LAST WEEK IN COURT

DECEMBER 25 - DECEMBER 31

manhattan-court.jpg

On the second to last day of the year, in Brooklyn Criminal Court, the vast majority of the defendants peopling the packed arraignment schedule were Black men. Of around 25 men and women taking their turns standing before the judge, only one or two were White. Case files on the attorneys' desk stacked on top of each other, sometimes more than one warrant per person. One Black man was accused by a Rite Aid of stealing bottles of Advil and Motrin; they were, his lawyer said, for his sick children. Even more galling, the charge the state was bringing against him was drug possession, not petit larceny. Another Black man, elderly and ill, was given a chair only when his attorney told the court in some detail about his ailments. A Black woman, by the account her attorney gave, was merely present at an assault committed by her boyfriend rather than, as the state contended, part of it; the bail requested on one of her warrants was in the thousands of dollars. These and the other cases that stick most strongly with me, and which present their own kind of damning pattern within an already racist system, are ones where White prosecutors and White judges levy heavy charges and heavy bail on Black defendants.

Court Watching sometimes lays bare the small moments of humanity that exist within the court system, but more often, it's their absence that I notice. I've been struck, in the wintertime, by the frequency of accused people having been arrested without a coat, or in short pajamas, or in flip-flops. Twice in the last two months, I have seen frail, ill, or elderly defendants unable to stand before the judge. And even without harsher circumstances like these, the court is not set up for the comfort or understanding of people accused of a crime, despite the fact that they are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. The first thing I noticed about the Brooklyn Central Court building, for instance, is how imposing it seems, and how that imposition must be magnified if the reason you're there is because you've been accused of a crime. The limestone facade stands out on its corner of Schermerhorn, diagonally across from a very pricey hotel, and when you enter, there's a winding maze of crowd borders that shuffles you up to the metal detectors. The guards might direct you where to go, depending on the volume of people they're dealing with, or you might be left to find your courtroom yourself. You might have family and friends able to come to your arraignment, or you might not. Childcare, work, school, and all kinds of other obligations regularly make it hard for folks to trek to downtown Brooklyn even for the people they love the most.

When you enter the courtroom as a Court Watcher, it's almost as though you're watching a play from your seat in the audience. (And indeed, lawyers and other court personnel often refer to the pew-like rows of benches as exactly that: the audience.) It's a play in which everyone on "stage" (at the judge's bench, in the prosecution and defense respective warrens of desks, and among the court officers, clustering in various parts of the space) has the script, but the accused person and their family and friends (if they were able to get there) in the seats probably do not. They might not know exactly what's going on, and depending on which judge they're in front of, they might not get it satisfactorily explained. The performative aspect of the courtroom makes sense on some levels. Everyone sinks into the role they have to play. So too does the apparent detachment of regular staff that a lot of Court Watchers have noticed in previous reflections. The courtroom is a daily workplace for bridge officers, court officers, judges, and attorneys, and sometimes you have to detach a little to keep up a regular grind, but it's a daily workplace where other people's lives are irrevocably affected, every hour.

In my time Court Watching, I've gotten used to a lot of what's said, a lot of the legal terms and penal law numbers and other information that gets conveyed only verbally and usually very quickly and sometimes not over a microphone. I've gotten used to it enough to be able to understand most of it, but every time I'm there, I decipher something new, and often I'm struggling, in the echoey, drafty, chatter-filled space, to hear the words in the first place. As a group, Court Watchers share docket numbers and other data, very often purely because one or more of us can't hear it when the bridge officer announces it. How much harder would it be to understand it if my English was more limited, or my hearing in any way impaired, or my emotions high because I wasn't sure if my partner or child would be released that day or not, and if they were, if we could make their bail?

This noise problem (which Court Watchers have been encountering and advocating against for months, but which accused people and their families have been dealing with for years) feels to me to be a function of the insider mentality. When we Court Watch, we make inroads into one of the systems that most aggressively upholds white supremacy, and that also has considerable power to unravel it.

A pattern I didn't expect is the unevenness of how the narrative of the facts of the case, as presented by the District Attorneys and at the heart of the script of the justice performance, gets unfurled. Not every case's facts are shared, which, although sometimes the logical move when a case is easily resolvable on both sides, reveals a tension between efficiency and humanity, tension that I am learning shoots through all the other ways the law is handed down. The system's biases against people of color and poor people are revealed first and foremost by the manner in which a person is arrested by the police, an unendingly racist practice that continually reveals itself both within the NYPD and within other jurisdictions. It makes sense not to tell a story for every defendant if a story isn't needed, for sure, but that raises an important question: who is it needed by? So even though the real place for the extended story is the space of a trial courtroom, one of the spaces that comes after arraignment, the discrepancies sometimes seem to fly in the face of equal treatment under the law. It recently struck me the part of the point of recounting the facts of the case, besides getting the state's case on the record and giving the defense an opportunity to counter, is so the accused person can hear what the state has against them. Each individual deserves to hear their own story in plain and understandable language, and that is not always the case.

The auditory problem is a persistent one, and so far, the response from the court doesn't seem to be the right one. Several weeks back, in an afternoon Court Watch session, our group (and only our group, as far as I could tell) was approached by a court official and offered assistive hearing devices. While a kind thing to do, the offer skewers the source of the real problem, which is systemic. The courtroom is large and loud and drafty, and offering an assistive hearing device is a Band-Aid on a problem that may well marginalize additional people: those with actual hearing impairments. The irony at the heart of both the information gap and the hearing gap that regularly yawn within the courtroom space is that in order for a regular citizen to most fully understand the language and workings of the court system, the best course of action is to be arrested multiple times.

During a shift right before the end of the year, the judge cautioned a White man that the next step ahead of him was Riker's. I was struck by how rarely I've heard that caution from a judge—indeed, how rarely I ever hear the next step in the process said out loud to defendants. If their case isn't dismissed or if they can't make bail, that's where they're heading, sometimes for months. Why did a White judge warn a White defendant, and not the dozens of Black defendants whose bail she'd set earlier in that session? And I've seen other White judges repeat what feels like a script about the importance of doing better and working hard only when the accused person in front of them is a person of color. What I'd like to see in 2019 from White judges and White district attorneys is more of an awareness that the deck our society shuffles is unfairly stacked against people of color in insidious and constant ways; that whiteness or money or both does a heck of a lot to protect certain people from doing time in prison; that the story of what happened at a ‘crime scene’ is a lot more complex than what a police officer might notice; and primarily, that a conviction for a broken windows crime (especially) can derail a person's life in ways you might not even be able to predict. The responsibility of the justice system should not be to punish, and is rarely, in practice, to rehabilitate; it should be more expansive, more humane, more measured, and cease to contribute to the social structures of white supremacy.




LAST WEEK IN COURT

DECEMBER 18 - DECEMBER 24

Christmas Eve in Brooklyn

  • In more than one case on Christmas Eve, Judge Perlmutter first told people that they were free to go then recanted, “You know what, I change my mind.”

  • A middle-aged Russian man was arrested while walking to the train after a holiday party. He was charged with 2nd degree aggravated assault on an elderly cab driver. The accused man denied the charge and claimed it was a misidentification. The cab driver claimed that the man broke his mirror to steal a phone but the accused’s hand was uninjured. The accused person has a clean record and long work history. Judge Perlmutter set $3,500 unsecured bond with the requirement of 2 signatures (co-signers). Without access to his phone, the accused man could not reach anyone and requested credit card bail. Judge allowed it but increased the amount to $7,500 which surpassed the accused’s credit limit. The man must spend next three days, including Christmas, in custody.

  • A Latinx man in his 20s was charged with theft of service and 3rd degree trespassing for turnstile jumping. It was difficult to hear anyone in the courtroom and it was unclear why the minor charge was being brought. The accused pleaded guilty to a disorderly conduct violation with a sentence of time served.

December 18, Manhattan

  • A middle-aged White man was accused of possession of stolen property for allegedly stealing a juice from Duane Reade. The accused’s hands and feet were cuffed during the arraignment and a court watcher noticed visible swelling of the man’s hands, noting the accused was in distress and asked for the cuffs to be removed. The man’s public defender was unable to verify family ties because the accused man had his cell phone taken and couldn't remember a family member's cell phone number. ADA Brown offered a plea to the charge with a sentence of 30 days in jail. The accused took the guilty plea.

  • Another middle-aged man appeared before Judge Statsinger in handcuffs, which a court watcher noted seemed unnecessary. The man was arrested on a felony charge of identity theft in the 2nd degree for allegedly possessing a fake ID. ADA Brown requested $20,000 bail. The public defender requested supervised release, arguing that the man has ties to the community and his last case was over 10 years ago. Judge Statsinger approved the man for supervised release. During this arraignment, a court watcher noticed that the accused had a sandwich in his pocket, which made them question if/how often people are fed while they’re waiting for their arraignment.

  • A 22-year-old Black man was charged with possession of a forged instrument (for allegedly selling a subway swipe), possession of marijuana, criminal mischief in the 2nd degree, among other charges. The ADA offered a plea to the charge and 15 days jail time on one of the charges, and 25 days jail or $1000 bail on the possession of a forged instrument charge. The public defender cited that the accused person was living in a shelter, but currently has a more stable address and requested supervised release for their client. The accused also had no prior record. Judge Statsinger did not agree to supervised release and set bail.

  • A middle-aged Black man was arraigned on a robbery in the 2nd degree charge for allegedly stealing wine. ADA Brown requested $25,000 bail, citing the man’s prior record from 1990 (DWI charge). The public defender requested the man be released on his own recognizance and explains that he was recommended for release by the Criminal Justice Agency (CJA). Further, his client denied the allegations as they were presented and works full-time. Judge Statsinger set $20,000 cash bail or $20,000 bail bond.

  • ADA Brown requested $50,000 bond and Judge Statsinger set $25,000 bail for a man charged with criminal possession of a weapon who surrendered himself to the police and had four family members present in the courtroom.


2018 in Review: Reflection from a Court Watcher

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly…

The Good: it seems there are less high bails or bails at all and more people being released (RORed). Also Court Watch is known, at least at the Manhattan Court I go to. While waiting for someone near the security check-in (in my yellow Court Watch shirt) a Court Officer came up to me and asked "You're not watching me are you?" I also had a few Legal Aid lawyers tell me they support what we are doing. I think being there has an effect.

The Bad: I would estimate 70 percent of the cases I have seen are nonsense arrests, a waste of time and money all around... a lot of drug residue cases, and shoplifting. Also, why are there a dozen police officers in the court? They have to cost a lot of money to staff like this, I am not an expert… but do they really need that many? Also, there are a ton of assault cases, but really more domestic disputes cases. I am not sure how serious they all are, but they take up a sizable amount of the arraignments and TROs are issued like candy. I have seen the judges become completely mindless of their effects, one time a man who disputed the charges received one that left him literally homeless. The defense argued this point and his objection was dismissed. Finally, I have yet to see a judge ask or consider if the bail ordered was affordable to the accused person. I thought that was supposed to be a consideration.

The Ugly: Shackles and Handcuffs. One homeless man who needed a cane to walk. He was old, overweight and harmless. His hands were handcuffed so he could not use his cane to walk which he needed. He was forced to hobble right through court while everyone waited and sat in a bench and sat for over 3 hours. His crime shoplifting and he was released. Was it really necessary to make him hobble like this and sit handcuffed for 3 hours for shoplifting? It's mindless and cruel.

The worst one I saw was this month. A Black women in her 30s was brought in in shackles and handcuffs. Besides the obvious optic of this, it was completely unnecessary. She happen to sit in front of me. Her crime, she had an outstanding Bench Warrant that was issued when she was homeless (she is now working and has an apartment) and never knew about it. Whatever crime it was for, she was released so how bad could it be? She had to sit in court with shackles and handcuffs until she was called, her leg was bruised from the shackles.

Happy New Year to all...

LAST WEEK IN COURT

DECEMBER 11 - DECEMBER 17

Overall Trends:

  • One question that often comes up with court watchers after orders of protection are issued: where do accused people go after receiving an order of protection? If they lived with the person they are now prohibited from contacting, where do they live during that time before the next court date? It seems as though this is not a concern of the court, but it can have huge effects on someone's safety, ability to be reached, and financial stability. Court watchers note that orders of protection are a very common condition of release, and rarely does a court watching session go by without an order of protection being issued.

  • One court watcher noted how the inconsistencies in the judge's decisions disrupt the very notions of "justice," and questioned whether judges approach each case with fairness. A number of court watchers also noted that last week, many judges seemed to be harsher when setting bail. There were a few cases where the judge recognized the accused clearly wouldn't be able to afford the high bail requested by the prosecution. For example, on December 16th in Brooklyn, ADA Hagler requested $25,000 bail on a drug possession charge and Judge Cohen explained $25k was clearly excessive and released the individual.

  • In Brooklyn, the calendar was not up to date in the courtroom. A court watcher inquired about it and was asked "who are you here to see?" When the court watcher replied, "No one, I'm here with Court Watch", the court employee said "ugh not again." The calendar was eventually printed and posted.

  • An accused person in Brooklyn accidentally addressed the judge instead of their lawyer. A court watcher observed, "whenever this happens the room gets palpably tense" and judges have a variety of reactions. “Some get visibly annoyed, some verbally condescending or mean. A few understand that defendants are confused about the rules of the courtroom or seeking clarification.”

Reflection from a Watcher

The two biggest words that come to mind that describe my time watching arraignments are inaccessibility and inefficiency. Firstly, inaccessibility: I have had the privilege of a higher education and am a native English speaker, and the majority of the proceedings of the courtroom were completely over my head. To echo the sentiments of other watchers, everything moves at an alarmingly fast rate. On average, the cases I saw lasted under two minutes. That’s devoting 120 seconds to determine the outcome of someone’s life. That’s how long it takes to microwave popcorn! In the amount of time you microwave a bag of popcorn, someone’s future has just been altered forever. And it’s wild at how mundane it seems to everyone in there. I understand that people that work in particular fields that handle sensitive topics need to develop a certain ability to compartmentalize, but it at least comes across as a total lack of empathy. All the legal jargon, penal codes, and different names and titles that the DA and the judge throw around are extremely disorienting. And, in addition to my privileges of education and language, I have the further luxury of not waiting to hear the outcome of my life. I can’t imagine the emotions and anxiety that the arraigned person is also dealing with in those moments as they are being moved through a system that is not designed to help them.

As for the inefficiency in the courtroom: my last shift started at 6pm. I got there around 5:45, and the first arraigned person I saw was not until about 7:05pm. Why on earth are they giving only 120 seconds to each person and then doing nothing for almost an hour and a half? Secondly, there were about 20 people in the courtroom (employees, not the public). I only heard maybe 5 of them speak. Why are that many people necessary in the arraignments and what exactly are they doing? It also seems that with that many people doing theoretically administrative court work, that the calendar posted outside the courtrooms could be accurate.

LAST WEEK IN COURT

DECEMBER 4 - DECEMBER 10

Reflection from a Watcher

The defendants are so tranquil in court. I never fail to notice it. The ADA looks down and drones out the details of a low point in this person’s life, maybe one of the lowest, and the accused person doesn’t react. It saddens me that they have to stand there, disembodied, watching others argue the merits of their freedom.

The bureaucracy of the room is overpowering. It’s jarring when the ADA reads what transpired “in substance” between the arresting officer and the accused. They’re words that a heated person would speak to another, especially if all that separated them was a badge. That little wedge of state power that someone can force into someone else’s life at will, and which now envelops the defendant totally.

I’m new to Court Watch, but it’s jarring to see someone so enveloped they can’t even move. Especially at the outset of what might be a long road back to freedom. From the gallery, I can’t tell if it’s power or imitation that blankets the accused. All I can see is a person performing their own conquest as an offering to the slowgoing procedure, that it might find the humanity in the human moment that brought them there.

Reflection from Another Watcher

The most striking thing about sitting in a court room for any period of time is how difficult it is to hear what’s being said. The docket numbers and legal codes are disorienting enough but when the real discussions begin, it’s shocking how often the proceedings are garbled or raced through with the uninflected detachment of a speedreader speaking under their breath. It would be hard enough to follow along for someone with a law degree and years of education to help give the language context, but for the average person the setting often seems designed to disorient rather than help someone take full advantage of their rights. Asking for clarification or expressing any kind of confusion is often met with irritation or hostility from judges and prosecutors. It leaves the impression that the merits of the case are being considered, but that person is being moved through a system, and any attempts to point out flaws are treated not as reasonable defense of individual liberty but an obstacle preventing the system from moving at maximum speed. The average time of most cases was between two and five minutes, something which when combined with the confusing nature of legal language and the pressure to move on to the next case, puts an inordinate amount of pressure on defendants to quickly make decisions that will impact the rest of their lives.

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."