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.

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.