From the Issue: Night Court
Written by Bwog Staff
We are pleased to present another excerpt from the new issue of the only, the inimitable, monthly undergraduate magazine of this fine university: The Blue and White. In this piece, B&W contributor Luca Marzorati, CC ’15, describes his experience spending night after night at a midtown night court. He witnessed the arraignments of some regular NY criminal celebrities, including the recent shooting at Bryant Park and attempted rape in Fort Tryon Park. Read all about it below.
22 year-old Hispanic male, charged with attempted robbery and assault in the third degree.
He’d had a long day. 15 hours ago he’d swung by a friend’s house to pick up a DVD. He stopped in a bodega to get a bag of cigarette tobacco. The cashier told him that the store didn’t have loose tobacco. The man became angry, reached behind the counter, and grabbed at the register. The cashier pulled out a hammer and struck him in the head—his face is now caked with dried blood. This morning, he sat for an hour in the first row of the courthouse gallery of 100 Centre Street, hands cuffed tight, head down. This was his second trip downtown in two weeks. Ten days ago he caught a petty larceny, his first offense, a light punishment. Now, he was looking at a felony. The fight was on video. He didn’t even bother running from the bodega. He thought the cops would arrest the cashier. Indictment and conviction means up to four years in prison. It had been a rough ten days.
You notice the coats first. The steady parade of defendants marched into New York Criminal Court are dressed in faded, puffy coats, too heavy for the early fall. Many of them were picked up in the early hours of the morning, in subways, buses, or off the street. They bear the marks of urban poverty: few family or community ties, no money or home address, and rap sheets rife with petty crimes—trespassing, shoplifting, unlawful solicitation.
This is night court. A few courtrooms at 100 Centre Street, the hub of criminal-justice in Manhattan, stay open late. Night court is not for trials, but arraignments—the formal proceeding at which the defendant is informed of his charges. Because defendants can be arraigned at any point within 48 hours of their arrest, the court is open every day of the year, with up to 17 hours of arraignments punctuated only by the judge’s dinner break. Arraignments are over in a flash, ending with a (usually) court-appointed defense lawyer exchanging paperwork with a rookie prosecutor.
The two dozen professionals working here have seen it all. Nothing fazes them. A clerk pulled me aside one night, and told me as much: there had been suicides, babies born behind bars, defendants trying to flee. He gets the autographs of the celebrities who pass through: Dominique Strauss-Khan, 50 Cent. A lawyer for the city skims TIME Magazine in between appearances; public defense lawyers, their salaries a fraction of their private sector counterparts, grow out their beards in defiance. Everything in this room feels performative.
The lawyers huddle around a few desks on either side of the room between cases—defense on the left, prosecutors on the right—looking over documents and bantering. Only when the bailiff calls a case do they play the lawyer, deadening their visage and donning a jacket. At any time, half the people in the room are police: NYPD, New York Courts, Department of Homeless Services. Everyone is packing heat. Some of the defendants plead guilty. Many are “ROR’d”—released on their own recognizance.
Middle-aged Hispanic male, charged with multiple counts of possession of a controlled substance and one count of trespassing.
He was about to walk out a free man. He’d missed a few court dates—he was sick; he had memory loss; his grandfather died; he had to go to Puerto Rico to arrange the funeral. But now, he was going to settle it all with a few guilty pleas—maybe get it knocked down to mandatory treatment and probation. The judge went through the formalities—she was required by law to make sure he knew what he was doing. First charge: trespassing. He hesitated, but admitted, yes, he had been trespassing. And, yes, on those few occasions, he had some heroin on him. But, on the final charge, for drug possession, he balked—there were needles in his bag—it was only residue, it wasn’t his. The judge didn’t have time for nuance. Residue is enough for a guilty verdict. “You either had heroin, or you didn’t,” she said. He wouldn’t confess. The judge barked out a trial date. The bailiffs led him back to jail, shaking his head.
Despite the nonchalance of the court employees, defendants take advantage of their day in the spotlight. A hospitalized man in a wheelchair (accused of slicing a fellow patient in the face with scissors) seemed to sleep through his arraignment. That is, until the judge set bail at $5,000, at which point he cursed her out until he was wheeled away.
An older man listened nonchalantly to an interpreter tell him that he’d been charged with unlawful possession of ammunition while spending time in New York. He grinned and bounded out of the courtroom after being released without bail—it was unlikely he’d be back.
A man with four domestic violence-related convictions didn’t go down so easily. Accused of pushing a 5 year-old and taking a video game the child was holding, he repeatedly screamed, “I just wanted my property! Please! Your Honor!”
A defendant accused of harassing his mother by slipping a photograph of a dead bird under her door began raising his hand after he was told not to blurt out.
A heavyset man who pled guilty to putting his foot up on a bus seat stuck around to watch, seemingly having nothing better to do with his time than watch people whose fates were worse than his.
Black man, mid-40s, no criminal record, charged with forceful touching and statutory rape.
It looked like a simple case. The state said he had slapped her twice. She was a family friend, much younger than he was. The defense said it was more complicated. She had stolen multiple items from his house. He went to the cops, they used his Find My iPhone and showed up at her door. It looked resolved. Only then, the defense says, did she file the charges, telling the cops that he slapped her. The state didn’t seem to know any of this. The judge asked them for a reply—they shuffled some documents, came back with nothing. The judge was going on his word against hers—the elusive judgment call. She hedged her bets: set a restraining order against him, but he was released on his own recognizance. After waiting in custody all day, missing work, he’d have to come back for trial.
Judges play a crucial role at night court. Because the state only has a brief description of the facts of the case—the location of the crime, the charges, the arresting officer—it becomes the judge’s responsibility to imagine the narrative. The cops and defense attorneys openly acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of different adjudicators (New York Criminal Court judges rotate on the night shift). Due to the bureaucratic nature of arraignments, judges rarely have to make true legal decisions: a defense lawyer requesting a nunc pro tunc ruling (meaning the defendant’s day spent in custody would count for her day-long sentence) went as far to question the judge’s understanding of the legal loophole. The request was denied. At 1 a.m., order trumps law.
Hispanic man, 35 years old, charged with attempted rape of a woman running with her baby in a stroller in Fort Tryon Park.
He wore an orange hoodie, and looked like he’d already been convicted. He’d just arrived in New York. After the NYPD released his name and a photograph, he was picked up at a mall in Bergen County—New Jersey—in early
October. Now, he kept his face down. The question was, why had it taken him a month to be arraigned? The defense argued that he was held in custody for an unnecessarily long time, exempting him from bail. The judge flipped through her case documents. The prosecutors flipped furiously through theirs—they couldn’t come up with an answer. The judge suggested that the prosecutors get the Bergen County cops involved on the phone; she thought they might know what was going on. It was 1 a.m. No one was picking up the phone. The judge went with her got. The state had a strong case. He’d have to wait until morning.
After a while, I became attuned to the composition of the crowd. Women—mothers, sisters, wives, girlfriends—waited for hours for their loved ones’ case to be called. Because communication between defendants and spectators is not allowed, women slipped notes to the defense attorneys, or mimed an eating motion to their downtrodden devotees. Children looked tired. Having family in the crowd helps the defense attorney stress “family ties”: visible support bodes well for the defendant. A string of indigent men, convicted of unlawful solicitation on the subway, crammed in the back row and chatted loudly until they were kicked out.
Sometimes, bit players in the legal dramas show up. A young woman changed her mind hours after filing a domestic violence report against her boyfriend. She came into court, only to be told by the judge that she could not so quickly recant. The judge adopted the tone of a frustrated parent: “We can’t decide this right here with everyone. Not at 11:15 p.m. in a courtroom.” She went through with the order of protection, telling the complainant to leave the courtroom immediately.
I began to notice subtle, nightly changes in the courtroom dynamic. Some judges took great pride in moving through many cases rapidly—by my count, one magistrate racked three convictions in less than a minute. It was impossible to predict what the defendants, assembled in the bullpen theatre, had allegedly done.
Late one night, I noticed a man with a fair complexion, seemingly waiting. It was only when he heard a specific name and docket number that he rose to his feet, revealing a camera and a microphone. At the same time, a well-dressed Asian man took the stand for the people, replacing a string of young prosecutors. This was different.
16 year-old black teenager, charged with two counts of attempted murder, assault, reckless endangerment and criminal possession of a weapon.
The cops got him this morning. The state accused him of shooting a .22 caliber handgun into a crowd of ice
skaters at Bryant Park. He wanted to steal a 20 year-old’s coat. He was rebuffed, came back, and shot eight times. A few bullets hit their target. A few missed. A 14 year-old bystander was hit in the back. He chronicled his high-profile criminal debut on Facebook, said he was bringing an “amp” (gun) to the park. The cops showed up at his apartment in the Bronx. Holed up inside, he continued to post: ““FEDS AT MY DOOR IM GOIN OUT WITH A BANG!!!!!!! TAKE MY SOUL.” A witness identified him. He had a criminal record. The defense attorney’s only argument against a high bail was that he had yet to miss a court date. He was remanded without bail.
I wondered whether Dunton noticed the coats of the defendants around him. Perhaps their crimes were once motivated by foolish teenage pride. But today, their coats were falling apart—the leaves were changing, and at least arrest got them out of the cold. According to police, the coat that Dunton wanted was $680, yellow-and-green. How long until it would have faded?