Night Court: It’s Not Just a TV Show

At 100 Centre St., the Manhattan Criminal Court operates until 5 p.m. and then everyone goes home.

Wrong.

From 5 p.m. to 1 a.m., the criminal court remains in session for “night court.”

Manhattan Criminal Court is home to the more than 100,000 Manhattan arraignments annually. Everyone who is arrested must be arraigned within 24 hours, creating the need for the court to have proceedings past 5 p.m.

A black braided rope, reminiscent of one used outside a swanky bar or club, separates the spectators from the participants of night court. Unlike at a bar or a club, being on the outside of the rope does not mean you have been passed over. Bailiffs, lawyers, and other court officials can enter and exit as they please, but defendants must be escorted.

Defendants met with their lawyers in a glass box to the side of the judge, they joined the cycle of having their charges read, pleading and having their lawyers attempt to lower requested time served and bail amounts.

One defendant, a man who had been arrested over 10 times in the last 30 years, was charged with selling and possession of a sizable amount of heroin in his car. His lawyer argued: “Don’t nod your head at me. My client is an American citizen with no knowledge of warrants or who issued them. His last arrest was over 10 years ago,” said a lawyer to the judge.

The judge, a woman in her mid-50s, showed no expression while he spoke. “Bail has been set at $75,000. Next.”

In between arraignments, the area behind the braided rope comes alive. There were over 20 people in an  sitting at desk. On breaks, the bailiffs, lawyers and court employees flipped coins to see who will go get everyone coffee or snacks for the long night of legal proceedings to come.

A blind woman in the last row of the audience was frantically asking everyone who walked by about her landlord, who was expected to have been arraigned by 6 p.m. Finally, someone told her that he should be arraigned in the next half hour. She breathed a sigh of relief. “I am from Guyana. He’s from Jamaica. He’s been my landlord for 20 something years,” she said, adding, “He’s more than a landlord, he’s like a son to me.”

The next person arraigned was a young woman charged with resisting arrest. Her lawyer whispered in her ear as the judge looked at her. She sported an undercut, a leather jacket and a septum piercing. The “people” requested time served and she was accompanied by a family member out of the courtroom, leaving many in the audience confused because no one exchanged any words.

Proceedings stopped momentarily as bailiffs ushered a man with chains on his feet and hands through the main doors of the courtroom.

“I wonder what he did” said a woman in the audience. Night court was soon to find out.

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