Thursday, November 06, 2008

My Day in Court

As I entered Courtroom 3 of the District Court, my first observation was how crowded the room was. Here were all manner of misdemeanor violators, summoned to appear at 10am for their hearing. Attorneys were present for many, and clearly distinguishable from the crowd in their jackets and ties. It seems to reflect poorly on the individuals present that few bothered to dress more formally out of respect for the law. Perhaps that lack of respect is why they are there to begin with.

As I locate a seat near the front, a felony hearing is taking place. It later becomes apparent how fortunate I was to catch the tail end of these proceedings, as most of the rest of the docket is routine to all of the actors in the court except the defendants.

The man accused is young, dressed in prison clothes and slouching in his seat, not appearing to take much notice of the hearing. The charge is theft by unlawful taking. The prosecutor is questioning a police officer. For him, it is routine. He is careful to ask questions to establish the officer’s personal knowledge of the matter, and to confirm jurisdiction by establishing through testimony that the incident took place in Fayette county. The suspect is accused of taking a DeWalt drill and a violin (among other items not mentioned) and pawning them, and the prosecutor has pawn tickets to prove it. Judge Bell finds cause on the testimony and evidence, and the defendant is taken away.

The next person is unmistakably of Hispanic origin, and a translator is required. He is accused of driving with expired registration, no license, a forged social security card, and admitted to being in the country illegally. This too requires testimony from an officer, but his defense makes no argument, and the man is removed.

The next case is delayed because the defendant in question (not in custody) did not show. The judge issues a warrant for arrest. He will do this at least a dozen more times in the next two hours.

The next and perhaps final “interesting” case was delayed for a full five to ten minutes as the prosecutors and judge were waiting on an officer, a captain with the Fayette County Police, to arrive for testimony. The judge is mildly annoyed after several minutes, noting that he expects the procedure to be very simple, and orders one of the courtroom officers to locate the man. The defendant, a convicted sex offender, is brought in. His feet are not visible below the bar, but the jingle and hobbled walk make it clear he is in shackles. He is accused of moving addresses without notifying his parole officer, and to a location less than 1,000 feet from a daycare facility, no less. The prosecutor proceeds to prove through testimony that the man was actually living at the residence, while the defense makes an argument that he was not. The judge finds cause, but because of poor acoustics, his ruling is inaudible. This seems to be an interesting case, so I catch up with the man’s attorney, Mr. Sam Cox, who explains that the proceeding was only a preliminary hearing, and that the judge bound the case to a grand jury.

The Judge recesses for five minutes, during which time suited attorneys take their place along the right wall to represent the various pending misdemeanor charges. A new prosecutor also steps in. As the judge reenters (and in my detached observation, I nearly forget to rise!) the attorneys step forward. Without fail, they plead guilty, contingent to the prosecutor’s recommendation. These are misdemeanors, so the recommendations are not harsh. The offenses range from operating without a license, to driving with a suspended license, driving under the influence, shoplifting and evading police, terroristic threatening, domestic abuse, the occasional drug charge (the majority of which are first offenses which can be expunged with community service) and at least one count each of harboring a vicious animal or prostitution. The prosecutor is often willing to cut deals, seldom recommending jail time exceeding two weeks, instead probating the sentence over twelve or twenty-four months. The Judge instructs them that this means they must “stay out of trouble.” The majority of penalties, however, are fines. On a few occasions, the judge agrees to a structured serving of incarceration, including letting one man spend three weekends and a half-day in jail, in order to work. One man, accused of DUI, protests that his sentence is carried out over the holidays, and asks for an easier ruling. The judge responds that it would have been easier not to drive under the influence at all, and sustains the ruling.

The interpreter is called in at least five or six more times, and each time the offense is similar; a driving or drug infraction. Some defendants have made an attempt to beat the insurance charge by getting insurance afterwards, but the judge does not buy it. It seems strange that the immigration status of these individuals is not questioned.

Only one defendant challenges a charge, pleading guilty to an expired registration, no insurance and intoxication, but contests the charges of probation violation and harassing communications. He is given a jury trial, and taken into custody on the other charges. He mildly protests to the judge, something about foot shackles, which the judge sternly responds that “That’s not my problem. I can do whatever I want.”

One man appears for numerous offenses, and his attorney asks for a competency test, and to review the other charges. The judge denies the request, wanting to “keep it sane.” He later remarks that he’s seen that guy multiple times.

Judge Bell is not overweening in the way he wields his authority, but he is clearly both confident and comfortable in the dozens of rulings he hands down, and takes his role very seriously. At times, he seems like a parent as he mulls over requests for leniency, and often betrays reluctance in granting it. The attorney for the woman who engaged in prostitution pled for leniency because of her multiple medical issues, and asks that they get help “to see if we can keep this woman from killing herself.” The presence of her two adult children in the court certainly seem to help, the judge grants the request.

For the attorneys on both sides, this is all very habitual. The prosecutors have stacks of paper inches thick, with only a few pages each devoted to defendants. Only once was there a deviation from the fill-in-the-blank script they seemed to be following, when a confused defendant (whose case had been dismissed!) mistook her attorney’s gesture to leave as a signal to approach the prosecutor. The prosecutor tried to ignore her, particularly as his next case was being called. He finally protested to the judge, who declared “Madam, I don’t know what you’re doing, but…get out of here.”

With a court full of defendants, habitual is a good thing. Almost every proceeding is smooth and quick; defense attorneys are more interested in plea-bargaining (clearly, no one, including the defendants themselves, feel it worthwhile to claim innocence) and the overwhelming number of successes by the prosecutor seems a testament to the selective process for who to charge.

The supply of attorney-involved defendants is exhausted, at which time the judge then instructs the rest of the courtroom (populated by people with minor offenses … and one observer) what to do, what’s going to happen, and where to line up. These are the smallest of the offenses, and no attorneys are needed. No one is taken into custody, and there is certainly a difference between the people who have only to pay some fines and leave versus the hopeless and ashamed expressions of the detained individuals who were ushered in wearing jail clothes.

Sound and identification of the charges were two difficulties in the court. Despite having a microphone system and speakers in the court, there was no sound amplification. Some defendants even make a futile effort to speak into them. Fortunately, the prosecutor’s announcement of the recommended sentence is very clear and methodical, and the judge identifies each charge when asking how a defendant pleads.

Court is undoubtedly an imposing place, and it does truly seem that it is only those who don’t take the law seriously that end up there. The intimidation seems to be on purpose; the judge frequently remarked that if the fines were paid on time, or if the defendant behaved, “you don’t have to come back.” The message is clear; court is a place for the average law-abiding citizen to avoid.

For me as a prospective law student, it may be just the opposite.


© David Burnett 2008. All Rights Reserved.

All content of this paper, excepting quotations and where noted, are my original, intellectual property. This paper exists in paper and digital form with two university professor as well as on the internet, and the contents thereof can be cross-referenced by other professors both inside and outside the state of Kentucky, to guard against plagiarism. Anyone using materials from this paper, or submitting the paper itself without permission or citation, is subject to disciplinary action by the educational institution in question.

Specific judge, county and suspect names have been removed from the internet version of this paper.

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