One of the upsides of getting arrested in NYC is that unlike in some countries where you can moulder in jail for weeks or months before you know why, here you have to be arraigned within 24 hours. You’re given a lawyer, taken in front of a judge who tells you what the charge is, you plead guilty or not guilty and are either released with conditions or, if they decide you’re too dangerous, shipped to Rikers Island.
Even in normal times, arraignment courtrooms are hellholes. The newly-arrested are herded in with bloody faces, torn clothes, weeping, shouting, crashing – the whole gamut of distress. Waiting in the aptly-named “pens” until their cases are called.
And now the Virus.
NYC public defenders, mostly from the Legal Aid Society, are going into arraignments armed with nothing but a box of gloves, shared masks and Clorox wipes to try to get their clients back out into the safety of the streets. Every precaution is being taken to make the courtrooms safe, right? Dream on.
Videoconferencing? Usually not working, and even when it works, requires a long colloquy on the record with lots of people breathing on one another, slowing the process down to a crawl.
Phoning? As one attorney said, “If E.T. could phone home, Legal Aid should be able to phone into arraignments.” Guess that’s why E.T. is science fiction.
Another attorney said, “It’s not like there isn’t a tech solution here. It’s that OCA [Office of Court Administration] is too hidebound and bureaucratic to implement one. Yes there would be glitches but there are glitches now. ”
But the scandal is the foolhardiness of court personnel literally laughing off the most elementary precautions.
From the trenches:
“Court officers/personnel are not taking this seriously at all. Yesterday, as I handed an appearance to a court officer he said, ‘We’ve all got it at this point,’ and then mock coughed. I did not find that funny at all. We’re all putting our lives at risk here and they’re taking it for a joke.”
“We are doing our part at LAS but it is very concerning how court personnel are behaving business as usual. On my shift one individual even mocked social distancing and gave a court staff colleague a hug.”
“There is no social distancing in the well area and I have witnessed people with their hands casually resting on their face and mouth area, cheek kisses between police officers, and attorneys from [other public defender organizations] just going in the back to interview clients the old way. I was invited twice by NYPD to do the same. I understand the inherent racism and otherism happening to our clients, but interviewing face-to-face in defiance makes no sense to me. The issue is one of public health and no one should be in close quarters regardless if they are in jail or not.”
“Everyone is trying their best, but I did not see ANY court officer practice social distancing all day. They need a top-down directive to avoid huddling together and showing each other stuff on their cell phones when the judge isn’t in the room. Many of them and many judges fall into vulnerable groups. It’s frankly insane.”
“I worked arraignments today, again (conflicts, but really busy). Everything remains the same. ZERO social distancing. The elitism, classism, and racism continues unabated. We’re safe as long as our ‘dirty’ clients do not enter the courtroom. Cramped quarters, in a basement courtroom. To the detriment of our health, and of society at large. There was also no social distancing at all in the two emergency parts I made appearances in as well. I have no words to describe my dismay. Simply no words.”
“Because when you enter that court room, you pass a dozen or more people in the audience, maybe more. Not all looking (or sounding healthy). But that’s NOTHING compared to the massive ‘team huddle’ one enters when actually doing the arraignment. Because you’re not at the podium with a healthy dose of social distance from the judge and court crew. And you’re not just in the well. You’re right in there a couple feet from the reporter and judge. In fact, it is pretty much a bench conference. Except now two courtrooms worth of staff are also invited to the bench. You’re there rubbing elbows with a dozen or so court officers, a few clerks, multiple DA’s and their paras etc. Social distancing is not happening. Not at all.
“And don’t get me wrong. Everyone is amazing under these brutal circumstances. Everyone wants to get the job done and get out! The client is gonna be released. It’s gonna be a June date. Let’s do this. Should be 30 seconds right? Wrong. Technical difficulties run amuck. Microphones aren’t working. Clients can’t hear, etc. Consequently, our cases are second, third and fourth called. So….we gotta get back into that huddle of 20 plus people multiple times a case. The new arraignment setup has the best of intentions. But it just doesn’t jibe with the idea of a person trying to avoid getting Covid-19.”