That’s One Expensive Can of Beer

The very first day I attended court, a man came in with an open container charge. Before even speaking to his lawyer, he said he wanted to plead guilty. I had the impression that he was frustrated with being there and just wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible—a pattern I’ve noticed with a lot of defendants who want to avoid having to come in week after week to hash out the details of their cases. When he heard that the fine for an open container was $100, he exclaimed: “That’s one expensive can of beer!” Everyone in the courtroom laughed, and the judge responded by saying that what was more surprising is that the same people keep coming in with the exact same charge over and over again. While the whole exchange was a bit funny, I couldn’t help but wonder about the history of open container laws and who exactly they were meant to protect.

Since that day, I have seen 13 different open container cases during my time as a court watcher. According to Poughkeepsie’s local ordinance, the purpose of restricting open containers and the consumption of alcoholic beverages in public spaces is to reduce urban blight and neighborhood decay, juvenile delinquency, crime, and the general public’s fear about the safety of public spaces. However, upon further research I found that open container laws are actually a continuation of old laws against public drunkenness and vagrancy that were prevalent in many states and municipalities in the early 1960’s. Because the Supreme Court determined that enforcement of these laws was overly subjective and unfairly targeted homeless and alcoholic men, they were struck down as unconstitutional in a string of rulings starting in 1964. Drunkenness was decriminalized and reframed as a public health issue. In response, local laws began to target public drinking. In reality, these local ordinances have the same effect as the previous laws did—criminalizing poor people. 

While most people support restrictions on public drinking, it is important to pause and consider who can afford access to private gathering spaces—like bars and restaurants—where drinking is legal. Moreover, there’s no evidence that open container laws actually correlate to, much less cause, a reduction in more serious crimes. In fact, U.S. municipalities where public drinking is legal do not have any of the serious problems that open container laws claim they are preventing. Therefore, I’m left wondering if we really need open container laws that serve no better purpose than criminalizing people who police officers deem as disturbing the peace. I don’t have an answer to this quandary, but there has to be a better way than fining people and dragging them into court every other week. In a society where it seems we are becoming more and more isolated from one another, we shouldn’t underestimate the value of having public spaces where people can come together over a beer. Ideally, that beer would cost less than $100. 

To learn more about the history of drinking in public in America, check out this Huffington Post article.

Dogged by Probation

A 17-year-old defendant responded affirmatively to the judge’s question of whether he understands that he will go back to jail if the terms of his probation are found to be violated. He had been quiet up to this point, forced into silence as the details of his life were tossed around the courtroom. I am always taken aback by the simultaneous hyper-visibility and sense of absence associated with defendants in Poughkeepsie City Court. Despite their personal information and immediate future being front and center, the defendants themselves are often ignored, excluded from the deliberation on their own fate.

Certain instances stick out in their ability to highlight the absurdity of the business as usual processes of punishment. In this teenager’s case, the probation violation charge stemmed from the report of an officer who discovered signs that the family dog was still living at his home, an apparent breach in the terms set for the defendant’s release. For the criminal justice system, the possession of a childhood pet translated into a reason to potentially jail a minor, disrupt his life and take him away from his family. The court saw the care-taking of a family dog as grounds to physically confine a 17-year-old.

The reasons for the original prohibition of having a dog were unclear. Another judge had handled the case. Someone baselessly suggested it was because the animal had “been trained to attack people in uniform.” The confusion and contention over the apparent dog violation culminated in the case being put on hold until its second call. The teenage boy dropped down in the row next to his mother and the two waited through most of the day’s hearings to find out if something as harmless as an inability to find someone else to take the family dog would land the defendant back in jail.

Over an hour had passed by the time the teen was called again. His visibly overworked public defender, now having had a chance to talk with the defendant and his mother, reported that the dog was living with a friend. The judge appeared unfazed by the defense attorney’s attempts to highlight the minuscule level of the apparent violation. Sternly, he concluded the hearing by announcing that he will check the transcript to confirm the dog order and proceeded to threaten the teenager with more jail time if the pet was found at their home. The defendant turned to walk back to his mother who was standing and shaking her head as the next case number was called.

Court Contributes to Job Loss

“Every time I have to come to court I lose my job,” said a 39-year-old black male defendant to Judge Mora, right as his case was about to be adjourned. Though the defendant had been to court 15 times since July 27, 2018, for this case, the assistant district attorney had not yet made an offer. The defendant further remarked that it was very difficult for him to get a job because of his record.

“You have to follow the rules,” Judge Mora asserted, cutting off the defendant. The defendant desperately looked to his public defender and told him that he had just gotten a new job and needed the money. “You need to follow the rules,” Judge Mora firmly repeated. That was final. Judge Mora adjourned the case.

As the defendant exited the courtroom, he yelled, “They don’t’ care about anybody!” From what I’ve observed, he’s right.

Littering in the Court

“Bullshit case,” remarked a black male defendant as he walked out of the courtroom. I agree. The defendant was scheduled for an arraignment this morning for a littering charge. The city prosecutor made the offer of an ACD (Acquittal in Contemplation of Dismissal) if the defendant completed 15 hours of community service. The public defender rejected the offer. Judge Volkman adjourned the case for further proceedings next week. “Looks like no one likes me today,” remarked the city prosecutor after the defendant had exited the courtroom. Judge Volkman laughed. It strikes me that the prosecutor seemed aware of the absurdity of his offer. Is this justice? Justice for whom?

This is not the first time I’ve observed the city prosecutor make a questionable offer for a littering charge. A couple of weeks ago I sat in on another littering case. The defendant failed to appear for the court date. The city prosecutor requested that an arrest warrant be issued. Judge Mora waited a few seconds before laughing at the prospect. This was only the defendant’s second scheduled court day, and this person did not have any other charges or past convictions. However, after Judge Mora called out the prosecutor for the absurdity of his offer, he actually ended up issuing a bench warrant. While a bench warrant is a “lighter” response than an arrest warrant, I personally think a bench warrant is absurd under the circumstances.

Excess Security

The first time I observed court was quite overwhelming. Everything was fast-paced, too quick for me to keep up. For each case, a court officer reads aloud the case number. At the Poughkeepsie City Court, this is a combination of the letters “CR” and some string of numbers. He only announces this once, so as the defendant enters the other court watcher and I have to scramble to find the matching case form we prepared to record what happens. For the first ten or so cases, I felt that our hasty shuffling of the pages was loud and distracting – I felt uncomfortable accidentally bringing any attention to us. After some time, though, the necessity of speed overrode my concern about being too loud. Around this time, I also started to feel more familiar with the court’s language.

This was about the same time that a jail inmate was escorted into court. She was a black woman bound in chains, clad in an orange jumpsuit, and flanked by six police officers. One might assume she was accused of a violent crime, but that was not quite the case. Her top charge was read aloud – petit larceny – essentially shoplifting an item from a local Rite Aid. It was unclear what exactly the item was, but still, it was only shoplifting. This was striking. I felt like something was off – there was some dissonance between her alleged offense and the sheer number of police officers surrounding her. Why did she, as someone who was accused of a nonviolent offense, require such excessive security? There were many other inmates from the city jail brought to court after her, even some who were accused of violent offenses, but none were subjected to such high security. This left me thinking, was the level of security happenstance or in fact, evidence of racism?

Court Moves on Its Own Time

As a court watcher, I’ve observed the court move exceedingly slow, with countless delays, acting with little regard for people’s time or lives. Most often, the majority of cases I observe are also adjourned, requiring defendants to return to court again.

My experience in court a few weeks ago really captured the way the court seems to move on its own time.

I got to court at 9:01 AM. I was running behind, and I was nervous as I took the elevator up from the basement where I parked my car. When I got to the first floor the court doors were locked and there were no guards anywhere. A few people were standing in the lobby. I was super confused. Was court canceled? Did court start early, and they shut the doors? As I waited in the lobby, more people started showing up. “What’s going on?” Everyone was asking, but no one seemed to know. Finally, a court guard walked through the lobby. “Court starts at 10:00 AM of course, didn’t you know?” Clearly not. Court is always scheduled for 9:00 AM.

At 9:00 PM the night before, I went on WebCriminal to get the day’s docket and fill out my forms. While it had already started to snow, it was only predicted to snow three inches, and the docket was up. The other week, I tried to get the docket the night before court, and – due to snow closure – there weren’t any cases. I assumed that court would start at 9:00 AM, as always, since the docket was up. I was wrong.

Everyone groaned when they heard the news. “Really? How were we supposed to know?” “They never tell us anything.” The guard shrugged and walked away. While I was leaving City Hall to get a coffee to pass the time, I ran into multiple people walking up to the building. “Did court start on time?” They all asked in a hurry. When I told them court was delayed until 10:00 AM, they all sighed. “I missed my doctor’s appointment,” one woman told me. “I could have dropped my kids off,” said another.

While I am voluntarily taking time out of my day to observe court, most people are required to show up for a scheduled court appearance. They are forced to put their lives on hold to come to court and appear before the judge. The lack of communication from the court to the people this morning made clear to me just how little the court cares about people’s lives outside of the courtroom. I’ve also observed this during cases when defendants are sentenced to or threatened with jail time without consideration for how this will entirely disrupt someone’s everyday life.

When court finally did start today, around 10:15 AM, it was slow moving and the room felt a bit different than it had in the past. For the amount of people waiting for their cases to be called, there seemed to be too many lawyers and guards. Cases moved really slowly. Judge Volkman left his chair at least five times during court for up to 10 minutes at a time. While I felt the slowness of court, I could only imagine how people waiting to be called felt.

While people are required to show up on time for their court cases, the court seems to move and function on its own time, not understanding the full effect that it has on people’s lives. Showing up to court is a job for judges, guards, administrators, clerks, lawyers, and more, but it is a highly disruptive obligation and potentially life-harming sentence for defendants.

Reflections of a Court Watcher

I wake up at 7:00 AM every Friday morning, anxious about going to court. Although my feelings could never be as intense as those I assume defendants probably experience, I still worry about the outcomes from what happens in the court each and every Friday. Since details about every single case is public information -- thank you, WebCriminal! -- my view of defendants mimics what I imagine judges see before they arraign an individual. Court Watchers can imagine what kind of person defendants are based on their view of the charges, guess how much money they have depending on whether they have a private lawyer or not, or even assess their behavior based on when the defendant was born. One can make up a whole thought process of how the case will go based on that implicit bias from the information on WebCriminal alone.

I am new to the court system in Poughkeepsie City Court. The anxiety I have gets worse when I sit and watch the case in court because situations don’t get personal until the statistics I read online show up in the form of a human being. In the current political climate, it’s easy for someone to worry about the way the criminal justice system works. However, my time court watching has shown me both the good and the bad of the system. I have seen Public Defenders offer their clients helpful support, thorough preparation, and care. I have seen judges who try to make decisions that would produce the best outcome for the defendant. Court personnel and others try to make the place friendlier, sometimes.

The problem is that Poughkeepsie City Court may have good intentions, but poor execution. For example, I have seen many instances in which threats are made to the defendant to do the “right” thing. “I can make the Public Defender come to visit you? Do you want that?” - a sly way to say the judge will put you in jail for not going to see whether you qualify for a public defender. "Have these fines paid in full by the next court appearance or you will be going to jail … Both dockets must be paid on this date or pack a toothbrush.” I didn't know you could go to jail for the inability to pay. Why do people consistently use jail as a fear tactic? “If it takes a year in jail [for you] to get the record straight, so be it.” Where is the judicial impartiality?

In one case that stood out to me, a preliminary hearing was scheduled on the day’s docket. Upon her appearance, however, the assistant district attorney announced: “I’m willing to go through with the hearing, but the new offer will be a prison sentence. I originally offered 10 months.” A preliminary hearing is used to determine whether there is enough evidence to require a trial or continued attention. Is the new offer of a harsher punishment being used as a scare tactic to circumvent the trouble of revealing evidence that could undermine her case?

In Court Watch, you get to see and learn a lot about the criminal justice system. This observational experience allows me to see how many kinds of charges were brought up for specific individuals. I appreciate my role in this process because my presence is helping to make sure that judges, DAs and other personnel are held accountable. Self-regulating no longer works in the criminal justice system -- true justice requires a community effort.