NOVEMBER 13 - NOVEMBER 19
Excessive bail requests:
A Latinx woman was arrested for allegedly selling heroin and fentanyl to an undercover police officer in Manhattan. ADA Schnepf asked for bail to be set at $150,000, however the woman’s public defender argued that the accused had no prior convictions and had family in the courtroom. Judge Tsai set bail at $150,000 bond/100,000 cash.
In Manhattan, ADA requested $75,000 bond/$50,000 cash bail for a 43-year-old Black man accused of attempted robbery. His public defender argued that there was a lack of evidence and requested more reasonable bail. Judge Clynes set bail at $50,000 cash/$25,000 bond.
In Brooklyn, ADA requested $15,000 bail for a 16-24 year-old Latinx man in alleged domestic violence dispute. The man’s public defender requested release, arguing accused is a low flight risk since his family and child live in NYC (and were present in the courtroom). Judge McCormack asked how much the accused can afford then set $2,500 bail.
A young Latinx woman was accused of attempted murder. ADA requested $150,000 bail, claiming video evidence that the accused fired a gun at somebody. Defense requested the woman be released on her own recognizance, arguing their client was not the person in the video and that the search warrant was actually issued for somebody else (defense also stated the gun in the video was likely a cap gun). Defense stated that the accused is very involved in her community, working in youth development and green energy, and has no criminal record. Judge Clynes set bail at $150,000.
A Black man was arrested for driving without a license and with no plates on the car. The Judge suspended his license. The Judge also noted that the accused had a warrant out that actually wasn't his. There was a mix up with his and another person's identity and the judge requested new fingerprints to make sure it didn’t happen again.
A Black man was accused of aggravated harassment following a family dispute over his deceased mother’s assets. ADA requested $7,000 bail, citing prior charges against the accused. ADA also claimed that the accused had been evading cops for months. The public defender pointed out that prior arrests included things like falling asleep on a chair at a homeless shelter. Contrary to the ADA’s charge that the accused was evading police, the public defender and social worker both stated that the accused is highly cooperative with authorities and has consistently showed up for court. The public defender requested the accused be released, given that he is indigent and currently living in a residential program. Judge Clynes denied the public defender’s request and set bail at $2,000.
Trends in the court:
The domestic violence cases were mostly violations of order of protections against female partners, however some cases stood out to court watchers. In one case a Black woman was arrested for violating an order of protection but was described as a victim and survivor of human trafficking. In another case a 19-year-old Black male was arrested for striking his pregnant former partner and violating an order of protection. The defense argued that he was stalked and attacked by the partner and was a victim of gender bias.
One watcher noticed that in almost all the cases they observed, the ADA requested a full order of protection, even when the accused and complainant were strangers.
During arraignments where court watchers were present, all or most defendants were people of color. In a 3-hour court watch shift on Nov. 15 in Brooklyn, 100% of defendants were people of color. In a 3-hour court watch shift on Nov. 15 in Manhattan, 88% of defendants were people of color, 77% were Black.
In a 3-hour court watch shift on Nov. 15 in Manhattan, more than 20% of defendants were indigent/homeless accused of possessing crack. Court observers noted that arrests seemed to come from the same neighborhood. One observer questioned: “Is this stop-and-frisk?”
Watchers consistently said courtrooms were “chaotic” and difficult to hear: people were talking, cops talked to one another, printers were operating, and other distractions.
Most watchers described defense attorneys as well prepared, passionate, and ready to defend their clients. One defense attorney asked, “Is your Honor distracted by something” when the Judge failed to pay attention or listen to her arguments.
Judges Tsai and Judge Johnson were described as open and willing to listen, being objective and thorough in their judgments. Johnson was particularly described as spending time on each case and seemed very interested in hearing from defense. She gave detailed explanations of key terms to defendants and provided rationales for her decisions.
According to court watchers, Judge Quinones and Dougherty, however, seemed agitated and kept interrupting the defense. Judge Quinones continually called the complaining witness for the victim while some noted that Dougherty didn’t give justifications for bail amounts.
REFLECTION FROM A WATCHER
During my last court watching shift, two cases in particular jumped out at me. One case involved a black trans woman in her 30s and the other involved a 20-year-old well-dressed black man from Sweden.
The trans woman had a record that included 53 misdemeanors and 21 warrants, and as a result was going to get prison time if convicted of the robbery charge she was given. Her bail was set at $100K for allegedly attempting to steal a pork loin from a store. Her public defender pointed that there was no video evidence of the crime and that his client was injured after the incident, and moreover, that nearly every time he represents a trans person there is no video evidence. Nonetheless, the woman was held on $25K bail. Outside of the courtroom, the public defender explained to me and the other watchers that trans women often get attacked and when they try to defend themselves they get accused of a crime by their attackers and are arrested. My observation in the court was that it didn’t matter whether the robbery charge was legitimate: she was deemed responsible for any crime she was adjacent to regardless of whether she was the target or not. Trans women get minimal media attention when they are murdered; they get completely ignored when they are victimized by a punitive justice system.
The Swedish man’s case stood in direct contrast to the trans woman’s. When he walked into the courtroom, it was clear he was from a higher socio-economic class than almost every other accused person. He had a slew of charges after grabbing a woman’s bag and using her credit cards to buy rounds of drinks at a bar. The DA asked for $25K bail but the public defender persuaded the judge to release him on his own recognizance by arguing that he was in the country on a scholarship and that having him go to jail would affect his scholarship and the rest of his life. I agreed this time with the judge: a college kid shouldn’t have the rest of his life tainted from a messy bender.
Creating a more just justice system requires us to have a collective reassessment of our values. We ignore the systematic harassment of the vulnerable and consider any defendant with a rap sheet broken and unfixable. Only the defendants with a privileged education or economic success are considered redeemable. Empathy should be afforded to all.