Anyone looking for an unpredictable way to spend an evening in October should make a visit to Night Court in lower Manhattan, but try to avoid being the one behind bars. For everyone arrested in New York City, their arraignment is held within 24 hours in the Criminal Court located in the borough in which they were arrested. This is where they are seen by a judge, who will set the bail for their crime. Manhattan Night Court operates from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. every night due to so many arrests being made in the city that longer hours are necessary to process everyone.
The court room is reminiscent of a busy train station, people coming and going at all hours, the room swelling with people and then emptying out routinely. Judge Guy Mitchell rules the court this weekend. Visitors sit in silence in the eight sets of wooden benches at the back of the room. Every time someone in the audience breaks one of the court rules, they are reprimanded by one of the dozen police officers patrolling the room – no food, no drink, no pictures, no phones, no talking. In the front half of the room, employees are buzzing back and forth between desks covered in stacks of manila folders, scattered water bottles, and leather briefcases as they hand off paperwork and whisper to colleagues. They sit at their desks typing, texting, chatting and laughing.
The defendants are not difficult to pick out after spending the night in jail – they are tense and tired, dirty and disheveled. Their outfit of choice seems to be a black hoodie and jeans. Some of them wear shiny silver handcuffs around their wrists. Some wear matching shackles around their ankles. Even the ones who do not have cuffs tend to hold their arms in place behind their back as if they still have them on.
The doorway located next to the judge’s stand rattles open noisily every so often as men are shuffled out of jail cells in small clusters and plunked down at the front of the room. When a case is called, the defendant joins his defense attorney at the long wooden counter facing Judge Mitchell. The ADA rattles off a list of charges, often including their past infractions and a recount of what occurred at the scene of the crime. A litany of charges are called out as the night goes on – grand larceny, burglary, trespassing, narcotics, domestic dispute. For everyone arrested last year, according to the NYC Criminal Court 2014 Annual Report, there were 102,876 different types of charges in Manhattan arraignments including infractions, misdemeanors and felonies.
A man sits in the front row of the audience, his arms twisted behind his back in handcuffs as he winces in pain. He is hunched forward uncomfortably as the cop next to him appears relaxed, arms stretched out across the back of the bench. The handcuffed man is called forward for bringing a transvestite into his room, violating a housing agreement banning guests. His previous criminal record is read aloud as well, stating that the defendant had been charged with attempted murder in 2013. As the man’s bail is deliberated, the door leading to the jail cells opens and echoes of yelling and screaming escape into the court. One of the women working at a desk in the front half of the room says, “Is it a full moon tonight? Feels like it.”
An impatient girlfriend waits in the audience, rapidly drumming her artificially long green fingernails on the back of the wooden bench and fidgeting in her seat. Her twitching and tattooed 19-year-old boyfriend is being arraigned for stalking and violently threatening his ex-girlfriend. The judge dismisses the young man with $2,000 bail and the 19 year old takes a seat next to his current girlfriend. She rests her head on his shoulder and he pulls his arm around her, tapping his feet nervously. She hands him a piece of Orbit gum and holds his papers for him until they get the signal from his lawyer that they are free to leave.
One lawyer, Howard Greenberg, marches down the central aisle, his long gray hair flapping wildly on top of his head as he meets a client in front of Judge Mitchell. Greenberg’s voice booms through the court as he announces to the judge, “I take no pleasure in what I’m about to say.” Two cops sitting in the front row of the audience glance at each other and roll their eyes. Greenberg begins a long-winded speech about how he’s been in the business for 30 years and has seen the racism and corruption of the police force again and again. He gets louder and louder as he rambles on, telling the court that the charges against his client, who was caught with $120,000 of narcotics, are “preposterous claims.” A third cop at the front of the room turns around to catch the eye of one of the officers sitting in the pews. Greenberg continues, “You got nothing on this guy,” as a forth cop raises his eyebrows. The lawyer continues, saying that his client has never touched drugs and is a family-man, pointing out his mother, uncle, cousin and brother in the audience. He ended his show by stating that he forgot the rest of what he wanted to say, drawing laughs from the back of the room. The client’s bail was set at $150,000 and Greenberg marched proudly back to the audience, declaring, “And that’s how it’s done.” The room empties out and one of the cops in the front row says, “At least that was entertaining.”
Published in NYU Magazine 11/19/15