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."