Always the Same, Always Something New at Night Court

Always the Same, Always Something New at Night Court

A handcuffed perpetrator, hair matted and clothes filthy, sat next to a police officer in the front row of the gallery waiting his turn to be called before the court. Despite his nominal confinement, he was constantly in motion on the hard wooden pew: shifting from slump to lean to stretch in a futile effort to find a relaxing position to sit with his hands cuffed behind his back. But even in his discomfort, he couldn’t help but laugh when the assistant district attorney explained to the judge that the young lady now standing before the court had admitted, during a traffic stop, to drinking “a glass of wine, some Hennessy and a Red Bull” before taking the wheel. The atmosphere of night court in Manhattan can range from boring to uncomfortable to comical – sometimes in the span of a few moments.

Nearly every person arrested in Manhattan makes their way downtown to the Criminal Court of the City of New York within about 24 hours, where they are brought before a judge for arraignment. Arraignment proceedings, which take place day and night, 365 days a year, move at a brisk pace to satisfy the borough’s always-substantial caseload. Defendants often meet their attorneys (usually public defenders) for the first time immediately before their appearance, when they quickly hash out particulars in a glass booth resembling a confessional to the judge’s right hand side. A typical arraignment is over in a matter of minutes, as an assistant district attorney reads the charges against the defendant and the judge determines a defendant’s eligibility for release, bail, or remandment prior to trial.

This is not the silent, focused courtroom of a Hollywood drama. From the gallery, the exchange between judge and lawyer is just one piece of an interminable din, competing to be heard over the clerks clacking away on keyboards, public defenders rifling through sheets of paper and spectators wandering in and out through the heavy double doors at the back of the courtroom.

Judge Louis Nock, who from the back of his courtroom bears a passing resemblance to Robert Durst, officiated on a recent night with an air of perpetual irritation. Looking down from the bench with a permanently furrowed brow, Judge Nock made no attempt to hide his annoyance at public defenders whose requests were not to his liking. The judge slapped down one counselor’s last-ditch effort to change his client’s bail conditions with a simple, but harsh, “Bail is set at $7,000 cash or $10,000 bond, as the court has ordered.”

If Judge Nock’s salty manner was his way of dealing with the monotony of an endless caseload, other denizens of the courtroom had developed their own mechanisms for cutting through the boredom of another day at the office. A detective in the gallery quietly engaged visitors in friendly banter. A clerk with a shock of neon orange hair examined her nails with the attention to detail an attorney might give to a brief. During a lull in the proceedings, the court officer broke the sound of murmuring from the back of the gallery with a sharp order of “Conversations outside,” then exchanged a knowing smirk with the offending murmerers after realizing they were police officers.

Joshua Lisk, the boyish Assistant District Attorney, read charges from a podium to Judge Nock’s left wearing a well-tailored gray suit and a close-shaved beard that failed to disguise his youth.  A few feet away, defendant after defendant shuffled before the judge, accompanied by a public defender and occasionally a Spanish translator whispering at a machine-gun clip.

A dozen uniformed officers in all manner of New York Police Department garb – windbreakers, polos, bulletproof vests – lined the courtroom. “You can’t have coffee in here. Take it out in the hall,” said one female officer near the entrance, admonishing a visitor. The sharp rebuke didn’t seem to register with the fellow officer flanking her at the doors, who continued sipping from her Dunkin Donuts cup.

The handcuffed perpetrator in the front row was later released on his own recognizance after being arraigned for, among other offenses, unlawful solicitation in the subway. With his arms free at last, he grimaced and stretched his shoulders before heading towards the door. Behind him, a brusque clerk and an exasperated defendant examined a piece of paperwork, rolling their eyes at one another in mutual frustration.

Judge Nock recessed the court around 9 p.m., shedding his robes and heading for the exit. He gave the court officer a weary, but affectionate pat on the back and lit a cigarette as he stepped into the crisp autumn night. He’d be back in an hour to preside over the evening’s remaining caseload, which would stretch into the early morning hours.

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