At the end of the dimly stark halls of the New York Criminal courthouse at 100 Centre St., past the revolving door and metal detector, two imposing double-doors face each other. It is 7 p.m. on a November Saturday, and the hallway benches hold worn-looking family members as they wait for New York’s night court to release the accused.
The opposing courtrooms are identical in appearance and purpose. This is where arraignments take place, which is the process that sorts through arrested persons from the previous 24 hours. The rooms are large, with two-story ceilings and wood paneling, two factors that conduct sound rather poorly. Five rows of wooden pews fill the back halves of the rooms, while the desks and podiums take up the front halves. Onlookers and officials shuffle in and out of the room. Nine or so people are scattered among the pews this night, soberly watching the proceedings.
Some of them are defendants who have just finished their arraignments and been released, and a Legal Aid comes by to offer MetroCards to those who need a ride home. The echo of microphoned voices in monotone makes it hard to hear or pay attention. A low, wooden partition, split by a thick, braided rope, separates the audience from the officials. The room is brightly lit, but the mood is dull and world-weary. The people working have been here since 5 p.m. and won’t go home until night court closes at 1 a.m.
New York’s night court was first started in 1907 to alleviate the profusion of arrests that clogged up the day court. From 1967 to 2003, a “lobster shift” ran from 1 to 8 a.m., allowing for a 24-hour court system; the late-night court was closed thanks to the decreasing crime rates. As many as 260 people, all who were arrested in Manhattan or on Roosevelt Island, will be arraigned here tonight. The defendants are held in pens beside the courtroom and are brought in through a side door; they sit on a bench near the wall while waiting to be called.
Once the defendant is before the judge, the assistant district attorney reads the charges, and the defense attorney pleads the case. If the defendant pleads not guilty the judge will set a release the defendant on his or her own recognizance, which entrusts the defendant to return to court without a bail, or set a bail and date for next appearance. If the defendant pleads guilty, the judge gives a ruling then and there.
Presiding over a courtroom tonight is Judge Kevin McGrath, a criminal court judge since 2009, wearing the requisite black robes and a stern expression. Before him is an 11-foot podium at which the defendant and defense attorney stand. To the side are the two prosecuting assistant district attorneys, Kelly Rahn and Jennifer Abreu, recent law school graduates. There are also a number of people working at computers: four defense attorneys — free legal aids for those who need them, and most defendants do — a full-time Spanish interpreter and a few clerks. They walk back and forth, in an out in flurries of paperwork throughout the proceedings, at one point getting shushed by a police officer. Six NYPD policemen hover about, watchfully guarding those in custody.
“‘You can’t stop me from smoking pot, you pussy,’” reads Abreu, quoting the defendant. Someone in the back sniggers. Many of tonight’s arraignments are related to drug possession and dealing. The next defendant, Arnold Stein, is a 73-year-old man who walks with a cane to support his hunched back. He tried to sell hydroprofen to an undercover cop, and now the assistant district attorneys are asking for $10,000 bail, an amount that Judge McGrath asks them to justify. “His last arrest was 10 years prior,” says defense attorney Ed McCarthy, also known as the “Godfather of Legal Aid.” “My client has a long list of serious health issues.”
The back-and-forth between McGrath and the ADAs isn’t unlike dialogue found on-stage in a theater, with characters (defendants) are introduced and filed offstage without fanfare. Indeed, the New York Times has described night court as both a “theater” and “riveting show with actors in cuffs.” Of course, it would only appear that way to people whose lives bear no consequence depending on the judge’s ruling. It is perhaps for this reason that night court can be a tourist destination.
Bob Smith, a court clerk for 30 years, has given hundreds of tours to visitors and journalists, the most common group being German tourists. “We get a lot of celebrities in here, from 50 Cent to Dominique Strauss-Kahn,” Smith regales. “Some people even get married here.” (The first recorded occurrence of that was on July 24, 1910, of a young couple from New Jersey who had been arrested.)
Most defendants stand with hands clutched behind their backs modestly as their immediate fates are decided, though some are stubbornly uncooperative. Defendant number 067, a large black man, is brought in, and despite interacting normally with people in the pens, he refuses to even greet his defense attorney because the voices in his head have told him not to speak to lawyers. The police officers, who had previously been standing around nonchalantly, stand behind him in a tense semicircle. Judge McGrath is irate. “He wants to be the tough guy, he can be the tough guy in the back,” he says, and 067 is returned to the pens for the fourth day in a row. The next defendant is called, and the process begins again.
There are no recreational spectators here today, but the show goes on. “No matter how many tourists or journalist come or not,” senior court clerk Smith says, “night court is open seven days a week, 365 days a year.”