Observing the daily grind of New York night court

Anchored by Chinatown, the New York City Criminal Court at 100 Centre Street is a required stop for individuals who have been arrested in Manhattan.

Behind the bronze doors of room 130, four rows of wooden seats provide onlookers the opportunity to view individuals have their arrest read in front of a judge, before entering a plea. If they are lucky, they might be “released on recognizance” (known as RoR) without the need to put down a hefty sum to get out of jail. If they are not so lucky, they might have to scramble to pull together money as high as $200,000.

This process, known as “arraignments,” is one of several mandatory appearances for those who find themselves on the wrong side of New York’s legal system. New York law mandates that those who are are arrested must be arraigned within 24-hours. Due to the large volume of daily arrests that takes place in New York every day, arraignment sessions can sometimes run as late as 1 a.m. These evening sessions have been informally dubbed as “Night Court,” which was originally started so that those arrested outside of the court’s official business hours can appear without having to be confined to a jail cell for the night.

The affair is anything but glamorous. And for the most part, it is free of dramatic stand-offs and emotionally charged debates that one might associate courtroom proceedings with, thanks to shows like “Night Court”, “Law and Order” and “Boston Legal.” Nevertheless, the popularity of these shows seems to have resulted in Night Court being a “paradoxical tourist attraction” that offers “gritty entertainment,” the New York Post reports. In addition, the notorious figures that have graced this courthouse (think disgraced ex-IMF chief Dominic Strauss Kahn and rapper Sean “Diddy” Combs) have allegedly made this courthouse a possible venue for celebrity spotting. Celebrity arraignments though, don’t happen every night.

On a Thursday evening, the tourists and celebrity-hunters are nowhere to be found. The only spectators present appear to be family and friends of those awaiting arraignment and a group of young women and men dressed in suits, perhaps law students hoping to catch a glimpse of what their chosen career will entail. The defense attorneys sit on the front row, some joking with the police officers, while others are less accepting of the long night ahead of them. At one point, one of the defense attorneys sigh wearily as he makes hand signals with a police officer, whispering loudly, “I’m waiting.”

The distinction among the accused and the individuals who sees the courtroom as their day-to-day workplace is evident in their ethnicity, physical appearance and demeanor. The majority of the police officers are white, although there is one Asian officer and one black officer patrolling the courts. The lawyers are all white, the Assistant District Attorney, a decade or two younger than the defense attorneys. There is some diversity from the bench, the judge on duty, Guy Mitchell, is black and is accompanied by a young black clerk and a young Asian clerk. The individuals arrested largely fall into the black and Hispanic, under 40 years of age category. All of the defendants are male and many are wearing dark hoodies and jackets. As the ADA read their case in court they stand timidly with their hands behind their backs.

One man, who was found with a firearm and bullets in his home without a license, initially appeared a little bit more confident than the others. He leans forward and places his hand firmly on the stand. This confidence wanes, however, as it becomes apparent that his defense attorney is not going to persuade the judge that no bail be required. The attorney’s plea that this man is a “well-regarded, well-known individual with no history of domestic violence” does not sway Judge Mitchell against setting a bail term of $2500 and issuing a temporary order of protection for this man’s wife and children.

Another man decides to fast track the process and enter a guilty plea. Judge Mitchell clarifies with the man to make sure he understands that he is waiving the right to trial. The man agrees and brings a little comedic relief into an otherwise tense environment. He turns around to face the court spectators, waves his hands in the air and exclaims “Hasta la vista!” as the police escort him back to the jail situated under the courthouse, often dubbed as “the Tombs.”

Other cases arraigned that night include possession of narcotics, operating a vehicle without a license, stealing bananas from a commercial truck and possession of an air gun. Most of these offenses are misdemeanors and punishable with a maximum prison term of one year. According to Assistant District Attorney James Vinocur, misdemeanors make up a large number of arraignments that take place during the night sessions. Last year, the court reported a total of 102,876 arraignments taking place in New York City Criminal Court, though specific numbers were not reported for the night sessions.

At about 9.00pm, the judge, lawyers and police officers are momentarily relieved of this pressure for about an hour as the court takes a recess before they power through for the rest of the night.

It is no doubt a time welcomed by them all. Because the next day, they have to get up and do this all over again.

About author

Anisa Purbasari
Anisa Purbasari 3 posts

I'm a journalist based in New York currently completing my MA in Magazine Journalism at NYU. Before entering the journalism world, I was a lawyer in the technology, media and telecommunications sector. I am a native of Indonesia and New Zealand with an obsession for food, health, fitness, travel, business and all things media and internet related. When I'm not reporting, you can find me attempting to run along the East River or getting lost in a random New York neighborhood (probably with a big cup of coffee). You can find out more about me at anisapurbasarihorton.com

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