Manhattan Night Court: Observations From The Second Row
I walk into Manhattan night court at 100 Centre Street on a rainy Monday evening. It’s not my first time, but it’s been a while. I wipe the rain from my belongings and pass through the security check. The guard directs me to courtroom #130.
After passing through two sets of double doors, I enter the courtroom. The floor is black and polished. Wood paneling along the sides yields to stark, white walls that ascend toward a high ceiling.
The room’s only decoration, besides burgundy curtains flanking tall windows, are the words In God We Trust on the back wall. I sit in the second row with my damp belongings and start scribbling minor notes on a minor case.
About ten minutes later, a Berlin Wall of blond hair tumbles into the front row directly in front of me. They’re a family of five German tourists: Papa, Mama and their three adolescent children. My eyes adjust to their shimmering locks.
Their demeanor is interesting. They seem jubilant, as if waiting for a show to begin. This bothered me.
No, no, no it wasn’t their mirth. I didn’t like that I saw a bit of me in them. Like the detectives in the courtroom, I had questions: for myself.
Why was I there? Had I come to learn something about the American legal process or to watch a wrestling match? You know, New York City’s good guys versus (“…ding, ding, ding, aaand in-tro-ducing in this corner, wearing…”) New York City’s bad guys?
Manhattan Night Court: Not As Seen On TV
“Are you defendants, plaintiffs or family?”
The tourists smile and nod politely at the court officer asking them the question. He repeats himself and, again, receives smiles and nods in response.
Their eyes reveal confusion when, firmly, but politely, he asks a third time. It’s obvious they don’t understand him. Sensing this, the officer gestures for them to follow him to the back row. Perplexed, but smiling, they take their new seats. Happy stands out in New York.
On television, the suspects always scowl, lawyers deliver fiery legal soliloquies and the proceedings are roller coaster fast. In real life, the accused either look expressionless or nervous, most having only a few moments to consult with an attorney. Many of these lawyer-client confabs occur in a glass cubicle right in the courtroom.
When a person’s name is called, they stand side-by-side with their lawyer. In most cases, the lawyer is state-appointed. Even those who are not handcuffed unconsciously clasp their hands behind their backs. Is it submission? Fear? Respect?
The prosecutor, representing the State of New York, reads the charges with a cadence and rhythm reserved for old incantations. The defense attorney requests freedom or leniency. The magistrate intones in slow, holy tones. This call and response ritual is repeated with each new case.
There is some informality among all the legal piety. Court officers laugh among each other and eat their sandwiches out of paper bags. Late in the evening, a clerk’s head bobs up and down, losing the fight with Mr. Sandman. A suspect in handcuffs shares a smile with the detective who arrested him.
Manhattan Night Court: Closing Argument
Manhattan’s night court is methodical, at times slow, almost humdrum. The European tourists only stayed for half an hour. They went from exuberance to indifferent observation to toe-tapping boredom. The alleged misdeeds of others was not the show they were expecting. Too much reality, not enough entertainment I suspect.
You don’t have to be a law student studying habeas corpus or a constitutional expert to appreciate the process, either. For me, simply asking myself why I was there gave my visit more context. It made me think about why night court exists.
The long, slow grind toward our present system began in 1215, when England’s King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta. Centuries later, the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights and thousands of legal decisions distilled into our present legal system.
It is an imperfect system, but it is open enough to allow anyone to inspect it at any time. Too many places in the world cannot say that.
To visit night court is to learn how people’s rights are exercised and protected. On the flip side, we also see how society, with the court as its intermediary, deals with those who transgress the rules. This is what makes it a valuable experience whether you’re visiting from within the U.S. or from distant lands.
Manhattan Night Court Questions
Can I really just walk in and watch Manhattan Night Court?
Yes. Just sit towards the back, whisper when you talk and be respectful of the court.
Monday through Friday, from 5:30 p.m. to 12:00 a.m. (midnight), except holidays. There is a security check. The lighter you travel, the quicker you’ll enter. Let the officer know you want to observe night court.
There is a break from about 9:00 p.m. to 10:15 p.m. The session before the break usually has more cases. Don’t sit in the front row. It’s reserved for police officers, defendants and court officials.
Where is Manhattan Night Court?
100 Centre Street in Manhattan, New York.
Take the 4,5 or 6 trains (green line) to the “Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall” stop or the J or M trains (brown line) to “Chambers St.”
What exactly am I watching?
Night court is a series of arraignment hearings. An arraignment hearing is a formality wherein the court hears for the first time the reasons for someone’s arrest. When someone is arrested, the government, in this case the State of New York, is accusing someone of having broken a law. These accusations remain accusations until someone is found guilty of having violated the law. Thus the phrase, innocent until proven guilty. A hearing is not a trial.
Trials are meant to determine whether a person is guilty or not guilty. Arraignments are a formal declaration of the government’s accusations, or charges, against someone.
When a person pleads guilty to a minor offense, the magistrate will often simply assign a fine and the person is free to go. For more serious crimes, the magistrate must decide whether to grant bail or keep the person in custody.
When there is bail involved, the prosecution and defense usually haggle over the amount. The magistrate decides the magic number.
There are two courtrooms that handle night court cases. One or both may be in session when you visit. One courtroom usually handles misdemeanors (minor crimes) and the other felonies (major crimes).
Why is night court at night?
To meet the requirement that a person see a magistrate promptly, a night session is held to attend the large number of cases. Arraignment court operates during the day also.