Rina and Sharon Go to Court is a series about two civilians honoring the Sixth Amendment right to a public trial. We have zero legal expertise, although we both applied to law school at one point. So yeah, zero legal expertise.
Three hundred and sixty five days a year and seven days a week in Manhattan’s Criminal Court building near Chinatown, a judge sets bail and assigns jail time for offenses committed in the streets of New York. To keep up with demand, the City operates “night court,” an evening session of criminal arraignments that runs until one am. It is open to the public.
We went to Night Court on a Friday evening in August.
“You girls here to watch?” asked one of the security guards posted near the front entrance as he made lazy circles over our backs with his wand. We had both set off the metal detector. He seemed unfazed by two girls attending court on a Friday. “Felonies in room 130, misdemeanors in 129.”
Dark wood paneled the felony courtroom’s walls and burgundy curtains masked its high windows. A dais with flags and a gold-emblazoned “In God We Trust” framed the black-robed judge at the front of the courtroom. He was tall, silver-haired, and purse-lipped.
A mundane patter hummed around the judge. Despite the austere setting, the atmosphere of lawyers and officers was clubby, even casual. An NYPD officer scrolled through Facebook on his smartphone, liking posts. A man seated in the row in front of him in handcuffs shuffled and groaned, wiping his nose on his knee as he awoke from a nap. A woman leaving for the night blew kisses at her colleagues.
We sat on wooden benches facing the judge. A man sitting in front of us was handcuffed and accompanied by two very large men in t-shirts and sweatpants, with guns hanging from holsters that hung low below their hips. The man was scruffy and small; his dirty shorts nearly reached his ankles. In the pocket of his hoodie was a homemade lunch. His eyes were hazel, unsettling and thoughtful.
When called, the man shuffled up to the judge’s bench. The Assistant District Attorney, a nondescript man in a red tie, read the charges levied against him – drug related. Bail requested to be set at $150,000. The man stood still as the judge flipped through a few papers and made his decision, “The court sets bail at $50,000. The man shuffled back to his seat with his two armed escorts.
Another man lumbered to the front and the ADA read the charges. The judge asked him the cursory questions. “Do you understand the charges against you?” “Is anyone forcing you to plead guilty tonight?” He then added, “At 3:40 this morning did you break into a car that wasn’t yours?” The man said yes and was sentenced to sixty days in prison. He was led through a hidden door below the judge. Glimpses of grubby white cages appeared behind the door.
For another man, the ADA requested $1000 bail, to which the judge replied, without hesitating, “I’m going to release the defendant.” The defendant looked surprised, stumbled back a bit and looked around for guidance.
“That way?” he asked an NYPD officer, who nodded. He headed out into the corridor, smiling. Police officers in the second row laughed. The whole thing lasted less than thirty seconds.
And so it went. The case of one man charged with having an open container of alcohol was dismissed, while bail was set at $20,000 for another who was caught riding his bicycle on the sidewalk.
A released defendant headed to a bench at the rear of the courtroom, where two NYPD officers fiddled for their keys and unlocked his handcuffs. He stretched out his fingers and made slow circles with his wrists.
“Thank you,” he said to the officer who unlocked him. “You’ve been very courteous.”
At the dinner break, we asked a security guard about life on the job. Chris grew up in the Bronx, and had worked here for three years, always at night court. He likes it better than day court, he said, because you get to rotate jobs. Sometimes he’s security, sometimes he’s “on the bridge,” the area between the judge and the defendant, and sometimes he’s in the holding cells. Court used to run twenty-four hours, he explained, when staff had to work the “lobster shift ” from 1 am until 9 the next morning. Lobstermen, the story goes, traditionally spent the nocturnal hours setting their traps.
We asked if people can be arraigned even if they’re drunk.
“Oh yeah,” he said, surprised. “As long as the judge thinks they can understand what’s going on.
“Sometimes it’s a crazy night,” he added, “sometimes it’s easy. Tonight it’s easy.”
We asked what a crazy night would look like.
“Oh, you’ve got EDPs all over the place. EDPs on the floor, EDPs out here.”
“Emotionally Disturbed Persons.”
Research at Columbia University has found that a person is anywhere between two to six times as likely to be released if they are one of the first three cases to be considered during a judge’s shift than if they are one of the last three cases considered. The researchers examined over one thousand rulings from eight judges made in 2009, finding that the chance of a favorable ruling peaked at the beginning of the day, steadily declining as they day wore on–from a probability of about 65 percent to close to zero–before increasing again–back to 65 percent–after the judge had taken a break.
Back in court, a man sentenced to ten days in prison for riding the subway without paying begged the judge for leniency. The defendant was black, middle aged, and had a previous record. He described fumbling his Metrocard as he dropped off his kids somewhere before work. He had been in a rush. He would lose his job if he went to jail for ten days.
The judge stroked his hair as he stared past the defendant. He interrupted the defendant’s plea with a lengthy recitation of the defendant’s rights.
“Do you understand your rights?” he asked at the end.
The defendant muttered. He seemed to be weeping.
“He said yes,” said the lawyer representing the defendant. The lawyer turned back to the defendant. “You said yes, right?”
There was a pause before the defendant gave an audible “yes.”
The judge repeated the sentence of 10 days in prison.
Court ended early; it was out by ten. Police officers changed into gym clothes, lawyers gathered their papers and walked out of the court, tapping at their smartphones. As we left, we said goodbye to Chris. He winked.
Outside, the warm and wet New York heat offered a feeling of freedom. The streets surrounding the court house were largely lifeless, offering a single bar for celebrations. People stumbled out, congregating on the street with cigarettes. Next to the bar, three bail bond stores were lined up next to each other. In each window, the same sign glowed in neon orange letters, “BAIL BONDS.” Some released defendants gathered on the steps to smoke a cigarette, trading stories or reassuring teary-eyed mothers and girlfriends. Others were in the Tombs, far from whatever bed they’d slept in 24 hours before.
Sharon Riley was born and raised in small town Alberta, Canada. Snippets of her writing contributions have appeared in the Globe and Mail, Harper’s Magazine online, and Utrikesperspektiv (in Sweden), among others.
Rina Goldfield lives in Brooklyn, NY. She keeps a blog of drawings of peoples’ imaginary friends at reallyimaginary.tumblr.com.