We see footage on TV of some famous person being arrested and led off in a black and white. Later we see a noose of news people shouting outside a courthouse and are told what happened inside the courtroom where the arrestee has appeared. It is all highly scrutinized, and “experts” may be talking about that first court appearance for days on the news sites. Most people who are arrested do not draw this attention, and their traumatic event–for it is always traumatic–draws little scrutiny.  Perhaps if court proceedings for “ordinary” people were better understood, we would have a better perspective when famous and influential people are arrested and brought to court. What follows, then, is a description of what happened to someone who was arrested when I worked in the New York City courts.

The process goes by different names around the country and is not precisely the same everywhere, but in New York City when I was doing public defender work for the Legal Aid Society, it was an “arraignment.” Of course, before that first court appearance came the arrest. After being arrested, he (much more likely to be a he than a she) would be taken to the local police station where he was fingerprinted, photographed, and when the technology advanced, swabbed for a DNA sample. The police asked and would record basic “pedigree” information: name, age, and address. The arrested person would be placed in a small cell to await transportation to a more central police facility. From that central place, he was taken to court.

In New York City, a person was required by law to be arraigned within twenty-four hours of his arrest, and generally that happened. Part of the reason that time restriction could be met is that the arraignment courts were in session from nine in the morning until one at night 365 days a year. Yes, these courts were open on Sundays, on Christmas, on the Fourth of July. (I never worked on Christmas. The practice accepted by all Legal Aid Society offices was that Jewish lawyers would work on Christian holidays so that they would not have to work on the Jewish holidays. I did work on many secular holidays, however.)

After coming from a police facility, the arrested person was put into a lockup facility behind the arraignment courtroom. As in other courtrooms, a waist-high railing separated the audience portion from the section where the judge’s bench loomed. The court clerk had a desk off to the side of the bench. Within the railing but on opposite sides of the room facing each other, the assistant district attorneys and the legal aid attorneys each had a desk.

Three of us “legal aids” worked during arraignments. Court officers deposited copies of the legal papers onto our desk. Those papers were parceled out among us based on the seriousness of charges, the age of the defendant, and the experience of the attorney.

If it was my case, I was given several documents. The first contained the charges and brief description of the alleged crime. It might report something like this: The defendant is charged with robbery in the first degree. On a specific date at a particular time at a stated location the defendant displayed a gun and forcibly took the wallet of James Smith who, in courthouse lingo, was the complainant or the complaining witness. The charges would say little beyond this unless there were additional charges. If, for example, the defendant had been apprehended with a gun, a firearm charge would be listed. If the defendant had the complainant’s wallet, the crime of possession of stolen property would be added.

A defense attorney learned some basic information from the totality of the charges. If a gunpoint robbery was alleged, but no firearm or stolen property charges were lodged, the case looked different from one in which other charges were included. Caught with a gun and the stolen property, the defendant was unlikely to have much of a defense. If he did not have a gun or property when arrested, a viable defense might exist. The time of the crime was also important. If it was in the last twenty-four hours, the defendant was undoubtedly arrested shortly after the crime, perhaps even at the scene of the crime. However, if the crime had occurred earlier, then one would want to know how the defendant was identified. The court papers would not give me that information; I would have to ferret it out.

A criminal history of the defendant was also in the defense packet. This was often called the “rap sheet.” When I started out it was also called the “yellow sheet” because back then, for reasons I never knew, it was printed on yellow paper. This document was invariably misleading. It would show where and when the defendant had been previously arrested and charged with a crime, but it only contained the charges lodged by the police officer following an arrest. That officer, for his own career, had a stake in making the alleged criminal behavior look as serious as possible. The charges in the court documents, however, were drawn up by an assistant district attorney (ADA) and were often different from, and lesser than, those on the rap sheet. When I started, the rap sheet did not list the official ADA charges, and it seldom contained the outcome of the case, which might have been a dismissal or a guilty plea to lesser charges.

When I worked in a test case unit at the Legal Aid Society, we sued to require that the disposition to each arrest appeared on the rap sheet. We had some success. More of the outcomes were presented, but few rap sheets were complete and gaps in the disposition column were too common.

The third important document in the court papers given to the defense attorney was a report from a pre-trial agency that had interviewed the defendant and presented a report that could later be important in setting bail. The information obtained was to gauge, in the court lingo, the defendant’s “ties to the community.” How long had the defendant lived in New York? How long at his present address? Whom did he live with? Mother? Father? Spouse? Girlfriend? Children? What was his education? Did he have a job? If so, where and for how long? What income and assets did he have? The interviewer tried to verify information through phone calls, but the verification was often spotty. If the interviewer was calling at night, the business where the defendant worked might not be open. And many people back then did not have a phone so much of the supplied information could not be checked before the court appearance.       After examining at these documents, I headed to the holding cell behind the courtroom to meet my client.

(continued March 6)

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