Yesterday was my day in court.
I appeared before Judge Scott Bennion of the Clifton Municipal Court, and I should say, I think he’s a fine judge. He would get my vote, had I one in Clifton, Passaic Count. His manner of churning through case after case to get the job done appealed to me – after all, the majority of his cases that morning were traffic violations. There are apparently a number of things he must say, a procedure he must go through, legally (one assumes), before allowing one to plea-bargain, say, an “80 in a 55” to a “69 in a 55.”
Which is what I did, saving myself about $30 and two points on my license. Not much, but it was worth it to see how democracy, justice and Western Society At Large were playing out on this particular day in this particular community.
His Honor Justice Bennion read quickly through my proceeding.
“Thechargeis drivingata speedabovethelegallimit, doyoupleadguilty”
“Thatsaidthechargebeing thatonOctober14oflastyear youwereoperating amotorvehicle ataspeedof69milesperhour ina55zone isthiscorrect”
In this way the Judge dealt with about half of the 75 or so people whom I saw pass through his court that morning. Another quarter or so were dismissed out of hand – lacking witnesses to convict, having witnesses to prove obvious innocence, or having been pulled over or arrested for some obscure and silly reason. I’m not sure about that last explanation, because about ten people were called by the judge only to be told to leave, with no reason given.
Besides the traffic violations, there were a few drug busts. A couple of kids busted for possession of weed and some pipes, and a woman on possession of cocaine. There was a guy whose car windows were tinted too dark. There were a lot of translators needed: Spanish, Turkish, Ukranian, American Sign Language. All the translators have to swear in, another bit of legality that Judge Bennion gets through briskly: Doyouswear totranslatefaithfullyandexactly betweenthedefendantandthiscourt…
At one point the judge was holding a video conference hearing with prisoners in Passaic County Jail. A large flatscreen TV was rolled in front of the bench, so that only the judge and the clerk could see it. But we could hear the entire exchange.
“Sir, what is the earliest date you could be released?” the judge asked.
“A year,” came the reply.
“OK, then we’ll take this matter up again in 6 months when you have a better idea of what your address might be.”
“But judge I could be out by then.”
“But you just said – sir, I just asked you what the earliest you could get out was and you said a year. So which is it?”
“Well, I don’t know .”
“I’ll ask you again – what is the earliest possible date at which you could potentially be released from prison?”
Actually I missed my train which would have had me arrive 30min early at the Clifton train station. Instead I arrived at 9:03 and had to walk through the rain and slush for 20min before finding the court. The room was full and I sat down to listen to the prosecutor explain the proceedings.
“…then you’ll come up here and we’ll talk. For motor vehicle summonses, I’ll ask you about your previous driving record. If you’ve got a record, don’t lie to me, ’cause I’ll look it up and find it and then we won’t be talking about a plea bargain.”
He went on and I sat down and listened and waited for the judge. When he arrived he started going through cases, calling people up – and the prosecutor was calling people up at the same time. What I didn’t realize was that I should have checked in with the court clerk, seated off to the right, before my name would ever be called. Since I didn’t realize until I had been waiting over an hour that I wasn’t even in line yet, and people arriving later than me had been jumping my place because of my ignorance, I got to see almost all the cases go down before mine.
At several points throughout the morning, a police officer would lead a few hand-cuffed criminals into court. I say “criminals” because when one is lead aroud in handcuffs, you assume he is a criminal – thus already assuming he is guilty, when in fact some of them are only accused. This I learned when one of these handcuffed young men, whom I had quickly judged according to his position, found himself outside the courthouse at the end of proceedings, right next to me on the pavement leading to the street. At that moment I desperately searched my memory for what the man had just been accused of – and could not recall.
But I did remember the first handcufffed guy. He walked up to the table when Judge Bennion called his name, and the judge read out his charges: accused of beating the daylights out of his girlfriend – banging her head against the floor and smashing her cell phone “so that she couldn’t call the police, a violation of personal property and safety under code 2101.31 section A…” All the while the man shook his head, and I judged him, on the spot, an aggressive assaulter of women – he was truly scary to me, while I still wondered what had gone down earlier – the judge cited the incident as just having happened that morning. I was glad it wasn’t him I saw outside later, un-cuffed, standing right next to me.