LAST WEEK IN COURT

JUNE 19 - JUNE 25

Watchers' Major Takeaways

  • Poverty continues to underlie many of the charges brought; often they involve property crimes, such as in one case, ‘stealing’ shampoo and other basic necessities. Entrenched social problems in NYCHA housing, where tenants can be stuck for years on end in the same building as each other, also seems to drive many of the complaints, and underline that systemic poverty is what brings these defendants into court. Other defendants are homeless or have been housed in shelters for years.
  • ADAs continue to request outrageously high bail, making the possibility of a lower bail or Release on Recognizance for defendants wholly dependent on and at the mercy of individual judges. This can result in very uneven and unjust outcomes. In one case, a defendant in a turnstile jumping case (an instance of a case that addresses no social harm) didn’t do 3 days of community service, leading to a judge believing he should go to prison for a year. The cases themselves are often around issues that cause little to minimal social harm, whereas the sentencing creates actual and deep harm to communities.
  • The pace of hearing cases went very slowly in several instances, leading to frustrations for waiting family who have already gone to the inconvenience of being in court at the stated time. Those waiting are treated with disregard despite the emotional nature of their situation.
  • One particularly high bail of $15,000 for a bicycle incident was rather suspicious. Someone ran their bike into a police officer but wasn’t initially charged with assault; yet despite not being reported as that at the beginning, that’s how it ended up being charged.
  • Immigration impacts was raised as a mitigating factor during arraignments; but it should be noted how dire are the consequences of exposing undocumented people to potential targeting by ICE, and that these can occur as soon as an arrest and fingerprinting take place. Mitigation at the arraignment is only one piece of the puzzle. This is especially troubling given that on one shift, many of the cases heard were for driving without a valid drivers license
  • Several arraignments concerned children as young as 16, 15 and even 14; yet there is no special process or consideration given, and if bail is set too high, these children could be held for an unspecified amount of time in Rikers.
  • The language of the courtroom is one only spoken by the professionals involved, not by the actual people whose fates are at stake. Says a court watcher:
    • “Looking around the courtroom, the shuffling of sheets of paperwork, a dizzying list of numbers and acronyms and legal jargon, upwards of 10-15 people--not including the judge--milling around at any given time, I’m struck by how disorienting it is as an observer. This doesn’t even take into account the arraignment itself, fast-paced, full of acronyms and jargon. I struggle to keep up, let alone make sense of the whole of what I’m hearing. If I’m the accused, there’s barely time to hear what the Assistant District Attorney (ADA) or judge is saying, let alone process what is happening. Add to that not speaking English -- a translator is provided but the entire process is already confusing and overwhelming.”

Reflections from a Watcher

Brooklyn Criminal Court
Night Court 6-9pm

Each time I court watch, I am struck by how the tone set by court police can go a long way in further dehumanizing the accused and their families. When an arraignment is under way, the main purpose of the present court police seems to be enforcing the rules and decorum of the court room. The rules I see most frequently enforced include no cell phone use, no talking on the benches, and for the accused, no turning around to look at family. These rules may seem simple enough  to follow and enforce, but in my time with court watch, I’ve seen how these simples rules do not account for the needs and understandable instincts of the accused and their families, and can be enforced in unnecessarily aggressive and adversarial ways.

For example, I usually court watch during the night shift, 6-9 PM in Brooklyn, and there are often families sitting on the benches next to me — mothers with young children who wait sometimes hours for their loved ones to appear before the judge. The room is nearly always over-air conditioned and the children get antsy and cold and distracted. Yet, their presence in the room will become crucial when their loved one’s defense points to them during the arraignment and says, “he has ties to the community. In fact, his family is here tonight.” Oftentimes while the adults in the families are waiting for this moment to come, they’re managing a difficult situation — they don’t know when their loved one will appear; the kids get tired and hungry; the stress of not knowing what will happen to the accused is of course enormous (I’ve seen families cry with relief at RORs); perhaps they’ve taken time off of work to attend the arraignment and they’re trying to negotiate how much longer they can stay at court, etc. It seems totally understandable to me, given these circumstances, when someone forgets to silence their cell phone, or takes it out to glance at it, or when someone starts to whisper encouraging things to a child, or to another adult, the two of them trying to figure out, for example, where the judge has disappeared to for the last half hour, or when their loved one will appear, or what the prosecutor is mumbling during the arraignment.

It also seems completely understandable when an accused forgets they’re supposed to be looking at the judge and glances back at their family. Last week, I witnessed a young transgender woman (who was misgendered by the defense, prosecutor and judge) look back with what appeared to be surprise and joy when the defense said “his mother is here in the courtroom to support him.” The young woman had tears in her eyes when she turned around instinctively to look for her mother on the benches.

In both this specific case of the young woman and in many instances of what I described before, when whole families await the arraignment of a loved one, I have seen court officers meet these small infractions of the court house rules with unneeded aggression. In the case of the young woman, a court officer immediately barked “TURN AROUND. FACE THE JUDGE.” He was 2 feet away from the young woman, and could have used a much different tone to indicate that he understood why she was turning around, but that she had to follow the rules. Instead, he was treating her as if she were already a criminal, and in this moment, was further breaking the law by turning around to glance at her mother. At another point last week, the judge disappeared for about an hour and a half, and during that time, one mother, with two small children and another woman who appeared to be her sister, began to become stressed. She had a limited amount of time she could stay at the courthouse and none of the officers would tell her where the judge went or for how long she would be away. At one point the woman took out her cell phone briefly to check something and spotting her from across the room, a court officer strode towards her, pointing and shouting “PUT THAT AWAY.” His demeanor was such that her kid hid his face in her armpit.

Court officers encounter people in times of acute stress. I have seen many of them navigate this reality thoughtfully and compassionately, giving people gentle reminders to put away their cell phones, or taking long moments to explain something to a family member on a bench. I have also seen them yell, use harsh language, and lose their tempers in a matter of seconds. In any case, their actions and demeanors are crucial to setting the tone of the court room, and it should be imperative that, if they do wield this huge responsibility, they use their authority to reduce the trauma of the situation for all involved, as much as possible.