LAST WEEK IN COURT

MARCH 12 - MARCH 18

Reflection from a Watcher

This was not my first shift in Queens, so I was not surprised by the courtroom's strict protocol. At the beginning of the shift and every time a new group of audience members arrived, as well as any time anyone was seen with a cell phone, it was announced that cell phones were not only to be silenced, but powered off. Whispering among audience members was also not tolerated, though the court officers who enforced this policy often whispered among themselves, making it difficult to hear the proceedings, since no one used a microphone.

One trend I noticed was that the prosecutors rarely made offers; few cases were resolved with a guilty plea at arraignment today. Another was that Judge Peterson often (though by no means always, as you'll see) released the accused people on their own recognizance even though the prosecutor asked for bail.

In one case,a black man was charged with violating an Order of Protection. The accused, who sometimes turned to whisper insistently to his lawyer, looked immediately familiar to me -- I thought I had seen him in another court watch shift. Since he had prior convictions and had previously failed to make court dates, the prosecutor requested $1,000 bail. The defense attorney asked that his client be released on his own recognizance and explained that the defendant had multiple mental health problems, which he had learned about from the defendant's mother, who lived with her son and was in the court room that day. Judge Peterson called the mother up to the bench and asked her if she was willing to take her son back home. Heartbreakingly, the mother responded, "I'm going to be perfectly honest with you -- no. My son is mentally ill and he needs help. Every time he is checked into the hospital, they release him. He does not need to be incarcerated, he needs HELP." Judge Peterson set $1,000 bail.

Two individuals were arraigned together in another case, a husband and wife who were both charged with assault. It became clear as the prosecutor served notice of their confessional statements that they were each accused of assualting the other. Judge Peterson ascertained that the defendants, who were also the complainants, were interested in mutually withdrawing charges, but the prosecutor objected to this outcome, so a court date was set and, with the prosecutor's consent, the couple were released on their own recognizance for the time being. The prosecutor also asked full orders of protection, stating that it would be best if the two individuals had nothing to do with each other anymore, but the defense argued that since the couple no longer lived together, limited orders of protection would be sufficient. The judge agreed that "in a case like this where they both want to withdraw" she preferred to sign limited orders. "Over my objection," the prosecutor reminded her. "Noted," said the judge. As for mutually withdrawing the charges, the judge implied that without the prosecutor's consent, her hands were tied.

In another case, the prosecutor requested $30,000 bail for an elderly black man who was limping, charged with assaulting two people using a sharp metal object. It initially sounded like a very serious crime, but the defense attorney provided more context: the complainants had stolen the defendant's backpack, and the defendant, who was homeless at the time, was trying to get it back from them. Both the theft and the retaliation were caught on video. The judge set bail in the amount of $15,000 bond / $7,500 cash, confirming my suspicion that the world conspires against the homeless from all corners.