I Spent the Night Inside the Weird World of NYC Night Court
On a Thursday at 8:02pm, a group of Korean tourists sat on the left side of visitor seating in the South Hall of New York City’s arraignment court. There were two men and two women, and they all looked effortlessly glamorous. One of the women had an enviable coif secured by a jewel-encrusted barrette. They seemed relaxed yet engrossed in the proceedings ahead of them. Individuals, some of whom were handcuffed, were being brought before a podium where, in a matter of minutes, a judge would determine their near-future fate.
What were these out-of-towners doing here? What was I doing here? And what the hell is Night Court anyway?
For the obsession with the New York legal process, you have a slew of popular TV shows to thank, including Law & Order, CSI: NY, and (the hyper-relevantly titled) Night Court. Not to mention the gratuitously violent and splashy coverage of Yellow journalism in the 1890s, and arguably, human nature itself. The most recent influx of “Night Court tourism” can be traced back to its odd citation in the travel publication Lonely Planet, but a little digging shows it's been in and out of vogue over the past few decades. A 1999 New York Times article paints the picture of a post-OJ Simpson America wherein busloads of German tourists fill the benches, hoping for a real life Judge Judy experience.
Manhattan Criminal Court oversees all of the borough's arraignments. That is, all of those arrested in the last 24 hours have their charges reviewed and their bails set -- nothing regarding the guilt or innocence of the accused comes into question. The court's daytime docket runs from 9am-5pm, and the nighttime docket ("Night Court") runs from 5pm-1am. The latter is ostensibly the more entertainment-friendly option, as it shares a time slot with Happy Hour, "dinner and a show," "night out with the girls," and other classic hit-the-town pastimes that make good source material for early-'90s movie montages.
If court sessions held until 1am seem unreasonably late, know that until 2003, there was an even more bleary-eyed shift that ran from 1am-8am, making New York City a 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week justice serving machine.
Each night, defendants go and stand before the judge one at a time. A prosecutor reads off a highlight reel of the charges and suggests a bail, and a defense attorney responds with a counter argument and bail offer. Then the judge sets bail and a court date. Like any worthwhile story, there's character development, rising tension, obstacles, plot twists, and even romance! Okay, there's no romance, but it does pass the Bechdel test.
I don’t know what you know about crime in New York City, but let me tell you -- boy, do people like to do it. Even Shia LaBeouf has been known to patronize this fine establishment on a charge or two (just kidding, it was five).
David Bowie's 1976 weed bust also landed him here, and Lil Wayne passed through on a felony gun charge in ‘09. Martin Sheen, who's been arrested 66 times, has practically made New York’s Criminal Court his second (or third, or fourth) home. That's hardly a comprehensive list of every TMZ-worthy night court moment, but you get the point.
Even without Shia and Bowie, during my two visits, the whiplash-fast succession of cases brought before the judge and the sheer volume and breadth of the accusations made Night Court feel like a YouTube "best of" compilation of punchlines and season finale plot twists. Consider the following:
A man has been arrested for selling swipes (accepting money in exchange for use of an unlimited MetroCard). As his attorney begins to speak on his behalf, he stammers to interrupt her and begins to dig into his pocket for his wallet, which he flashes about for some undefined reason. In a harried series of whispers, the defense attorney councils him to remain silent as she negotiates with the judge. In response to her pleas, we hear a string of punctuated rejections -- "No," and, "I know my rights." He reaches a boiling point and asserts loudly to the judge and all those around: “I have represented myself in this court before and won! I have represented myself in the Supreme Court!” Officers standing-by now surround him and escort him off the floor, effectively postponing the arraignment. Much to my delight, the judge actually says “Quiet down now!” Though he does not say “Order in the court” or swing the gavel in a scandalized fashion. Maybe next time.
Next, a somber-looking 20-something stands facing the judge, the prospect of defeat looming not so far in the distance. Charged with carrying an illegal weapon and a proposed bail of $30,000, things are not looking good. A 60-something caricature of a New York advocate (in demeanor, singularly) steps up, calling out the indisputable ulteriors at play. Stopped without probable cause, incomplete and incorrect arrest statements. Indicators that reek of a race-targeting broken system. The prosecutor literally stutters over his paperwork, and the bail gets cut. in. half. This scene is particularly satisfying in its point-counterpoint-rebuttal debate structure -- the arraignment process packaged so neatly and sealed with a tidy $15,000 bail-shaped knot.
Yet another faces the podium, fidgeting. The prosecutor grips a file and reads aloud a statement taken earlier from the defendant at hand. “My cousin and his two brothers jumped me. That’s why I shit myself.” In the collective WTF that ensues silently throughout the court, even the security guard stifles laughter from across the room. It seems that the bulk of his dues are of the humiliation variety rather than cash. His bail is set at $1,500.
It was easy to imagine the defendants as characters on a cheap A&E mob show, and remove consequence from the occasion.
At times it was difficult to hear what was said, or to understand the legalese exchanges between the judge, the defense attorney, and the prosecutor. But, despite the brief moments lost in translation, the experience had all the appeal of a good crime show, and then some. Evocative details and emergent personalities made for the most Netflix-worthy moments.
Take the trafficking cases, for instance. The first involved a kilo of cocaine stuffed into a plastic doll, and a cool $16,000 in the pant pocket of the accused at the time of arrest. The prosecutor was fond of the terms "obvious" and "obviously," which he threw around liberally when describing the charges. The defense attorney obviously didn't like this, because he threw them right back. "Your Honor, there's nothing obvious about this at all." In the next trafficking case, the stakes were higher -- more drugs, more money, more of a flight risk. All this meant that the defense attorney had to make his argument of more consequence. He steered the discussion into a political light, somehow looping in Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton in his defense. Even the translator chimed in, "He's being a gentleman!"
I found myself getting oddly comfortable hearing these types of charges. It was easy to imagine the defendants as characters on a cheap A&E mob show, and remove consequence from the occasion.
Other cases, however, were more disturbing. We watched the arraignment of a man who was charged with swinging a cleaver at someone in an F train station. Luckily no one was hurt, but he did manage to slash the other man's pants. I couldn't help but think to myself, I was in an F train station this morning. They didn't say which station the incident took place in, but that wasn't really the point. My proximity to one situation made all of the others feel that much more material.
The weight of the cases being presented was juxtaposed surreally by the casual environment of the courthouse -- there were flirty cops and two legal aids giggling together in a very “back on the ol’ courtroom grind” fashion, and another aid surveying her appearance on the self-facing camera of her phone (on Snapchat, no less.)
An assertive New York Post article had led me to believe that the benches at Night Court would be packed with rubberneckers chewing loudly on white cheddar popcorn, sitting in because they’d burned through all of Jessica Jones on Netflix. But the presumption that ogglers would outnumber those with a personal investment in the proceedings turned out to be shamefully misguided.
A woman behind me had been there since 10am waiting to hear a friend’s case. (Depending on the volume of arrests in a given day, arrests that happen early on can spill over from regular hours into night court. Those unlucky enough to get picked up past around noon will likely be spending the night in jail.) She’d only left the courtroom twice, once to get a burger from the courthouse cafeteria, and a second time to run out to get a hot dog from a street cart. Our conversation was stopped short when her friend was finally brought in front of the judge. He was there for smashing a woman in the face with a glass.
A triad of Dominicans in impressively fluorescent clothing sat in the rear, two women in neon yellow and orange zip-up hoodies and a man (their son/nephew) in a vibrant purple snapback. The women were there for personal reasons -- to attend the man’s arraignment -- but observed the proceedings from a different vantage point than others. Having both studied law in the DR, they found that the American judicial system, especially in New York, seemed breakneck and without room for embellishment of custom.
What Night Court lacked in the comforting closure of a TV drama, it made up for in uncensored, unpredictable rawness.
Once we Night Court-ed all we could Night Court, we migrated from the courthouse to the adjacent bar, Whiskey Tavern, where we made friends with two of Manhattan’s finest, Vinnie and Joe (yes, those are their actual names). They were dressed in layman’s clothes and were the ones who clued us into the type of patrons that prevailed. “Do you know what we do?”, asked Vinnie. “This is a cop bar.” After getting over the immediate terror of this discovery, we got into the spirit of new experiences. We had some drinks and shared some laughs, we took photos in the photo booth, they gave us their business cards, and, finally, we called it a night.
Giddy on justice (also, beer), we adieu’d into the Chinatown night, wondering about the fate of the many cases we’d seen earlier. Would the swipe seller cause a stir again at his rescheduled arraignment? Which drug distributor would skip town and forfeit their exorbitant bail? Did that guy actually shit himself???
Court shows train audiences to believe that there is an essential Truth or Good, which can be uncovered by a righteous judge and a handful of ethically unimpeachable, policy-snubbing lawyers (and, of course, the "I hate lawyers" lawyer-types.) But stripped of all of its musical cues, its carefully placed flashbacks, its Jack McCoys, court is a marshland of uncertainty, dejection, excitement, and downtime.
What Night Court lacked in the comforting closure of a TV drama, it made up for in uncensored, unpredictable rawness. The ways in which the real thing departed from a casual scroll down a Netflix "true crime" sub-genre page are the very reasons you should go. It's entertaining, but it's also unsettling, provocative, and demanding of a level of thoughtfulness that can't be achieved by anything but reality, no matter how good the script.
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Laura Reilly is a production assistant at Thrillist. Subtweet her at @asapreilly and give her a reason to go back to court.