Law in Contemporary Society
One of the great things about my summer job is that I've been able to get to court often. I work across the street from both the District Court and Magistrate Court for the Southern District of Florida, and interns are actively encouraged to visit proceedings and get a sense of how criminal litigation unfolds.

Over the past few weeks, I've come to the conclusion that Magistrate Court is strikingly depressing. The daily 1:30 PM sessions, where bond is set and the need for court-appointed representation is ascertained, are assembly-lines of federal justice. Defendants are carted in, sometimes as individuals, sometimes in massive groups (conspiracy cases, narcotics, etc.). Sitting in the stands, I'm often watching people who are experiencing one of the lowest points of their lives. When called before the judge, many struggle to hold back tears. All too frequently, they stand before the judge without representation. As the A.U.S.A.s of the day (Mag. court duty is assigned by rotation throughout the office, and my impression has been that A.U.S.A.s treat it as an added burden not worthy of much preparation) attempt to justify why an individual should be required to post a $100,000, 10% bond, or should be assigned pre-trial detention due to risk of flight/danger to the community/etc., those defendants without representation have no capacity to contest the government's recommendation. Such defendants are in the majority.

For those defendants requesting court-appointed representation, the Court then enquires into the financial assets of the individuals. Such inquiry is not meant to be invasive, but answering questions about one's finances in public often seems to heighten the unease and sadness of defendants. They are asked about their employment situation--a question which for some seems to drive home the fact that, only a few days before, they were working at their usual jobs and life was normal. For others, the question serves as a reminder of their unemployment. Questions about property, automobile ownership, and monetary savings in excess of $4,000 dollars similarly serve to direct defendants to thoughts of financial troubles, debt, and impoverishment.

One thing the Southern District of Florida does well is spanish/english translation. Many defendants speak very little or no english, and the court system is very diligent about keeping competent translators on hand. In this way, the Court is able to ensure that the individuals it is dealing with can dialogue with the judge and 'understand' what is going on.

In truth, providing translation services for those who have trouble comprehending english is a necessary step towards a fair judicial system, but not a sufficient one. To illustrate, one of the narcotics cases I observed involved an individual from Venezuela. He seemed to be an extremely unlucky, low-level transporter of drugs--scooped up as part of the government's sting. After being sworn in, the individual described his unfamiliarity with the United States, lack of any familial or personal connections in Florida, and his inability to contact his family in Venezuela to arrange for funds to hire an attorney. He seemed overwhelmed and terrified at the prospect of facing incarceration and criminal prosecution a foreign country. He then persisted in attempting to convince the judge of his innocence, despite the judge's repeated warnings that anything the defendant said could harm him in future proceedings. Each time the defendant attempted to explain his case, the judge cut him off. Finally, the judge managed to enlist the help and goodwill of a local bilingual attorney sitting in the pews to give the defendant temporary counsel. The defendant whispered into the ear of the lawyer, the lawyer whispered something back. Within thirty seconds, the attorney turned to the judge and announced that his client had nothing he wished to share.

-- RonMazor - 06 Jul 2010

Ron, your experiences are somewhat reminiscent of my experience working with Legal Aid in Queens a few years ago. I was often assigned to arraignments, where I would assist/observe Legal Aid attorneys interviewing recent arrestees in the holding cells. For those who aren't familiar with the NYC criminal justice system, arraignments are when arrestees have a chance to see a judge. In Queens (and the rest of New York City), all persons arrested end up in a single location, Central Booking, where they spend 20-24 hours before seeing a judge and either being released or sent to Rikers. The cells look like old-fashioned jail cells, with concrete floors, exposed toilets and lots of metal bars. The courtroom is a depressing one, located in the basement of the courthouse. Arraignments begin at 9am and often continue past midnight.

The scene was upsetting, and I think your "assembly line" analogy is a good one for arraignments as well. People were brought in, most of them poor and minority, frequently for very minor offenses. They would meet with a lawyer for 3-4 minutes, then go before a judge who would do his/her best to try and dispose of the cases. I was completely lost during my first few days in arraignments because of the frenzied speed. The objective was to move through people as quickly as possible and dispose of every minor case possible.

The thing that disturbed me the most was the pressure being put on defendants to accept pleas. The ADA, judge and Legal Aid lawyers would often devise plea bargains and defendants would have 30 seconds to decide whether to accept them (and often end up with a misdemeanor on their criminal record for life) or to reject them (and face a trip to Rikers where they could spend months as their case worked its way through the system). Many of the defendants were groggy, tired and dirty, having just spent 24 hours behind bars, and not in a position to make such a significant decision.

Seeing younger defendants, often 18 or 19, plead guilty to misdemeanors like trespassing simply to get out of custody was depressing - they were making a decision, with little guidance, which impacts them for the rest of their lives, likely without appreciating the full gravity of the situation and the impact that a criminal record has on one's future. This happened on a daily basis. But no one seemed to have the energy or time to fully explain the consequences of the decisions that defendants were making, often in their weakest states at the lowest points of their lives.

Anyway - I thought I'd post this for comparison's sake. I really enjoyed reading about your experiences and hope that you do continue to update this page and enjoy your summer.

Best, -David

Updated :).


Mil gracias, -David


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r5 - 13 Jan 2012 - 23:21:04 - IanSullivan
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