The night court proceedings function like a Metrocard swipe: quick and dirty. From 5 p.m. to 1 a.m., ADA’s present cases at rapid fire from underneath the harsh light of nine mock-chandeliers. The court hums, ever-present murmurs engulfing the room as clerks on either side confer and make phone calls, and the legal aid talk amongst themselves. The developments of the cases are thus often hard to hear, snippets of legal jargon occasionally breaking through.
Still, the sense of formality does not completely falter as the judge sits front and center, the words “In God We Trust” printed directly behind him in capital letters. His raised seat brings him closer to the windows on either side of the courtroom walls, their blinds and curtains partially drawn. There is a subtle tenseness in the air, likely due to the presence of the dozen police officers who encircle the room.
This is night court: a hodgepodge of cases and characters that can range from disgruntled civilians to distinguished professionals, from theft to assault to a whole slew of other misdemeanors. One of the most common crimes of the 100,000 cases per year is Metrocard forgery and resale.
Established in 1907, Manhattan night court on 100 Centre St. is the place for arraignments, or the pleas before a judge following arrest. The sporadically lively atmosphere has been somewhat of a tourist attraction as well as a focus of popular culture. Here, the public can witness justice as work, at least for lower crimes. The sentences never reach their maximum, and consequential trial for a party pleading not guilty is relatively rare. However, this doesn’t make the ordeal boring.
“Anything you think can happen- it happens,” says clerk, Dave O., 33. After working there for two years, he has seen the typical (often predictable) process, including DUI’s on the weekends, domestic violence around the holidays, and the constant stream of Metrocard misuse. He says the court usually goes through 50 to 60 cases a night. Tonight, however, is a slow one, capped at about 30 cases. Nevertheless, the courtroom seems hurried:
At around 7 p.m., a defendant makes his way to the front of the room, now standing a couple feet away from the judge on duty, Steven Statsinger. He has been charged with a forged instrument in the third degree, in other words, a bent Metrocard that allows for unlimited swipes that was ruled illegal in the 2008 case People v. Jonathan Mattocks. He clutches a red hat with his hands behind his back, though he is not handcuffed. The judge runs through the charges and he pleads guilty in a series of yes-and-no sir’s. He is sentenced to two days community service, and the next case begins.
Now this one is in handcuffs, a translator by his side. Disorderly conduct. Two days community service, next. Theft, another court date, next. Bent Metrocard, off with a warning, next. An assault case follows, which brings the room to the peak of its tension, a passionate lawyer contesting the charges and criticizing police actions, and a wife refusing to step outside.
Then we’re back to Metrocards with the defendant, James Williams. He is in court today after 26 years in prison without once violating parole, his lawyer says. After being released June of 2015, he has been living with his aunt in the Bronx. The lawyer says Williams has integrated well into society, and that his Metrocard malfunctioned- a misunderstanding. Judge Statsinger finally lets him off, simply telling him to return January 9th. Williams takes a slip of paper from a nearby ADA and walks halfway down the center aisle towards the doors. For a moment, he pauses to stare at the slip, an unrecognizable emotion on his face. He finally exits without a look backwards.
This is the best case scenario, says public defender, Sam Roberts, 48. An ROR, or a person “released on their own recognizance,” means no bail, just the act of showing up at another time. If one fails to show up, however, a warrant will be put out for their arrest. This lenient ending is not always the case, however, and judges have to be strict. “Sometimes they don’t want to do the things they do, but they have to do what’s right,” Roberts says. This is the case especially with repeat offenders. When someone is continually misusing a Metrocard, they eventually have to be seriously reprimanded. Yet while night court addresses the crime, it doesn’t address the cause.
Some programs try to help these repeat offenders by keeping them out of the system. Social worker Justine Tribou with CASES program Manhattan Start says they look for adults with repetitive misdemeanor pleas and argue for an alternative to jail. Funded with money that would have otherwise been allocated to corrections, the day custody program provides a “short-term intervention.” They try to figure out why these people get arrested and what isn’t working in their lives. For many, money is tight, especially with the recent hike in fare from $2.50 to $2.75. The program navigates concerns and refers the person to wherever they see fit, whether it be housing or another type of care or aid program. Though Metrocard misuse seems to be a tough crime to extinguish, she says jokingly, “The best part of my job is when I don’t see people again.”