Showtime at the Manhattan Criminal Court’s Night Court

Maggie Maloney November 11, 2015

New York is the city that never sleeps and night court at the Manhattan Criminal Court is no exception. In New York County alone, there were 102,876 arraignments in 2014, which should come as no surprise considering there can be as many as 100 arrests per day. This brings people to 100 Centre Street, the Manhattan Criminal Court, seven days a week, 365 days a year from 5:30pm-1:00am. The court is open to the public, making for a strangely popular tourist attraction. Also in the crowd are individuals waiting to hear the status of their loved ones who have been arrested. Looking tense, they perk up to see who is coming out of the holding cell doors each time they open, hoping their defendant is up. Their very attendance makes them pawns in the lawyer’s statements: the lawyer will say, “his mother is here right now to support him, she took off work.” For everyone else in the court, attorneys, police officers, stenographers, judge and defendants, it is strictly business as usual.

For all those watching, night court offers a glimpse into the justice system of New York City, where most arraignments take place within 24 hours averaging 20.5 hours in 2014. This means at all hours of the night defendants are brought from their holding cell to night court, where they can pay bail and leave, appeal to a Grand Jury, be released on his own recognizance or led back through the doors again to the holding cells. At the arraignment, the defendant may plead guilty or not guilty with their punishment, announced by the Judge, in mind.

Three public defenders rotate representing their clients as the defendants enter the courtroom and wait on the side in hand cuffs. Some defendants have their own lawyers brought in. The court is bleak, with fluorescent lighting and more manila folders than one could count. These folders did not just contain arrest records, they actually provided a look into each person’s life. It’s a stale place to be with a sense that most of the people in the room are just focused on getting out, and soon.

The routine is clear: Judge Guy Mitchell calls on a case number that corresponds to a defendant (overwhelmingly mail and minority) and their lawyers. The Assistant District Attorney announces the charges against the defendant and then the defense attorney begins to argue. It’s show time at night court, and for a brief moment the story of the defendants life becomes public knowledge, as essential context framing the crime they allegedly committed.

There was the 27-year-old overweight white party boy, visiting from California and charged with a misdemeanor criminal mischief while drinking at a bar. His smartly dressed lawyer entered the court room told Judge Mitchell that he has known the defendant’s family for years and he is a good kid, with no criminal record: he was just drunk at a bar. When Judge Mitchell released him on his own recognizance, no bail despite the fact that he could easily have paid it, the lawyer and the defendant’s brother, sitting in the back row wearing a sloppy suit and looking panic-stricken, both offered a sigh of relief. The defendant, however, did not look remorseful about his actions or surprised that he had gotten off with the help of his lawyer friend.

A tall 51 year-old black man was not as lucky. He was accused of grand larceny. The Assistant District Attorney explained that this was not his first arrest: he previously had 8 felony convictions, 5 violent crime convictions, and 14 misdemeanors, leading to a request for six months in jail and bail set at $5,000. The context of this case was crucial: as the defense attorney quickly explained, the man was accused of stealing five bananas from a commercial truck, which does not exactly equate grand larceny. The judge decided to deny release on his own recognizance but instead lower the fine to $2,000 cash bail. While he avoided jail time, he still had to pay a fine unlike the 27-year-old.

Career criminals are bound to make an appearance at night court. There was a 70-year-old black man who was held for grand larceny after dozens of arrest in his life and a record of missing court dates. The Assistant District Attorneys request bail of $50,000. The defense attorney argued a heartfelt side: this man has multiple chronic illnesses; he is in a number of programs for the elderly, has a stable address and is responsible enough to maintain contact with his program supervisors. In addition, the defense attorney noted that his pervious arrest was in 2010, so for the past five years he had been crime-free. Judge Mitchell lessened his bail to $20,000.

There was a cast of characters ready to perform. A defendant who said “hasta la vista” to the court after pleading guilty to a trespassing and being sentenced to five days in jail. This was after he fell asleep in the courtroom while waiting for his case to be presented, much to his defense lawyer’s chagrin. There was a defense lawyer, Howard Greenberg, who used his time in the court to romantically and emphatically lecture about the corrupt state of law enforcement to the amusement of the entire court, with more than a few cops laughing. The two defendants in this case were two Hispanic men found with four kilos of cocaine in a shoebox recovered from a car. When their homes were searched, cops found $120,000 in narcotics proceeds and multiple phones linked to various people. Judge Mitchell decided that each them men should have a lower bail, reduced to $150,000 from $200,000 and to $75,000 from $100,000.

The allure of court is nothing new. Judge Judy Sheindlin reportedly makes $47 million per year, various incarnations of Law & Order have been on the air since 1990 and the number of law enforcement television shows are dizzying. Night court is a realistic, humanistic version of this. The defendants have real stories, distraught expressions and in many cases little to no options left except commit the crimes they are accused of. Their family members sit in the stands, anxious to hear their fate, with the feeling for many that this is not their first time at night court. The attorneys check their phones and the police officers joke and laugh with each other. But for the defendants who file in and out of the holding cell doors, their few minutes in front of the judge determines a great deal about their future. To them, night court is not a performance to be seen in, it is a necessary evil that could offer them a ticket to the outside, free world or have them return through the holding doors to their cell.