Manhattan’s Night Court: Come to See Justice Served

Manhattan’s Night Court: Come to See Justice Served

IMG_0189For some people, room 130 of the New York City Criminal Court is a stage for personal drama and tragedy, a place where their lives hit a low point. For others, it’s just good theater.

Located on the first floor of the vast court building on the border of Chinatown, room 130 is Manhattan’s main arraignment court. In the city, defendants are usually arraigned less then 24 hours after their arrest, according to the District Attorney’s Office. In order to process these tens of thousands of cases each year, the court stays open seven days a week, 365 days a year, from 8:00 am to 1:00 am.

It is night court, the second shift of the day, that attracts spectators.

On a recent Friday night, about forty people came to watch the proceedings over the course of two hours. Some were lawyers, some worried family members. But more than half of them had no direct connection to anyone in the court.

On the left side of the aisle, a lawyer in a grey suit was whispering to a group of pre-law students from the City College of New York. On the right side, NYU journalism students were scribbling onto their notepads. And in the back two German tourists watched, liking it so much that they came back two days later.

Contrary to the nicer trial court rooms upstairs, the arraignment court has the flair of a busy train station. The entire place feels cold, and the breeze coming in through the open windows only added to that. Then there is the grey stone floor, the fluorescent light, the faded red curtains and the rows of wooden benches with chewing gum stuck to them. But most of all it is the constant commotion that creates the feeling of being in a transportation hub, instead of a place of law.

The Inner Workings

A never ending flow of police officers walked in and out of the room; some in black shirts with long sleeves, some in white shirts with short sleeves, some with bulletproof vests, some in hoodies with their badges hanging around their necks. They carried documents, brought coffee, transported prisoners or asked the judge to sign a warrant.

Behind the cord that separates the gallery from the rest of the room, lawyers prepared for the next arraignments. On the left side, six public defenders from the Legal Aid Society – the country’s largest provider of indigent defense services – worked on desks or were on their phones. A booth with glass windows allowed them to privately talk to their clients, who were seated in the left corner of the room, after being brought in through a side door from a 50-men holding cell.

On the right side, the Assistant District Attorney (ADA) has a desk with a lectern, from where he or she presents the cases. That day, a short ADA with a bun was flanked by two of her colleagues who seemed to be observing and never directly addressed the court. Around them, police officers and support staff worked on computers, one of them an orange-haired lady, who wore a fake fur and a thick black scarf to keep out the cold. Still on the right side, but closer to the gallery, is a bench for a stenographer, a full-time Spanish translator (other translators are on call) and a so-called “conflict attorney,” a private lawyer hired by the public defender’s office for cases where there is more than one defendant (and therefore a possible conflict of interest).

In the middle of the room and framed by two flags is the bench. Presiding judge Guy Mitchell sat elevated, behind him a computer screen with a green and yellow colored spreadsheet on it. Mitchell, who wears his hair short and is a member of the Black Bar Association of Bronx County as well as the Dominican Bar Association, was appointed to the Criminal Court last February. To his right, a court clerk worked on his computer and a police officer in front of him called the next case, “189, Garcia. Possession of Marijuana.”

Two minutes later it was a DUI, three minutes later a homeless man who stole coins from a MTA machine, one minute later the ADA asked for a protective notice. 12 defendants appeared before Judge Mitchell within 45 minutes. All male, most of them African-American, some of them Latino.

An Oiled Machinery

That night, 150 people were in the system, a “light night,” according to deputy chief court clerk Bob Smith. He estimated that the judge would arraign a little over 100 of the defendants before the night court closed at around 1:00 am.

Watching arraignments is like watching an oiled machinery or a movie on repeat, with the main characters – judge, ADA and a handful of public defenders – all sticking to a script, while the defendants pose as mere supporting actors who are constantly replaced.

The ADA presents the case and asks for bail, the defender showcases the community ties of the defendant and asks for a lower amount of bail, the judge makes his decision. It’s all over in two or three minutes.

The crowd didn’t get to see much drama that Friday, but just two days before, a high-profile arraignment for a man accused of shooting a police officer took place.

From the gallery it’s hard to hear what’s going on up front, and the spectators had a better chance of following the defendant’s fates by watching their families – like the crying pregnant fiancé in a grey Minnie Mouse sweater who was told by Smith to sit down.

Bob Smith – the Guiding Clerk

The deputy chief court clerk, who wore a blue jacket with the Court’s emblem on it and a green tie with Venetian griffins, has been working at the court for 33 years. He is responsible for assisting the judge and keeping order in the court room.

That isn’t all he does, though.

“When I am in the mood, I give one of my famous Night Court tours,” he said to a group of fifteen spectators whom he had reprimanded for talking only a few minutes earlier. The  veteran clerk spent half an hour explaining the legal procedures and led the group through the building – to a trial court room with a golden mural, a jury deliberation room with stacks of books by Dan Brown, and  into a small holding cell (“Don’t take pictures or I will get in trouble”).

On the way back to room 130, Smith talked about his autograph collection. “I have Tupac, 50 Cent, Dominique Strauss-Kahn. And a lot of Jets and Giants and Knicks have been here,” he told the group, giving them one more reason to see night court as the spectacle it is.

About author

Lilly Maier
Lilly Maier 2 posts

I am a student and freelance journalist. Originally from Europe, I switch between writing in English and German. I recently moved to New York where I am a Fulbright grantee attending the Magazine Journalism program at New York University. I hold a Bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Munich. In 2013, I interned at PolitiFact.com, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking site in Washington, D.C. An article I wrote about an Obamacare chain-email was PolitiFact’s 2nd most read article of the year and shared over 50,000 times on Facebook. Right now, I am working for the German news-magazine FOCUS Online as well as Geschichte-Lernen.net (a German site for history-lovers) and Die Stadtspionin (“Cityspottergirl”). In the spring of 2015, my first book was published: “Mach’s einfach!,” a guide to the vibrant Do-It-Yourself-scene in Vienna. In the past, I have written for a number of American, German and Austrian magazines and newspapers, including The Huffington Post, News, Presse and Kurier. In 2007, I founded a bimonthly European youth magazine, Schnipsel (“papercuts”), that was awarded funding by the European Union, and won a first prize in the prestigious school magazine contest of the German magazine Spiegel. Besides writing, I have a deep passion for history. For my thesis, I interviewed several Holocaust survivors around the United States, and was subsequently awarded with the University of Munich’s “Prize for Outstanding Student Research.“

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