Welcome To Night Court

A half dozen young female journalism students filed into a viewing bench at the New York County criminal arraignment courtroom on a mid-November night, ready to report on the dramatics often experienced at 100 Centre St. As their pens scribbled with observations across their weathered steno pads, a dark-haired court officer approached the bench. “Ladies, it’s a five-dollar cover charge. Didn’t anyone tell you that?” he said with a smile.

Dim ceiling tiles of fluorescent light created a dingy glow throughout the room. Ancient windowpanes opened at awkward angles, allowing the crisp night air to counter the court’s stuffiness. The tile floor, the color of dirt with little flecks of white and gray, barely concealed the grime tracked into the room.

Only a worn wooden banister and chain-link rope separated the arraignment proceedings from the deserted public benches designed to provide discomfort to all of their inhabitants. Every few minutes, a court officer breached the chain boundary with the same swift pivot as the officer before him. On the front bench designated for police officers, lawyers and defendants, two tired men sat with their hands secured behind their back and heads hung low into their chests.

Wednesday night proved slow in the arraignment courtroom, and security officer John Beck said that the court’s activity has markedly decreased since Hurricane Sandy struck the Northeast three weeks ago. “It is typically twice as busy in here,” said Beck.

Senior court clerk Robert Smith, who has worked in the night arraignment courts for the past 29 years, assured the row of journalism students that the court has, in fact, seen much livelier nights. While only 149 prisoners occupied the jail cells, or “tombs,” below the courtroom Wednesday night, Smith said this number jumps to around 250 on the weekends. He keeps an autograph book at the ready for the special occasion of a celebrity arraignment. Thus far he has gathered signatures from various New York Jets and Giants football players, Jennifer Lopez and rapper 50 Cent. “It can be a very funny place if you have a sense of humor,” said Smith.

Since its introduction in New York County on April 12, 1907, night arraignment court has provided defendants arrested earlier in the day with their first formal meeting with a judge. During these proceedings, the judge informs the defendant of the violation, misdemeanor or felony charge being brought and determines the next steps in the criminal justice process. Defendants remain in custody an average of 22 hours before their arraignment begins. Open seven days a week and 365 days a year, New York County Criminal Court sees about 130,000 night arraignment cases annually.

Judge Lynn Kotler presided over the night arraignment court last week. With a long face and deep bags beneath her eyes, she appeared worn by her duty to hear cases from 5 p.m. until 1 a.m. each evening.  A brunette with streaks of blonde and gray striping her tight ponytail, Kotler followed the same, repetitive script. “Is anyone forcing you to plead guilty tonight?” Kotler asked for the third time in the hour. She continued through the rest of her sentencing protocol in a monotone voice muffled by the courtroom’s poor acoustics.

One of the defendants hunched over on the front bench perked up when he heard a squawk through the old speaker system resembling his name. “Andy Pollock,” said the assistant district attorney, summoning him to appear before Judge Kotler.  His navy blue windbreaker rustled as he stood, and his profile highlighted fresh gashes alongside his right eye. His hands hung within two sets of linked handcuffs, one black and one silver. It took less than five minutes for him to plead not guilty to the charges of resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer, and receive a trial date of Jan. 10, 2013. Judge Kotler moved on to her next case quickly before recessing for dinner as Pollock resumed his slumped position on the front bench until a court officer arrived to escort him away.

Originally written for my graduate writing/reporting workshop

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