Manhattan’s Night Courts Dispense Charges Around the Clock

Leaning over the railing in Manhattan’s felony arraignment court, a court-appointed defense lawyer spoke to her client for the first time.  “Mr. Ishavi, Mr. Ishavi.  I’m going to be your lawyer,” she said, motioning to the court officers on either side of him to escort him beyond the divider.

The defendant stumbled forward to confer with his lawyer in the private interview booth, hindered by his leg cuffs and the hospital issued pants slipping down his narrow frame.  Thick bandages covering his wrists and Band-Aids haphazardly dotting his forearms suggested a rough night.

Less than 20 minutes later, the defendant pleaded not guilty to charges of aggravated assault, receiving a later court date and a restraining order for the meantime.

New York City laws mandate that those arrested hear their charges in arraignment court within 24-hours of the arrest. To handle the sheer volume of cases, as many as 1000 a night, the borough of Manhattan relies on night court.  Between the operating hours of 5:30 p.m. and 1 a.m., defendants confer quickly with their public defenders, are brought before a judge and informed of charges lofted against them by one of the 500 assistant district attorneys.

On one recent Sunday night, court officials ticked off charges as defendants approached the bench; attempted burglary, cocaine possession, disorderly conduct, driving while intoxicated.  Prosecutors added detail to these various infractions; one man had been caught on video slashing a bodega clerk with box cutters, another had been brought in for jumping a turnstile, violating his lifetime parole for an old murder sentence.

Once these charges were stated, defendants pleaded guilty or not guilty before the court.  On one charge of criminal drug sale, the lawyer vehemently repudiated police testimony.  Citing doubt in the arrest made nearly two hours after the alleged transaction, he relayed client testimony of being strip-searched, manhandled and dragged off his own apartment stoop.

For the rare guilty plea, lawyers haggled back and forth with the assistant district attorneys.  One offer of 45 days of jail time was cut down to six, three days of community service cut down to two for another.

Weighing the likelihood that a defendant will return to court, Judge Steven Statsinger set bail, bond or release them on a promise to return for later court dates.

In some cases, bail values were tossed back and forth between the assistant district attorney and public defender.  Defense called for a bail of $20,000 in one case of drug sale and $7500 for another charge of credit card theft.  Pleading for the judge to be reasonable, one lawyer stated that her client held only $500 to his name.

Judge Statsinger, listened to each side’s short case before deliberating, settling on bail, community service or jail time in the span of three minutes.  For those pleading not guilty, he scheduled future court dates, offering a choice between January 9th and 10th.

Handing paperwork over the court’s railing to a defendant arrested on DUI charges, one lawyer spoke in sympathetic tones through a Spanish translator.

“Happy Birthday, I’m sorry,” she said, offering an apologetic smile.

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