LAST WEEK IN COURT

FEBRUARY 5 - FEBRUARY 11

  • In Brooklyn, Judge Edwards set an order of protection with an access order pending a family court hearing for a middle-aged Asian woman. Both court watchers noted that the judge “softened” at the mention of family members in attendance. She said, “Family in the audience, that’s always preferable for the court to know that you have support in the community.”

  • In Brooklyn, Judge Kitsis was very critical of a defendant’s previous missed court date. In October, 2018, the accused person was ROR’d but cited severe medical issues preventing him from appearing. The missed court date was discussed off the record. The ADA was requesting $10,000 bail although the individual had no history of flight. In court, the accused explained his missed court date because his feet were shattered and he was in a wheelchair. The judge replied irrelevantly, “I have a friend who lives in a wheelchair and she gets everywhere.”

  • A black man was arrested in Brooklyn for allegedly failing to pay court fees. Court watchers noted that Judge Gubbay spoke to the accused condescendingly, demanding how he could have failed to understand where to pay court fees after two judges explained it to him. Defense asked that Judge Gubbay give the accused a month to pay all fees, but Judge Gubbay gave him a two week deadline, telling the man “pay or jail.”

  • There was some confusion regarding a case in which a black man was accused of violating an order of protection after leaving a voicemail. The ADA requested $7,000 bail and wrongfully stated that the accused is currently on probation (he is not, as was clarified later in the proceedings). Defense requested $1 bail. Judge Gubbay set bail at $2,000. After the arraignment, court watchers were concerned about the ADA’s error, noting: “what else is she wrong about?”

  • Court watchers were alarmed when Judge Gubbay remanded an individual accused of driving while under the influence—after defense requested ROR and ADA consented to ROR.

  • A black man was charged with petit larceny and after some confusion about the case, the ADA requested $2,000 bail. Defense requested the accused be released on his own recognizance (ROR), pointing out that the accused is facing a charge for non-violent, “minimal” shoplifting. Defense also stated that the accused currently lives in a shelter and would presumably be unable to pay any bail. Judge Gubbay set bail at $1,500 bond/$750 cash.


Reflection from a Watcher

Last Sunday evening in Manhattan, myself and the three other watchers with me all walked away from our shift with one specific case lingering in our minds. The ADA that night, Michael McConnell, was eager to request bail, often citing as much dramatic evidence in each case as possible to convince Judge Thompson of its necessity. However, his highest bail request came in a case that seemed to lack any evidence altogether. A 19-year-old Black male with no record was charged with possession of a gravity knife as well as for possessing 12 cards (credit cards, student IDs, benefit cards, etc), none of which belonged to him. However, when pressed by the defense why the young man had been stopped in the first place at 3 AM walking through a subway station, considering that the weapon had not been visible and was only found once he was frisked, the ADA could not come up with a single reason why. Despite all this, the ADA asked for $25,000 bail — his highest all night.

Everyone in court that night seemed surprised by this, and the defense fired back, questioning everything from why a stop & frisk had taken place to why it was even being considered a felony charge. He also referenced back to an earlier case that night where the ADA had assigned $20,000 bail in a domestic violence case in which the defendant had an extensive criminal record and a wealth of prior failure to appears. Such a comparison really shone a light on the often arbitrary nature of bail assignments, and the lack of correlation between severity of bail and the defendant’s actual flight risk.

After hearing both sides, Judge Thompson agreed to a far lower, but still prohibitive, bail amount of $1000 cash/$1000 bond with a credit card option. We all left court that night wondering if he would be able to make bail, or whether he would sit in jail based on a stop-and-frisk arrest, a practice that was ruled as racially biased and unconstitutional nearly five years ago but obviously continues to persist.

LAST WEEK IN COURT

JANUARY 29 - FEBRUARY 4

1-29-18

  • In one case overseen by Judge Paek in Manhattan, an individual was accused of criminal mischief in the fourth degree (e.g. the damage of property such as graffiti). The individual accused demonstrated a concerted effort to render their criminal justice record indeterminate of future actions. For example, the accused reliably attended sessions with CASES in Brooklyn to learn new skills. The individual has a job offer for a position starting the next day, an important means for them to help support their four teenage children. The defense attorney explained all of this during the bail argument. The ADA requested $10,000 bail, and the judge set $2,500 bail.

1-31-19

  • In one Brooklyn case, a homeless Latinx man was arraigned for assault and aggravated harassment. ADA Needle requested $25,000 bail and Judge Abadi set $5,000 cash bail. Despite his full-time job, the accused looked distressed at the prospect of paying the high bail amount.

  • According to court watchers, Judge Swern seemed lenient, as compared to other cases they’ve seen, toward a middle-aged White man with an out-of-state address charged with operating a vehicle without a license. He had 24 suspended license cases and 2 failures to appear plus 3 misdemeanor convictions from 1996. The ADA offered supervised release but defense attorney argues that “he doesn’t need supervised release...gainfully employed, long-term...has a wife and kids...will go to DMV tomorrow and pay $1,075 in tickets/fines.” Defense argued that offering supervised release at 4:30 pm means that there will not be time to have him interviewed so he would have to spend the night in jail. Judge Swern pauses the case to have him interviewed immediately. He is ROR’d and told “do not drive until the DMV tells you to.”

  • ADA requested $75K bail with 72-hour surety hearing for an individual who allegedly sold cocaine three times to undercover officers. Defense attorney argued that bail was excessive, the accused person has struggled since release and has community ties. According to the defense attorney, ordering the 72-hour surety hearing (to investigate any illicit sources used for bail) is unnecessary because the accused would not be able to raise any amount of bail, saying “The state would be better served helping him get on his feet rather than setting up a situation to lure him back to jail.” According to a court watcher, the judge was unmoved and set bail at $75K with the 72-hour surety hearing.

  • Judge Swern set bail at $500 for a hearing-impaired, homeless, middle-aged Black man charged with various acts of aggressive panhandling, trespassing, and burglary (of a single beverage) at Port Authority. The man had a history of similar minor, non-violent charges. The ADA requested $35K bail because the man was being charged with a felony, considered by the defense as a deliberate “bump-up” from an aggravated misdemeanor. The defense attorney argued for his client to receive an ACD and stated that the $35K bail request was “ridiculous and out of this universe,” and their client could not even afford $50 bail.

2-2-19

  • Judge Gubbay remanded a young White man arrested for petit larceny after his Sept. 2018 release from jail in New York. The accused has fugitive warrants dating back to 2016 but the defense attorney argued that these predate his incarceration and should not be reintroduced now. According to the defense attorney, this is a jurisdictional issue, and is the state’s mistake since the warrants are from New Jersey and the two states should have sorted this out during the man’s incarceration. Judge Gubbay remanded the individual saying, “I know that it is uncomfortable for the defense, but that’s how it is.”


Reflection from a Watcher

On Thursday afternoon in Manhattan the ADA (could not get her name) requested $50,000 bail for an 18 year-old accused of assault (1st and 2nd degree). Two brothers allegedly encountered the teenager outside his housing complex; a fight broke out and he is accused of stabbing both. There is video of the encounter, but it does not show how it began, nor the stabbings. The accused fled and later turned himself in to the police (his family went with him) and the brothers are in the hospital.

The 18 year-old has never been arrested. He has a girlfriend and an 8 month-old baby (who he brings to daycare at his school). He also enrolled himself in the Andrew Glover Youth Program and his advocate from Glover was in court. She said the teen had alerted his program officer at Glover that the brothers had previously threatened him, and that the brothers and their family had been relocated from the housing complex due to multiple complaints. The advocate had also spoken to one of the brothers and was herself threatened.

Judge Anne Swern issued a Temporary Order of Protection. The public defender said she was concerned because yet another brother has issued a “call to arms” and the brothers’ friends have also threatened the defendant. She asks for a Order of Protection for her client. The judge says she cannot legally do this and says the police are good at keeping the area safe. Judge Swern set bail at $25,000.

His mother, father, sister and friends were in the courtroom.


Reflection from Another Watcher

Last Wednesday night, the Brooklyn misdemeanor arraignment courtroom was freezing. There were very few cases and most of the 10 to 15 court officials, police officers, Legal Aid staff, and the ADA spent their time on their phones, chatting, and complaining about the cold. Every once and a while a person was brought in in cuffs and three of the throng, the judge, the ADA, and the Legal Aid lawyer, sprang into action. Nearly all the cases involved some altercation and an order of protection. The others included public urination and peddling without a license. For the orders of protection, Judge DePeyster went through her speech each time, warning the accused he or she couldn't contact the other person "by Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or any other means you can think of". No one was required to post bail and only once did an ADA request it. About half the people got an ACD and the other half received a future court date. Much of the time I couldn't hear the charges and wondered if the accused was equally confused by this mysterious process that thundered past so quickly, yet had such great implications for their lives. Even an order of protection leaves someone homeless, cut off from most of their possessions, perhaps their children, and their familiar neighborhood.

I thought of the millions of taxpayer dollars supporting this enormous enterprise: all the jobs, all the people, all the disruption and humiliation suffered by the accused, all the "due process" and wondered if there wasn't a quicker, easier, non-criminal way to deal with these petty mistakes in people's lives. These minor offenses hardly seemed to justify the huge expensive, burdensome edifice we have built to deal with them.

LAST WEEK IN COURT

JANUARY 22 - JANUARY 28

01.21.19On a freezing day in Manhattan, a 30-year-old woman was arraigned on multiple charges: second degree assault and two misdemeanors. The ADA did NOT request bail and yet Judge Paek imposed it - $1,000 for the felony, $1,000 for one misdemeanor, and $1 for the second. The accused’s public defender was visibly shocked.

01.22.19 Judge Drysdale requested that the ADA offer 2 days of community service in lieu of a Stoplift program for an 18-year-old Latinx woman arraigned on charges of petit larceny and resisting arrest. The Stoplift program requires accused people to pay for the program and would have been prohibitively expensive for the young woman. The accused woman plead to a lesser charge (disorderly conduct violation), but Judge Drysdale cautioned the woman that if she shows up late to community service, she could receive a sentence of 15 days jail.

01.23.19A young Black man was arraigned on charges of felony possession and sale of a controlled substance in Manhattan. The ADA, Christopher Rivet, requested $25,000 bail. The defense attorney argued that although the charge was a B felony for intent to sell, the complaint did not actually indicate sale, it only indicated misdemeanor possession. The public defender argued that any bail would effectively be a remand, and argued for their client to be released on his own recognizance. Judge Paek set bail at $10,000 bond or $5,000 cash bail.

A Latinx man was arraigned in Manhattan on charges of forgery in the second degree. ADA Rivet requested $3,000 bail. The defense attorney argued that the accused be released on his own recognizance given that the man was gainfully employed and the sole financial provider of his child, and that the complaining witness has no desire to pursue the case. Judge Paek set bail at $6,500 bond/ $3,000 cash.

01.26.19In Manhattan, a young Black man wished to conduct pro se defense on a drug possession charge. Judge Clynes cautioned the accused about self representation and denied the motion, stating that he would be represented by his attorney today. The accused man asked to have his rights read. His case moved to second and then third call, both times he was forcibly removed from the courtroom and judge did not permit the accused to speak on his own behalf. Two Court Watchers felt that denying the man any agency in his own defense escalated his seeming animosity and unwillingness to cooperate.

01.27.19In Brooklyn, a 40-year-old Black man was arraigned on criminal possession of a controlled substance in the seventh degree (a misdemeanor). The ADA offered a conditional discharge; Judge Hecht suggested instead that the accused be sent to Misdemeanor Brooklyn Treatment Court (MBTC), based on the charges and the man’s record, noting that the accused seemed to have “fallen off the wagon.”

For a case involving operation of a vehicle with a suspended license in Brooklyn, the ADA consented to releasing the accused, a Black man in his 20’s, on his own recognizance. Judge Hecht asked, “Can’t we just resolve this case?” and suggests downgrading the charge to a violation and a $75 fine. The ADA disagrees because there was an accident, but the defense attorney notes that there are no allegations of an accident in the complaint. The judge released the accused on his own recognizance.


Reflection from a Watcher

When I arrived for my shift in Brooklyn, I was very surprised how casual everyone who worked in the courtroom was. Judge Rodriguez looked relaxed and chatted with other employees, and guards stood around and joked with each other. In comparison, it was so clear that everyone who had a family member or friend who was going to be arraigned looked scared and concerned. The difference in attitude was striking. I suppose that if this is your job and you see it day in and day out you have to find a way to be more relaxed about it, but when you think about how much arraignments mean to people on an individual level, and on a societal mass-incarceration level, it felt bewildering.

The case I remember most struck me because it was very sad. They brought up an old, small Black man who seemed like he didn’t have the capacity to hurt a fly. I don’t know if I’m saying that right, but what I’m trying to convey is that it was clear he was a danger to no one. There’s just no way. Judge Rodriguez seemed almost annoyed at this case. He asked the man if he’d been arrested at a deli for stealing a...Rita? “What’s a Rita?” the judge asked. “It’s a Lime-a-Rita,” the man’s defense attorney said. The absurdity of having to explain to the judge what a Lime-a-Rita is? And then the judge confirmed that it was only one can. The thought of this small, old man walking into a deli and taking a freaking Lime-a-Rita, and then having to spend the night in jail? Surely, something is broken here. The man plead guilty, received time served, and was allowed to go. But it was just so stupid. The system lacks basic human compassion. Obviously I wasn’t there when he took the can, but he certainly didn’t deserve a night in jail and a record for taking a Lime-a-Rita.

LAST WEEK IN COURT

JANUARY 15 - JANUARY 21

“Bail when requested always seemed punitive -- based on the ‘seriousness’ of crime rather than flight risk”

  • Last week in Brooklyn, a Black man was arraigned on gravity knife possession and gun possession charges. The accused was allegedly double-parked when plainclothes officers in an unmarked vehicle approached and asked for his license, which was suspended. The police alleged they found a gravity knife in the man’s pocket and found a gun in the trunk of the car after the arrest. Court watchers noted that it seemed given the allegations, ADA Langsam requested $20,000 bail. The defense attorney explained that the car didn’t belong to the accused. He was a passenger and the police asked him to move to the driver’s seat to move the double-parked car, and then the police subsequently searched the car. The defense attorney also pointed to the policing practices during the arrest, noting that “the police tactics in this case were bad.” Defense also argued that the police officers seemingly tried to get the accused’s DNA without permission by offering him a water bottle. Judge Novillo set $5,000 cash bail or bail bond/credit card alternative.

  • A Manhattan prosecutor requested $30,000 bail and Judge Paek set $30,000 cash/$15,000 bond on a homeless individual charged with 2nd degree burglary, effectively remanding them.


Guilty Pleas and Jail Alternatives

  • A man was arraigned in Manhattan on two counts of petit larceny for allegedly stealing items from Duane Reade. ADA Roe recommended a plea that would carry a 6-month jail sentence. The man’s public defender explained that their client has been struggling with substance use and trying to get into a program. Judge Paek offered 30 days jail and the accused took the plea, meaning he will spend 30 days in jail (unable to access substance use treatment) on a shoplifting charge.

  • Another man was charged with six counts of petit larceny, also for allegedly stealing merchandise from Duane Reade. ADA Roe recommended a plea to the charge with 9 months jail time. The man took a guilty plea to all charges and Judge Paek sentenced him to 5 sessions of the CASES program with a 30 day jail alternative if he does not complete the program or does not return to prove completion.


Reflection from a Watcher

I’ve been a volunteer with Court Watch NYC since September 2018, since then I have spent about half of my Saturdays sitting in Brooklyn Criminal Court observing arraignments. One of the things that continuously surprises me is the prosecution of the crime “theft of services” aka turnstile jumping in many cases. During a shift in late November, a few days after the first snow of the year, I was sitting in Brooklyn court on yet another Saturday afternoon. That day, I saw several arraignments where the charge was theft of services. One of the cases specifically stood out to me because I recognized the person who was being accused. He is someone that I see regularly in the subway and is often asking for money, stating that he is homeless and needs help. He jumped the turnstile in a Brooklyn subway station. Seeing him being arranged was unnerving. He plead guilty to the crime, was offered time served and was released.

The fact that this man was arrested and that this charge was added to his criminal record, simply because he is an individual who is homeless, is astounding and upsetting. I would imagine that he jumped the turnstile because he was seeking warmth on the subway during or after the snowstorm, because it was too cold and wet for him to stay outside. He harmed nobody and his only “crime” was being homeless. What if, instead of bringing him to the precinct, the arresting officers asked him what type of assistance he needed, or brought him to a shelter or a food bank, or provided him with a metrocard? All of these options would have been significantly cheaper and easier than arraigning and prosecuting him, all over a $2.75 subway ride.

LAST WEEK IN COURT

JANUARY 8 - JANUARY 14

Reflection from Watchers

Last week in court, there was a case that, like so many, I feel embodied and exposed the inefficiencies, inhumanities, and power dynamics which propel our criminal punishment system forward each day. It was a slow night in Brooklyn court, and a young female defendant had been called forward by the monotone court officer. She walked up to the podium handcuffed, shoelace-less, and beltless. She stood silently next to her young white defense attorney waiting for the ADA to make his way to his podium and begin proceedings that, for her, hold life-shaping weight, and for him, hold the weight of the case file in front of him. The ADA sat shuffling papers for a while, eventually approaching the bench and speaking in hardly recognizable legal jargon to ask the judge for more time for this case. The judge granted them more time and the young defendant went back to her spot behind the Plexiglas barrier. 

We saw another 2-3 cases come through after which Judge Dougherty announced that she would like to go to dinner now as there were not many other cases for the evening on the calendar. The ADA agreed and began to pack up the papers in front of them. Before the judge stood to leave and enjoy her dinner, the young defense attorney from earlier kindly reminded her that he still had his client in handcuffs sitting in the court room waiting to be arraigned. The defendant had been forgotten about.

Sitting silently with both her body and voice restrained; her body by the metal cuffs on her wrists along with 5 + armed court officers and her voice by the threat of more punishment if you speak out/at all. The judge said “Oh yea” and looked to the ADA, “Are you ready with the (Insert legal jargon)?”  With no explanation or feeling in his voice, the ADA responded “No.” The judge, seemingly satisfied with that answer, looked to the defense attorney and sort of shrugged. The defense asked for them to see this defendant first before breaking. At this insistence, Judge Dougherty inquired further with the ADA “when will you be ready?” To which the ADA responded “We’ve sent (legal jargon) upstairs and haven’t gotten it back yet.” The ADA only answers what is directly asked of them. No nod to when they think they’ll be ready or have whatever documents they need to proceed. With this, Judge Dougherty again looks at the defense says “We will see her first when we come back from dinner.” The Court officer announces they’re breaking and will return in an hour. With that, another hour of this young woman’s life is so flippantly spent in custody.


After many months of watching, this week saw one of the rare cases where the judicial system had a clear role to play, as a defendant was accused of an axe assault on his mother. The facts in the case were clear, and it’s a case whose severity requires some response from society; yet even there, in a case that probably meets the bar of what most people think of when they consider a sufficient reason to arrest someone, our system doesn’t address the underlying causes in a way that will be helpful. A suicide watch was requested for this defendant, and while arraignments don’t go into the likely mindset or mental health of the defendant, it’s a case where in the end mental health attention and psychiatric help is surely called for—something corrections officers aren’t equipped to handle.

This is the first case with such extreme injuries and clear violent intent, whatever the extenuating circumstances of possible mental illness, that has passed my way in six months of attending arraignments. The rest of the arrests fulfill a different role, often of policing communities of color. Judge Dougherty was presiding, who always takes a very paternal approach. That can be good (in a case where ADA Rossman requested an egregious $10k bail on an 18 yo black defendant who was involved in a program with a social worker and lived with a guardian, she made a point of ROR at the price of a lecture and a request for greater involvement with social services), but it can also lead to berating defendants who dare to speak in court. A black defendant who wanted to represent himself and make a sort of sovereign citizen argument was angrily shouted down, and his pro se request denied with a lot of aggression. The rules barring a defendant from speaking on their own behalf have an understandable legal rationale, but since defendants are adults, to be denied the agency to even directly answer a question (answers must be made to an attorney who passes the response on to the judge) is not just about legal norms in the courtroom. It’s also about stripping someone’s full personhood, who is represented only by quotes from an arresting officer read out by the ADA. A defendant claiming sovereign citizenship is making a point that has a certain emotional validity when they reject the power of the police system over them. It is a system that does operate with little oversight, where the claims and actions of officers are all accepted equally even though the record of the officers may reveal misbehavior. To object to it doesn’t do a defendant any favors in court, but to be made to accept the process meekly with no protest (when it may land you in pretrial detention) is a type of erasure. Yet put a toe out of line and the response from Judges is real anger—how dare you speak in their court, they ask? When no one is able to ask, how dare you charge someone in this way, or how dare the system be structured this way, it’s a real problem. It’s always notable when observing how much the submissiveness of the defendant is an expectation that, if it’s not observed (though there’s not exactly a primer on courtroom behavior), it causes an aggressive response from the bench. Obedience above justice is the message, unintended or not. 

Omission above justice, too. ADA Rossman requested an egregious $30k bail in a case where the black defendant was already remanded on another matter, and where the facts of the case were very hazy and an assault had left the defendant with a possible concussion. Rossman stepped in on the cases with some prior history by the defendant, and requested bail amounts that were extremely beyond reason. The defense attorney of the injured defendant made a case for hospital attention due to a potentially severe internal brain injury (a cat scan had detected a skull fracture), yet the accommodation made was only to get medical attention from the corrections office, which surely doesn’t have the same level of care. Our Brooklyn DA is incentivizing the wrong behavior from borough DAs, with the result that bail is set at unattainable levels and our fellow New Yorkers languish in jail under potential medical crises with no help from ‘innocent until proven guilty’. The cases where the response of the system is warranted or proportionate are vanishingly small. 

Another notable case saw a rejected plea deal of time served (I've always seen these accepted) where the black defendant was also filing a police misconduct complaint. He had a cast and had been accused of obstructing arrest.  The judge then had to make the ADA turn over a complaint form regarding the police conduct—Rossman did not volunteer this and was happy to not look into the injuries of the defendant or question the convenient police narrative. ADAs are given one set of claims and use these to argue for the most extreme outcome at the early stage of arraignments, whether or not an arrest may have involved police violence or relies on convenience in picking out who is being accused. Arraignments so often proceed as if police intervene only with just cause and proceed judiciously, when that can’t be taken as a given. 

Another black defendant, while ultimately RORed, had been arrested and held in jail over unpaid fines and DMV tickets after operating a vehicle on a suspended license. The refusal of the courts to see the real obstacle of paying fines, and the fact that they have interest accrue on them to boot, is a big problem. Watching on a slow night in some ways is much preferable to nights like this one, when defendant after defendant is pushed through, some RORed, but others trapped in unjust circumstances.