Academic journal article Fordham Urban Law Journal

The Adjudication of Minor Offenses in New York City

Academic journal article Fordham Urban Law Journal

The Adjudication of Minor Offenses in New York City

Article excerpt

So I came to the City to shop with my friend. First we were downtown and I bought the knife. You know, they sell them right on the sidewalk in front of the stores for like $7.00. Then we went uptown, cause the best hip hop clothes are there and first I stopped to see my cousin. He was not home and we were walking downtown from his building and two cops come around the corner and come right over to us.

"What happened next?" asked Joe, a third year law student in our Criminal Defense Clinic.

Well, the cop says something like--"What are you doing in this neighborhood, are you here to buy drugs, don't you know this is a dangerous place" and stuff like that. And I said, "It is a free country," or something, I know I talked back. So I guess he did not like that. So the two cops shove us up against this chain link fence and start frisking us, but he does not find anything on me. So he says, "Do you have a knife on you?" and I say "Yes, but it is under four inches and I can have that." So he says "Give it to me slowly," and I did. And he says, "You are under arrest." (1)

INTRODUCTION

Mr. Henrique Ramos sat in a little metal booth, on the opposite side of a metal grill from Joe Raines, Tara Hudson, and me. The three of us were crammed into a space of about twelve square feet in an interview booth behind Arraignment Part I at New York County Criminal Court. It was mid-September. This morning the air conditioning was working and the air was cold. Even with the dim lights, peeling paint, claustrophobic space, and noise from the twenty or thirty people in the two big cells that took up most of the area behind the courtroom, it was not a particularly noxious morning back in the pens.

Mr. Ramos had been arrested for possession of a gravity knife at about 2:30 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon. Joe, Tara, and I met him at about 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday morning. Joe and Tara were students in our Criminal Defense Clinic and I was their Supervising Attorney. Joe had already reviewed the complaint with Mr. Ramos, taken his personal history, and advised him that he would very likely be released on his own recognizance once he appeared before the judge.

   "And then what happened?", asked Joe, continuing the
   interview.
   Well, after they check out my friend and don't find anything on
   him, they tell him to get out of that area and stay out. They
   already had me cuffed. So they take me to the police station
   and the cop is telling me, I know you are a drug dealer. And he
   is sitting there holding my phone, and it rings and he answers it.
   He tells me he is going to get one of my drug calls and then he'll
   have me on a distribution charge, and I tell him he isn't going to
   get anything. So after an hour or so, he tells me I'm just lucky
   he can't make a drug case today, but he'll be watching me and
   I'm going to have a record. He says I shouldn't carry a gravity
   knife and I should stay out of that neighborhood--it's dangerous.
   And he took my $375.00 shopping money and I want it
   back.

   "Yes, I can understand that. You have already given me quite a
   lot to think about," commented Joe.

Indeed, Mr. Ramos had given us quite a lot to think about that morning. As the case worked out, however, most of the questions I had were never answered. Mr. Ramos ended his case on his third appearance in court, pleading guilty to disorderly conduct, (2) a non criminal resolution under New York State law. Although the case posed interesting legal and factual issues well worthy of litigation, American lower criminal courts have long been structurally incapable of adjudicating legal and factual disputes in the vast majority of the cases that come before them. (3) The story I tell in this essay illustrates how America's reliance on overcriminalization, prosecutorial discretion, and procedural guarantees makes it very difficult for our lower criminal courts to reliably sort minor cases according to their merits. …

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