NOVEMBER 20 - NOVEMBER 26
Manhattan | Judge Clynes | ADA Benitez
A Black man was charged with Aggravated Harassment after a verbal altercation with an MTA employee. His defense attorney explained that he has a long history of schizophrenia and “feels like people are after him,” spends most of his time on the subway, and the vast majority of his priors were for turnstile jumping, over two years ago. ADA Benitez requested $1,000 bail, which the accused could not afford. His public defender explained that there wouldn’t be adequate mental health treatment if the accused went to jail, so the ADA made a plea offer to plead to criminal mischief, which is a misdemeanor, with a sentence of Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal (an ACD), which means they have to stay out of trouble for a certain amount of time and then the case will be dismissed. There were a lot of breaks in this arraignment because the accused had trouble understanding the “freely and voluntarily question” when taking a guilty plea. According to court watchers, the accused kept giving affirmative answers that were not simply yes, instead answering “freely and voluntarily.” In response, Judge Clynes said, “and if he can’t say yes not going to accept a plea.” Court watchers noted that the accused continued to be confused as to terminology and how to respond to judge’s questions and Judge Clynes ended up refusing to take the plea. Although calm and cooperative throughout the entire arraignment, court watchers noted the accused became agitated when ordered to the back of the room and did not move. Guards forcibly removed the accused from the courtroom while his public defender kept trying to encourage the judge to accept the plea and convince the judge his client gave an effective “yes.”
ADA Benitez requested $10,000 bail for a Black man charged with Petit Larceny, a misdemeanor, after he allegedly stole a handful of lipgloss and violated an order of protection that ordered him to stay away from the store which had previously been convicted of stealing from. His attorney highlighted that he had no resources and would be “stuck in jail on a misdemeanor case.” Judge Clynes ordered supervised release.
ADA Benitez requested $5,000 bail for a Black man charged with Assault in the 2nd after he was alleged to have hit someone with a makeup bag. The complaining witness did not want to press charges, this was also first arrest as an adult, he’d been last arrested in 1998 as a ‘youth offender’. Judge ROR’d with full order of protection.
Manhattan | Judge Alonso
An older Black man was charged with Criminal Possession of a Forged Instrument in the 3rd for allegedly being in possession of 21 bent Metrocards. The prosecution offered a plea to the charge and requested 60 days jail. The defense asked Judge Alonso for the accused to be enrolled in sessions with CASES program, and the judge agreed
Manhattan | Judge Thompson | ADA Schnepf
$10,000 bail was requested for a pregnant 18-year-old Black woman charged with assault in the 2nd. Court watchers noted that it “seems particularly unnecessary” to handcuff her since she was 7-months pregnant. The prosecution’s justification for bail relied on the fact that the young woman had 2 failures to appear for a warrant in Staten Island in 2017. The public defender explained that she had no actual prior history, explained the reasons for the two prior failures to appear, emphasized her family connections and also highlighted that if bail could not be raised- which would be very difficult at such a high amount- she would potentially be giving birth at Rikers. The Judge consented to release with a full order of protection.
Brooklyn | Judge Gerstein | ADA Anyaegbunam
ADA offered a Black man charged with Possession of Controlled Substance a plea to Disorderly Conduct Violation with Time Served. Upon hearing the offer, the Judge interrupted proceedings and stated “20 twists and you’re offering a violation charge? I am not happy about that.” And later suggesting “What about one of those programs?” The prosecution then amended their offer and added 5 days community service BJI with a 15 day jail alternative. One court watcher asked, “why did the judge interfere in the offer? Does he think that ‘one of these programs’ will help or that the original offer wasn’t strong enough?” The case resolved with the Judge telling the accused “Come right back here on Monday for BJI- don’t make it 15 days in Rikers.”
Brooklyn | Judge Perlmutter | ADA Langsam
$20k bail for criminal possession of a weapon in the 2nd was requested for two young people charged together - a Black man and woman. Their vehicle was approached due to “equipment violations,” and the car was legally parked when police approached, and apparently “pulled over in a car that wasn’t running.” The police account described by the ADA stated that the woman had a gun in her sweatshirt pocket and that the young man was heard saying “let me take that.” Both accused people were full-time students. The woman had a 4.0 GPA and was currently going through a divorce. According to court watchers, many people were present in the courtroom to support the accused man and the woman’s manager was present from her full-time job at Staples on her behalf. The accused man was ROR’d, and the judge set $7,500 bond/$3,500 cash for the woman.
A young Black man was charged with Criminal Mischeif in the 3rd after he allegedly threw a glass in his mother’s house. His mother stated that she was okay with him returning and did not want to press charges. The ADA consented to release the man and asked for a full order of protection. The public defender argued for a limited order and the Judge granted a full order of protection.
Brooklyn | Judge Mastofsky | ADA Lee
$5,000 bail was requested for a White man charged with Petit Larceny and accused of stealing $27 worth of toothpaste. The defense alleged that the complaining witness - the manager of the store - had assaulted the accused upon recovering the stolen property, requiring, and further asserting that “$5k is not misdemeanor bail on a case like this.” Judge Mastofsky responded that “this long record of failures to appear and convictions are forcing me to set some sort of bail,” and set bail at $150 cash/$500 bond.
A LOOK INSIDE THE COURTROOM
REFLECTION FROM A WATCHER
It’s 3 p.m. on Saturday, November 24, in Brooklyn. A family member in the audience asks a defense attorney if they know anything about their loved one who should be arraigned today — the attorney hasn’t seen their paperwork yet. An up-to-date docket is rarely posted for people to find the information they need. Court watchers know to ask the clerk for a printout of “the calendar” because we’ve been doing this for five months. If there’s a liaison for families of people who have been arrested to help them navigate the system, I’ve never seen them; just defense attorneys with giant caseloads and little time to explain things like “how long you’ll have to wait till your loved one’s docket is called.” The judge and a court officer are on their phones.
At 3:45, another pause in arraignments; an ADA flips through what looks like a catalog of Christmas decorations. I am reading a magazine, and a court officer comes over to tell us that “there’s normally no reading in the courtroom, but if you keep it low” — she gestures toward her lap — “it’s okay.” Once, a different court office told me to put away my e-reader because there can be “no recording devices in the courtroom.” As an observer (rather than someone whose bail status might be affected by the behavior of a supporter), I felt safe enough to question him: “Even though it has no recording capabilities, and it’s not connected to the internet?” “No electronics,” he said, and walked away. A court officer, a defense attorney, and the judge are on their phones.
Another officer yells across the room at someone in the audience to “take off [their] hat!” The whole pageant is set up to intimidate you, the outsider, into being too scared to to do anything but what the people in power want you to do. Most “justice” looks like “arbitrary enforcement of an arbitrary hierarchy,” and it’s amazing how relieved you'll feel when an ADA doesn’t request bail or a judge releases a defendant on their own recognizance. Thank you for not using bail as a punitive measure. Thank you for treating this human being with respect. “Justice” is an ouroboros, a tautology: The system can only exist this way because this is the only way the system can exist. We have to keep working to dismantle it.