It wasn’t quite business as usual at the Manhattan Criminal Court, at 100 Centre Street, but it was close. Judge Lynn Kotler slogged through arraignments at about half the usual caseload. The court regularly handles about 130,000 cases a year, but the last few weeks have slowed to a more pacific pace since Hurricane Sandy. The scene struck a chord more comparable to an (unfunny) episode of Night Court than the drama of Law & Order. The gallery was mostly bare but for a group of students on one side and, on the other, a young man, hands cuffed behind his back, with his two lawyers and arresting officers.
The man – a slim-built 20-something with a cut on his cheekbone and white Jordans on his feet – craned his neck to hear his lawyers’ whispering. The lawyers grew more impatient with each case called, and one of them stood waving to catch the eye of Assistant District Attorney Ed McCarthy, but instead won the broad-shouldered attention of Court Officer John Beck, who approached him with the annoyed smirk.
“What are you doing?” Beck, mostly amused, chided the counselor. They spoke to each other in hushed tones, the lawyer becoming increasingly more rude as Beck harangued him on professional behavior. “We’re done!” the lawyer turned his back. Beck looked down at the cuffed young man, eyes wide and smiling, as if to say “good luck with this guy.”
The cops, clerks and lawyers bantered between cases, one passed the lulls swiping at his iPad – business as usual. Yet for most citizens unlucky enough to find themselves before a judge, arraignment court is a big deal.. It is the major first step of criminal procedure, where the defendant formally hears the charges brought against him. In New York county, the typical time between arrest and arraignment is 22 hours – including fingerprinting, mug shots and time for the District Attorney’s office to formalize the charges. It is also, for the defendant, 22 hours corralled in The Tombs, the dark moniker of the central booking and holding facility across the street. This is where ADA’s argue for bail. Defendants can plead guilty here on the spot to avoid a trial, and be sentenced for the lower offenses, from community service or drug treatment to jail time.
During the dinner break, the senior clerk, Bob Smith, a former court officer and 29-year veteran of the courts, regaled the group of students with his jocular take on the system. He explained the processes and the paperwork, but got the best responses from the more tabloid-esque details. He keeps an autograph book, bearing the signatures of, among others, Tupac Shakur, Jennifer Lopez and Dominique Strauss Khan.
Dressed unusually casual in blue jeans – a shade or two darker than his eyes – and a purple button-down with the sleeves rolled up, Smith had the sense of humor that could only be achieved through decades mired in the worst the city has to offer. “Everything is funny when it happens to some one else,” he says. He has seen over a million cases, and with it everything from suicides in the “feeder pens” to fights in the audience. A corona of thinning hair and the flat chin of a fighter, Smith smiled as he told even the worst stories. “Anything can happen, people try to throw things. I’ve seen people go to the bathroom right in front of the judge,” he laughed. “Yeah, a guy shit his pants right there.”
The young man with the cut on his face eventually had his turn – adjourned until January 2013 – and the gray-bearded lawyer approached Officer Beck, attempting to settle his previous transgression with a hand shake. “Apology accepted,” Beck smiled. “But you should know better.” It all started again, the same argument bubbling through the grins. The lawyer turned around, hit the off switch on his feigned smile and left the room. Business as usual.