LAST WEEK IN COURT

FEBRUARY 26 - MARCH 4

A man who did not speak English was arraigned in Brooklyn last week. A translator was requested but hadn't yet arrived by the time the arraignment started. ADA Rossman asked for $75,000 bail plus passport surrender, citing seriousness of charges and flight risk. The man's public defender pointed out that no CJA score had been given because CJA does not have an interpreter either. Judge reduced bail to $25,000 bond/$10,000 cash bail and supported passport surrender.

In a case of a middle-aged Latinx man charged with a violation of an order of protection in Brooklyn, the ADA asked for $2500 bail. The defense attorney, who had represented the man for over a year, pointed out that the ADA was reading evidence from a previous indictment -- the wrong case. Despite the misinformation, Judge Douglas set bail at the amount requested: $2500 bond/$1,000 cash bail.


Reflection from a Watcher

I’ve been a resident of Queens for 6 years, but my first visit to Queens Criminal Court was last week. Compared to Brooklyn’s & Manhattan’s criminal courts, which are near multiple subway lines, in bustling business districts, near universities, restaurants, cafes etc., Queens Criminal Court is in a somewhat desolate area, difficult to get to, and the actual arraignment courtroom is in a basement. I walked in the building with my bright yellow Court Watch shirt and felt immediately seen—by the security guards at the entrance and the eight or nine police officers, the judge, and the two ADAs that were in the courtroom preparing and waiting for the 5:30pm shift to begin. As I waited for the court to begin processing cases, I was struck by all the paperwork traveling around the room . . . stacks of paperwork on tables and in crates, papers being organized, stapled, torn, filed, shuffled, stapled again, put into other piles, handed between police officers, the bridge officer, ADAs, and Public Defenders. It’s obvious to point out how bureaucratic our criminal legal system is, but when you actually witness it in real time—all the paperwork, the clear hierarchy, the procedures, the jargon, the assembly line of stakeholders going in and out of the room—it’s quite shocking, especially when you see about 30 people—the vast majority of which were people of color—being processed & churned through it.

Many of the cases my Court Watch partner and I saw were processed in under two minutes and involved accusations of marijuana possession, domestic squabbles, fights, and driving under the influence. For many cases, we could not hear the specific charges being brought against the person because the bridge officer rattled them off quickly and quietly via a string of numbers and acronyms—yet another way the courtroom is inaccessible. One case that stood out to me and my partner involved an accused man being brought into the courtroom in handcuffs who was having difficulty walking upright and seemed barely conscious. Immediately after the police officer took of his handcuffs and stepped away, the man passed out and fell backwards. The loud “thwack” his head made on the floor was terrifying. We were all evacuated out of the courtroom and made to wait in the hallway until EMS arrived. This man was clearly unwell and yet he was sitting in holdings for probably several hours and then expected to appear before the judge in court.

While I think many of the charges I witnessed shouldn’t be criminal charges at all (marijuana possession, for example), there were some cases that did involve harm. Yet it was crystal clear to me during my shift that our criminal legal system was not created to deal with or respond to harm in a way that’s fair, equitable, and restorative.

I hope that as more New Yorkers learn about what’s going on in criminal courts and the decisions that prosecutors carry out in “the people’s” name, the public will not only demand change and accountability, but they will also work towards building alternative structures outside of the criminal legal system that empower community members to prevent and respond to harm.


Poem from a Watcher

Girlfriend stands

and leaves in a rush

in a huff

Full order of protection

granted

despite her plea

No order, please

Judge did not listen

to She