with each other’s aid. That’s the burden that the state seems to accept, and then neglects, when sweeping people up in such a system.

And for some, their very act of survival is how they end up here. An elderly, thin, black man goes before the stand to accept a plea for petit larceny and is read the diatribe of guilt that he must admit to for the plea to be sufficiently accepted. When the judge asks, “Do you have anything else to say?” her diatribe is unexpectedly interrupted by “I was hungry” from the man, referencing the sausages he allegedly stole.



Watcher's Major Takeaways


  • In Brooklyn, a man was charged with Assault in the 3rd against a one-year-old child. After an Order of Protection was granted, there was discussion as to whether the defendant would be able to find a place to stay. In response, Judge Baron stated that she worried if he couldn’t find an alternative, he would return to the home he was supposed to stay away from. She then proposed that “maybe we need to set bail,” commenting “these allegations are horrendous,” to which the defense contested that “possibility of future offenses does not warrant bail.” While the Judge seemed to concede to this, she decided to not resolve the case, instead sending the defendant back to the Tombs to wait to be arraigned for the third time.
  • In another instance, a man was charged with Assault in the 3rd and Robbery in the 2nd after an alleged violent attack against a complaining witness whom already had an OP in place against him. ADA Tziyonah Langsam requested $15,000 bail, citing other pending assault cases involving the same complainant. Judge Kitis granted $7,500. Here a watcher noted that, “it’s hard to hear allegations of assault, especially intimate partner violence. This is one of the times I’ve felt most conflicted about what a good solution would be, but being held in jail is not a good solution.”


  • A woman was charged with Attempted Assault in the 3rd after an altercation with her brother. The ADA, charging it as a Felony, requested $5,000 bail. The defense highlighted that the accused lived in a family shelter with her children, worked as a home health aid and could definitely not pay any bail. Judge Thompson ROR’d and adjourned for a diversion program.
  • ADA S. Dunning requested $5,000 bail for a man charged with Criminal Contempt in the 2nd, a misdemeanor, after he violated an order of protection to visit his children. His history of domestic incidents with the victim was offered as the rationale for high bail. In this instance, not only had the victim not called the police, but had also invited the defendant over to watch their children. Judge Kim set bail at $2,500.
  • ADA S. Dunning requested $1,500 bail for a black man charged with Criminal Possession of a Controlled Substance in the 7th, the lowest possible offense chargeable for unlawful possession. The defense rejected the DA’s offer of 20 days jail, Judge Kim ordered supervised release.
  • ADA Carlos J. Benitez requested $500 bail for a young black man charged with an unclear misdemeanor offense. The ADA offered 2 days community service for plea to the charge. The PD negotiated it down to 1 day and stated his client would take the offer. Judge Moses though, was forced to reject the plea, after the defendant would only answer “I guess,” in his admission of guilt, emphasizing various times that “I was arrested for was panhandling.”   
  • In stark contrast to the majority of witnessed cases, a well-known rapper who was charged with a Felony Assault was granted $10,000 bail in an agreement with the prosecution that had been negotiated ahead of time. An insurance company bond was ready to close immediately for him to be released. This proceeding spotlighted the major benefit of having financial resources within the criminal justice system.


  • One defendant, a black male, was charged with Marijuana Possession after he was pulled over for a failure to properly signal and subsequent supposed failure to pull over when asked. Officers alleged that he had “red, watery eyes,” and that they found “marijuana cigarettes,” in his car. The accused had also complied to a blood test that was pending results. The ADA asked for the judge to suspend his license. The defense noted that this case completely lacked evidence and that it was unclear what his defendant was even being charged with. A watcher noted that, “the fact that he is black and had ‘marijuana cigarettes’ really seems to have played a role.”
  • A young black man in Manhattan was arraigned for a Marijuana case from 2013. Although Judge Thompson was happy to grant an ACD, a watcher noted that, “the defendant still had to sit in handcuffs for an hour,” while awaiting his case.
  • In another courtroom, a young black man in Manhattan had his Marijuana case dismissed by Judge Kim, after ADA S. Dunning recommended the case be “dismissed in the interest of justice,” and noted that his office would no longer be prosecuting this offense. Another three marijuana cases that arose were similarly “dismissed in the interest of justice,” and did not require the accused to be present, signaling a positive change and the beginning of an actual adherence to the new policy.

Reflection from Watchers

Monday August 20, 2018
Brooklyn Criminal Court, AR3
Judge: Elizabeth Warin

A court watch shift makes it abundantly clear how much a real arraignment is nothing like a court proceeding you’d see on TV. This should come as no surprise, but seeing it all unfold so quickly and methodically, with a mishmash of documents being shuffled through with every case, is still disconcerting. The limited amount of time the court was able to spend on each arraignment not only has a negative impact on transparency, but can potentially affect the extent to which all the right evidence is marshaled and put into context.

The sheer volume of cases was noteworthy. It was also eye-opening to see just how many Orders of Protection a judge issues in just three hours of arraignments (granted, it was a busy Monday session).

I was surprised by how nervous some of the defense attorneys were, with some speaking very hesitantly. Occasionally the defense attorneys' argumentation was weak — at one point a defense attorney mentioned that a defendant’s previous warrant had been issued on the defendant's birthday, as if that was a key point. In another case, a defendant was accused of pulling a gun on a driver to steal a vehicle. After the prosecutor requested that bail be set at $50,000, the defense attorney, with his voice wavering nervously, requested that the defendant be released on his own recognizance, or else have bail set at $10,000. He undermined his own argument by sounding doubtful that he would get what he was asking for given the seriousness of the charges, and when the judge pushed back on how great the defendant's record was in relation to previous probations and warrants, he stammered in between long pauses, sounding uninformed. Bail was ultimately set at $20,000.

Limited resources rarely explicitly arose as a reason to reduce bail, but defense attorneys often used the phrasing that they were seeking a more "reasonable" bail amount. Risk assessments and flight risk determinations were not frequently discussed per se, but mitigating factors that arose fairly often were the defendant's employment and behavioral change, contextual factors within the defendant's prior criminal record, and support systems that the defendant had in place.

The judge was very no-nonsense, like when she made a point of insisting that one defendant should not be sent to Misdemeanor Brooklyn Treatment Court (MBTC) if there was no evidence whatsoever that he had a substance abuse problem. The prosecutor noted that having 5 misdemeanors make a person MBTC-eligible. The judge reiterated that sending defendants to MBTC when it was unnecessary, which is not uncommon, was not something she was interested in doing.

Monday August 20, 2018
Brooklyn Criminal Court, AR3
Judge: Elizabeth Warin

It was Monday night in Brooklyn. We were waiting for arraignments to start; I lost track of time, it could have been twenty minutes or forty. We were four white women Court Watchers sitting in a line with our papers out, ready to take notes, waiting for -- dare I say -- our source material. Everyone else in the audience - about twenty people, majority people of color - were there to see their loved one for the first time since their arrest.

Once arraignments started, it was a continuous stream of folks until 9pm, the end of our shift. At least 20 people. So, it was pretty challenging trying to track all the data. I ended up trying to pay attention to whether someone was ROR'd immediately, or if there was a discussion around their release. I was surprised that a lot of people were released on the spot and bail wasn't explicitly mentioned. Overall, bail was set on less than half of the cases. When it was set, I was surprised that the judge sometimes, but not always, and for reasons I don't understand, gave a credit card alternative, which was in the same amount as the cash bail. 

If a defendant had people in the audience show up for them, the defense always mentioned that as an argument in favor of release. There was a young man whose caseworker, also quite young, came to advocate for his release. The judge told the young man, "that's very nice of your caseworker to have come here, be sure to thank her." The judge made similar comments to other young defendants throughout the night, like, "It's good you're in school". Her words felt impersonal, obvious to the point of being condescending, or empty in their generalness.

There were two or three cases where the prosecutor flagged a defendant's warrant history for the judge, and the judge then gave pause. It just so happened that for these defendants the warrants in question were all from 10-plus years ago! And had since been vacated! It's hard to believe that warranting on a case ten years ago is a consideration in getting bail set in the present. This system doesn't give folks the benefit of the doubt that their lives are different for them today than they were 10-plus years ago, and that the reasons why they failed to appear in court 10 years ago aren't relevant today!