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What I Saw While Spending 16 Hours in Manhattan Criminal Court

Every day, hundreds of disgruntled defendants, overworked lawyers, and indifferent cops and judges flow through the 17-floor concrete beast that squats in lower Manhattan.

by John Surico
14 May 2015, 4:00am

Illustrations by Tyler Boss

8:45 AM

The Manhattan Criminal Court, a few blocks away from City Hall in Lower Manhattan, was just opening, a handful of New Yorkers sitting silently on the wooden benches outside of their respective chambers squinting at brightly-lit phones. The only noise was the hum of the exit sign, and when I popped my head into Criminal Court D—home to those charged with domestic violence and harassment—it sounded like any other office at the start of the workday.

Then, in what seemed like a flash, the place was full.

Throngs of attorneys, defendants, court officers and administrative workers began to pour out of the elevators. When I walked back outside of the courtroom just 15 minutes after entering, the silent hallways were nearly crammed with lawyers hunting down their clients and hustling them inside.

A small trickle turned into a waterfall: By 9:30, the New York City criminal justice machine was running at full power.

I've spent my fair share of hours at the courts in each of the five boroughs in the course of my duties as a reporter. I've waited on the long line that curls down Queens Boulevard to get into Queens Criminal, I've researched in the stacks of Brooklyn and Bronx Criminal, and I've gone to an arraignment for murder in Staten Island. By and large, each borough maintains a dominant characteristic. In one of the most diverse counties in the world, the Queens courthouse is characterized by an almost exotic eccentricity; Brooklyn Criminal, on the other hand, is defined by the grit of Brownsville and East New York, two of the more notoriously crime- and police-ridden neighborhoods in the city. The Bronx courthouse has a Bonfire of the Vanities–esque old-fashioned (and dirty) New York-in-the-70s grit to it. And the Staten Island courthouse is the only place I've heard both the court officer and judge say "fucking."

The Manhattan Criminal Court on 100 Centre Street is the mothership, a 17-floor concrete beast. From 8:30 in the morning until one at night, an endless stream of New Yorkers are squeezed through a brutal system, facing the short- and long-term consequences of all types and degrees of violations, misdemeanors, and felonies.

It's pretty easy to find: Even the hot dog stand outside has a number for a criminal defense lawyer plastered on it.

But in a city where prosecution of low-level infractions like subway performances, panhandling, and even selling churros reigns supreme, the Manhattan Criminal Court also functions as a zoo exhibit for broken windows theory. This is a place that ebbs and flows with the whims of 1 Police Plaza, the headquarters of the New York Police Department. During the police slowdown this past January, when cops basically decided to stop arresting people, the courtrooms were reportedly ghost towns.

Someone scribbled "Fuck dah cops" with a permanent marker on the wooden bench in front of me, where a defendant sat and snored loudly.

As more defendants slowly showed up, I sat and observed the first proceedings of the day in Criminal Court D. Three courtroom workers sifted through a docket that seemed to burst with files, quickly pulling out the next on the list. Lawyers strolled in and whispered the names of their clients, whom they presumably had never met before, and waited for a response. Someone scribbled "Fuck dah cops" with a permanent marker on the wooden bench in front of me, where a defendant sat and snored loudly. A bulletproof-vested and armed court officer patrolled the aisles for cell phones, which are strictly banned inside of the courts, and woke the sleeping defendant up. He told me later that he was there for a domestic violence charge.

Outside in the hallway, I quickly spoke with a kid I'll call Mike, 16, who appeared to be the youngest defendant in the courtroom. I had noticed him ask an older man for instructions: "When will they call my name?"

Mike had never been to Manhattan Criminal before. A young African-American teenager from Harlem, he was there for a physical altercation he had with his mom over the weekend. He was released from jail the day before. "I'm really surprised how many people are [still] here," he told me, peering down the packed hallways. "I was locked up with most of these guys."

In between proceedings, I navigated through the different floors of the complex, peering down corridors that reminded me of the scariest parts of The Shining. On one floor, I saw a line of people entering a courtroom for the notorious Etan Patz trial, which centers on a boy who went missing some 40 years ago. On another, I walked right into the Department of Probation, where a sign warned, "Probation is a long process." Then, up on the highest floors, where the Criminal Supreme Court rooms are located, I turned left and saw three court officers walking toward me, escorting a man in handcuffs

I escaped down below to Room 130, which is perhaps the most "popular"—the arraignment room. That might explain why, just as I sat down, a crowd of about 20 older white people entered brandishing their green "Visitor's Pass" tags while a handful of young black and Hispanic men faced the judge—and possible prison time. One of the tour members told me they were upstairs on the seventh floor, the office of the Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, and figured "they'd come see what this was all about."

These voyeuristic forays to Manhattan Criminal Court, especially at night, have become quite common in recent years. A court officer later told me tourists come to see the arraignments because they think they're exciting. They're interested in seeing real-life Law & Order crime dramas, but instead are handed the dystopian reality of criminal justice in this country.

Some of the old white women gawked at a large black man in handcuffs who was charged with petty larceny for stealing from Target.

That was one thing you'd have to be blind to not notice: the racial undertones. In every courtroom I visited, the people that found themselves behind the bar were almost always black or Hispanic, and the people in front of the bar—the judges, the lawyers, the administrative officials—were almost always white. I found myself more times than not as the only white guy on the "wrong" side, jotting down notes.

1 PM

When the court adjourned for lunch, I gave Bob Gangi a call. He's the director of the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP), a criminal justice group that has spent countless hours watching over cases at Manhattan and Brooklyn Criminal, documenting who gets charged with what. On one occasion two months ago, Gangi told me, the group tallied 103 cases from 5 PM to 9 PM, 95 of which involved a person of color (92 percent); in 92 of those cases (89 percent), the perp walked free. The former statistic more or less follows the same breakdown for stop-and-frisk numbers, which are heavily down from where they were a couple years ago but still heavily divided along ethnic lines. (Despite a cruel winter and the arrest slowdown, the amount of stops hasn't decreased much from last year, Gangi said.) The latter stat clarifies just how much of a waste of time this can be.

"Most cases involved very low-level infractions: a bike on the sidewalk, passing between subway cars," he told me. "Just victimless, innocuous crimes, with fines attached. It's a spectacle that should embarrass the city."

Throughout the day, the city's money machine was in action. Possession of marijuana? $75, with an $88 surcharge. Traffic infraction? $70, with a $120 surcharge. Disorderly conduct? $50. The ATM outside of the court doubles as a broken windows deposit bank. All in all, I must've seen at least $1,000 collected from people who couldn't even afford an attorney. (Hence the permanently installed Legal Aid Society office a few floors up.)

"On three separate occasions, academicians have told me that a criminal prosecutor from Germany or some other European country visited the Manhattan Criminal Court, and had three questions to ask," Gangi told me. "First: 'Is there no real due process?' Second: 'How can you administer justice if it's happening so fast?' And third: 'Where do the white people get prosecuted?'

"Our takeaway is that it's the same old bad business," Gangi continued. "And nobody in the courtroom stands up and says, 'What the fuck is going on?'"

2 PM

I wondered the same thing as more and more defendants were ushered inside. Some were handcuffed and seated in the front rows already; others were handcuffed right in front of me. A select few were escorted out of "the Tombs," the nickname for the area below Manhattan Criminal where defendants are kept until they're arraigned.

One defendant I spoke with, who was charged with criminal possession of marijuana and left with a $75 fine, told me he was detained from the previous night at 2 AM until today's proceedings. Worse, I've had defendants tell me that they were detained from 11:30 AM to midnight—a solid 12 hours in handcuffs or behind bars, awaiting charges that may or may not be legit. (These people often haven't even been officially told what their crime is yet.) Horrifyingly, it wasn't until two years ago that the average time to arraign a defendant arrested in the five boroughs fell below 24 hours for the first time, a significant portion of which, in Manhattan at least, is spent underground.

A Legal Aid lawyer, who declined to give his name, told me that it's an incentive on the part of the court employees. "They're in no rush," the lawyer said as we waited for the elevators together. "They're getting paid for the day, so it doesn't matter who comes through those doors, or for how long."

He paused, reflectively. "It sucks, but that's how the machine works."

"The worst thing about it is that you're treated like you're on death row. Everyone, from the lawyers to the officers, treat you like an animal, like you're a criminal." –Sean Miller on being in the Tombs

Sean Miller (not his real name), a 22-year-old African-American man from Long Island, told me he was issued a warrant for his arrest back in 2012 for assaulting his uncle. He explained that his uncle was upset that he won the fight and lied to the cops, telling them Miller had a knife and baseball bat on him. Regardless of whether or not that's true, Miller found himself in the Tombs for 12 hours soon after.

"I was 19 when I was first arrested," he said. "The worst thing about it is that you're treated like you're on death row. Everyone, from the lawyers to the officers, treat you like an animal, like you're a criminal. They answer you with one word, and ignore you. It's like, 'Come on, I'm not a criminal. I'm a fairly educated and decent guy!'"

A few defendants, Miller included, told me that the entree du jour at The Tombs is a peanut butter sandwich on stale, rock-hard pieces of bread. When Miller asked for one with jelly, the officer ignored him entirely, he said, and kept walking. "It felt like I was an animal in a cage," he said. "What am I supposed to do with this?"

When I found Miller, he was reading a Bible outside of the courtroom. That 2012 warrant for his arrest had come to haunt him: He told me he had recently landed a big-time job at a Fortune 500 company, but was fired a week in for having the outstanding warrant he didn't even know still existed. He was here to vacate it and hope his job might take him back.

Alongside him sat a 26-year-old immigrant from Mali. The young Muslim had been placed in the Manhattan Detention Complex—a two-tower, bridged colossus conveniently located just next door—for several days after an accusation of domestic violence against his wife. He repeatedly told me to go there to find out what was really going on.

"Ask them what they've seen," he said. "One man I met was in the Tombs from 2 AM to 10 PM. Almost a full day. He was screaming at guards, and flailing his arms. He was going insane! When you keep seeing the same people and the same color, you know something is wrong here. One day, they're gonna arrest the wrong person."

5 PM

This is the time of day when the court turns itself inside out and dons its nocturnal cape, as the daytime lawyers and judges get subbed out for their nighttime counterparts. The Legal Aid lawyer I had spoken with earlier said the office is staffed on two separate shifts, just to keep up with the demand. All cases are moved to the arraignment room after dark; everything else in the building shuts down. But even as the custodians start to wipe the floors and the guards close the barriers, the process doesn't slow down for a second.

Illustrations by Tyler Boss

After I inhaled some extra caffeine, I heard the stern voice of the night judge as he announced that a defendant, by pleading guilty, was giving up his rights. I looked over at a woman in handcuffs, who had been sitting there for a few hours now, using the wooden bench to scratch her head. I started to find it harder to keep track of what time it was. The curtains were almost entirely closed, the clock barely visible, the fluorescent lights glaring.

One of the most frightening parts of it all is how routine the madness is. It becomes exhaustingly predictable. The court workers laugh and joke, as men and women have their lives decided in front of them. During my visit, one employee even started singing, ironically, "Eight Days a Week" by The Beatles. You start to notice that the only people in the room having regular conversations are the cops, while family members try to listen in to find out what will happen to their child, nephew, or friend.

It angers you, but what's even scarier is how much a part of it you become. When a prosecutor suggests a high bail set at $2,000 for something like harassment, you turn to the guy sitting next to you, raise your eyebrows, and give a look, like, Holy shit! There's a small burst of cheers after each dismissal. One defendant was released on his own recognizance after being charged with sexual harassment because his lawyer convinced the judge that he was just an old, innocent man. The guy sitting next to me whispered, "Damn, I want that guy's card."

I kept telling myself that this is a court, so of course it's terrible. There is no good court in America. But now those tour groups made sense to me. And, at a certain point, this system—broken windows policing, all of it—almost made sense, too. It's meant to be a showcase, to present to the people just how swift "justice" is in New York City. Here officials can bang out hundreds of cases in a matter of hours, and anyone who wants to make sure criminals are getting theirs can come have a look.

9 PM

After that realization crept in, I retreated to the press room as the court had its last adjournment, from 9 to 10 PM for dinner. Usually this room is filled with reporters sticking around for a particular arraignment, but tonight, it was empty. Inside, the walls are decorated with old New York Post and New York Daily News covers. My favorite was a Post cover from the 80s, emblazoned with the headline, "Phantom Spanker Busted!"

The last few hours flew by. Outside in the hallways, the benches were filled with sleeping defendants, or those who needed coffee much more than I ever did. It was almost midnight, and they still hadn't been arraigned.

Depending on how many cases are left, the judge sometimes adjourns early. During the NYPD slowdown in January, according to the New York Times, the court sometimes closed at 12:15 AM, 45 minutes ahead of schedule. That wasn't the case tonight, though. At 12:30, the place was as packed as it had been at three in the afternoon. I saw a homeless man get in trouble for stealing a bike; a man detained with a $3,000 bail for obsessively emailing his ex-girlfriend over 200 times, even with a restraining order against him; a man who "accidentally" punched a girl in the face as he was walking down the street. It went on.

Outside in the hallways, the benches were filled with sleeping defendants, or those who needed coffee much more than I ever did.

1 AM

As the court finally wrapped up, everyone in the room either appeared exhausted or unable to close their eyes because the lights were so damn bright. As I waddled out, I ran into a defendant who had been one of the last to be arraigned. He was a 30-year-old from Pakistan who was charged with shoving his ex-girlfriend. (Men accused of domestic abuse or harassment were—perhaps because they were angry—more willing to talk to me than most.) This guy had been brought in at 11:30 in the morning.

"I haven't had my cell phone all day, so my wife is worried sick," he told me as we waited for the subway together. "I left my house this morning at 9 AM. She has no idea what happened to me, or where I might be. And I've got a four-month-old son." His voice grew angry as he described the conditions in the Tombs, where he waited for hours before being squeezed in at the last minute. (He hates peanut butter.)

"It's like, we get so crazed about what other countries are doing, and how they treat their people," the man said. "Meanwhile, we're doing the same shit right here, right in our own backyard, right in the middle of New York City. How does that make any sense?"

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