Brooklyn criminal courtroom number 105, at 10:43 p.m., Judge Jackie Williams presiding. The room is high-ceilinged, the light fluorescent, the pews so worn most of the graffiti etched into the wood is illegible. Judge Williams is seated far back in the room, high up and centered and staring into a flat Dell computer monitor. Behind her, sagging, the United States and New York flags and above those, on the wall in gold Helvetica, “In God We Trust.” Below and in front of the judge, behind another monitor, sits the court reporter. In front of the reporter, two attorneys and the defendant stand facing the judge at two faded lecterns, also wood, like discarded library carrels or a booths for filling out forms in a DMV. Fifteen feet to their right, between thick metal file cabinets, plastic tables and patched office chairs, two clerks, one for Kings County, the other for the defense, shuffle through stacks of criminal complaints, all minor. No felonies here tonight. Those are over in room 110.
An officer of the court, a policeman in blue, carries the complaints across the room and over to the clerks from a long table, opposite the makeshift offices, where stacks of more complaints, stapled to rap sheets, are spread out neatly in two, sometimes three long lines by which the policemen linger. Earlier in the evening as the line of paper grew shorter, an officer carrying more sheets came out, and the docket got longer than it had been at the beginning of the night. One of the defenders looked at it and sighed and said “so much for leaving early.”
The four defenders are all women, all young, mostly in their twenties. One reads a Walter Mosley novel between her arraignments. Another plays Candy Crush. The assistant attorney from the DA’s office is young, too, and a man. The judge is black; the DA is white; two of the officers are black, the rest are white; the defenders are black, black, white, and Asian. The defendants enter in groups of eight, led from a holding pen in a hallway behind the courtroom and into another pen, this one wood framed and glass windowed, a sort of dugout for the soon-to-be-arraigned in the corner of the courtroom, behind the judge and on the same side as the officers. The defendants were arrested yesterday or the day before that and have since then been in the jail across the street. From left to right they are black, black, Latino, black, black, white, black, Latino. Sometimes someone stands in the dugout and then an officer yells at him to sit back down. Mostly they lean forward then lean back then lean forward again, slowly, staring out to some point beyond the glass in silence.
They’re in for: fighting, menacing, drunk driving, peeing between subway cars, disorderly conduct, missed fees on more minor priors — “a lot of stupid shit, basically” one of the defenders says — and drugs, lots of drugs, mostly drugs, and almost exclusively marijuana. Either the case is disposed or adjourned to another day. A lot get resolved in under five minutes and most of the time Judge Williams hands down an ACD — an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal. The case isn’t dismissed right then and there, this period of “contemplation” lasts six months and then, if you haven’t been arrested during that time, it’s gone and clear, sealed from the public, no criminal record remaining. It won’t show up on a background check. Marijuana arrests are so common there’s a Marijuana ACD, which works the same way as a regular ACD only the contemplation period lasts twice as long. “Do you understand the terms of your ACD? Are you willing to accept these terms?” Judge Williams asks each defendant as she hands it down, then says, “You’re free to go,” and they walk toward the back, towards the exit, only they aren’t quite free to go. Not yet.
There’s more paperwork to process, and each defense attorney works a stack of complaints at a time, so she’s up with the judge for a spell, with the rest of this batch of defendants, before dashing back to the pews, to the lineup of the same defendants, now waiting to sign a paper that says they understand the terms of their release. Most need a MetroCard for the ride home, too, which the defender service provides. As they wait they slump and their knees bob and some of their hands jitter and many, suddenly smelling themselves for the first time in 20 hours in air untainted by a pack of other men, exclaim under their breath at the power of their stink.
If it’s not an ACD it’s an ROR — released on your own recognizance, a personal promise to return to court. The white guy, he gets an ROR. He blew a .184 when he was pulled over. His license is suspended. If it’s not an ACD or ROR it’s two guys who got in a fight and just spent the last night and a day in jail together and request mutual dismissal. The two in this case walk out side-by-side until, passing through the doors that lead out of Brooklyn Criminal Court, one slaps the other on the back and they stretch out their arms and whoop into the night, jumping down the steps and tearing off down the block.
Next in line is a VTL 511, a misdemeanor for driving with a suspended license, a crummy thing, the defense attorney argues, for he’s fresh out of 10 years in prison, in Georgia, and had no idea his license had been suspended. “His mother and father are here in New York City. He’s not going to run off anywhere,” she says. The defense wants to show he’s not a flight risk, he’ll make his court dates, and tomorrow he’ll go to the DMV and fix this thing, first thing. What she doesn’t want is for the judge to set bail, which will likely be $1,000 or higher, and will likely mean her defendant sits in jail until he pleads guilty, because that’s what happens to people too poor to scrape together $1,000 or without anyone organized enough to get a bond: they sit in jail until they plead. Still, bail is set. $1,000.
Now a marijuana possession with an outstanding domestic complaint, which was later dropped. He gets a Marijuana ACD but, afterward, filling out the release, he wants his attorney to check out his head, where his hair was ripped out by the roots during his arrest. Nothing can be done tonight, she tells him. Go home, go home, she says. So he does.
A menacing case with a BB gun gets thrown out due to a botched investigation (no ballistics performed on the gun) and a forged instruments while driving case gets an ACD. Forged instruments means fake plates, which happens all the time, and it’s always, always from just-bought cars off used lots. An 18-year-old broke the chain on the door to his apartment and the landlord complained, but the kid is a good kid, goes to school, got into John Jay for college, so after a long speech about learning from this mistake and controlling his anger and the importance of education, Judge Williams throws it out. She loves giving speeches to kids, an attorney whispers.
Midnight approaches and the few huddled friends and relatives scattered around the pews take on the aspect of stranded air travelers, eyes glazed and shell-shocked from waiting for something so far beyond their control. The microphones before the judge and lawyers cut in and out — without them it’s impossible to hear what’s happening. A defendant had an argument with his roommate and was arrested for threatening physical violence, but no, it wasn’t his roommate, it was his friend, a friend who is only staying a few weeks. It doesn’t matter. He is not allowed back into the apartment unless he can be certain his friend or roommate is not there, or he has an officer escort him. Does he have a place to stay tonight? He does. But he must get back to the apartment for his work uniform, which he needs for his job, for which he must leave at 4 a.m. So he will go to his local precinct and sit and wait for an officer to escort him. A Spanish translator explains this to the defendant. It will be another long night for him.
More marijuana arrests, more Marijuana ACDs, and another pair caught fighting and mutually dismissed. The minor dramas pile up and file out until Judge Williams decides that for tonight this is enough. Court adjourns at 12:33 a.m.
Ryan Bradley is a writer and editor in New York.