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Leon Mitchell is hazy on the details of his arrest. By his account, he somehow found himself somewhere around a Safeway in Southeast two weeks ago. Then he stumbled upon some security guards, he says, who took him for an intruder. An honest mistake. “But I did nothing wrong,” Mitchell says.
Whatever the case, Mitchell ended up in the D.C. Superior Court cellblock on Saturday eveningsimply the worst time to get arrested in this town. If you’re going to commit an alleged crime on a weekend in D.C., you want to wrap it up before 3:30 on Saturday afternoon. After 3:30, you’re stuck in jail not for one but two nights, until Arraignment Court reopens on Monday.
“I had to sleep on a hard floor, because the cells were overcrowded,” Mitchell says. For two days he waited there, wondering what would come of his unlawful entry charge. At least they fed him, he says: “Bologna sandwiches for breakfast, bologna sandwiches all the time.”
When he finally walks down the hallway out of lockup, Mitchell emerges onto the Arraignment Court stagein courtroom C-10. Prodded by a duo of bailiffs, Mitchell takes a few gingerly steps over to the clerk’s desk and holds out his ID wristband for inspection. In a low monotone, the clerk reads off Mitchell’s name, case number, and charge. And then he sets him free: “This case is ‘no-papered.’ You’re free to go.”
With that, Mitchell turns and walks out. Forty-eight hours after his mishap, he is sprung. The magic words”no-papered”mean the powers that be have decided the case isn’t worth the paper it would take to pursue it.
Outside C-10, in a narrow hallway pungent with the smell of bleach, Mitchell leans against the wall and starts slowly re-lacing his brown shoes. Then he eases toward the nearest exit. “I got arthritis in both my knees,” says the 41-year-old Mitchell as he rides the escalator up to freedom.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” Mitchell asserts once again, with a smile. Then he finds a pay phone so he can call his wife, go home, and take a bath.
Arraignment Court plays out in a worn pit in the basement of Superior Court. To get there, you take the escalator down two flights, make a right when you smell the cafeteria, and wander down a nondescript hallway crowded with lawyers and the family members of arrestees.
Of course, people like Mitchell don’t come through the front door on their way to arraignment. They wind their way through underground tunnels manned by the U.S. Marshal Service. Most of the prisoners have spent the night across the street in central cellblock, a bank of cells that’s usually packed by Sunday night. Then, in the morning, they get herded into one large intermediary cellblock in the courthouse, where they wait some more. Finally, they go on deck, to a cellblock just outside Arraignment Court that’s brimming with the day’s catch.
When they finally make it to C-10, flanked by one or two beefy marshals, the first thing the prisoners see are rows of lawyers and spectators staring back at them. Waiting next to the clerks, the prisoners watch the crowd through smeared plastic partitions that separate the well of the court from the rows of observers, encircling the main event like the wall of a hockey rink.
Amid all the chaos, the place has an aesthetic harmony unbecoming its ugly purpose. C-10 is oval in shape and lit by a soft amber glow. Unlike the other courtrooms, which have movie-theater seats, C-10 is filled with wooden benches, like pews in a church.
Arraignment Court occupies the sweaty seam between jail and freedom where every adult arrested in D.C. gets processed. “The most notorious and the most sublime have to come through there at some point in time,” says defense attorney Idus J. Daniel Jr. “If you want to get a true microcosm of the court, you go there.”
What with all the masses and their accompanying paperwork, it’s a wonder anything gets done at Arraignment Court. Yet it hums along, six days a week.
The court’s assembly line of ritual reins in the anarchy. First thing every morning, the lawyers congregate in the hallway outside C-10, scanning the list of cases to be called to see if they’ve won any assignments. It’s an embarrassing display of lawyerly desperation.
One attorney barks into a cell phone as he runs his finger down the list, blocking out a handful of confused family members searching for their own last name. He’s making a call for a colleague who couldn’t be here in person. “You got a good case. No ‘priority,’ but you got a good case. It’s ‘assault with a dangerous weapon,’” he reports.
Assault is the flavor of the day. As on most Mondays, the list of cases is long, totaling over 100. And more than 40 of them are assault charges. Drug charges and unlawful entry come next, complemented by a batch of prostitution, drug, and burglary cases, plus just one homicide.
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Defense attorney Chris Warnock has a chastened respect for the place. “It’s like a ballet,” he says. “It’s all very choreographed, if you understand what’s going on. It seems kind of chaotic, but the cool thing about arraignment is that it’s the point at which everything comes together….An incredible number of things have to happen.”
Every D.C. defendant is entitled to appear in court within one business day of arrest, as decided by the Supreme Court in 1975. After the marshals check the defendant into lockup, someone from the courthouse interviews him or hermostly to determine basics such as drug status. In an ideal situation, a lawyer then meets with the defendant in lockup to go over the options. All of this has to happen in rapid succession in order for the defendant to stumble out in front of a judicial officer within 24 hours.
The curtain rises as the magistrate enters the courtroom. The bailiff has to literally scream “All rise” twice, but the crowd does eventually make it out of the seats. A few even shout, “Good morning.”
Those enthusiastic ones are usually the young lawyers, newcomers to a weary class of attorneys playing Arraignment Court roulette. For some young, retired, and struggling lawyers, this clearinghouse of defendants means dinneror maybe even a chance at the rare high-profile case. “It’s like playing the lottery every morning,” whispers one veteran to a newcomer.
The first two rows, reserved for lawyers, are completely full. More lawyers are forced to squeeze into the generic pews. They all wear suits of varying low quality and line up their dented briefcases in neat rows in front of their feet.
“Lawyers will just sit there and do commentary,” Warnock says. “It’s always interesting if there’s a white person coming through; that’s always noteworthy. Prostitutes come through wearing basically nothing….The bizarre is what we have every day.”
Behind the lawyers, a swath of friends and family await. The bailiff walks up to a young mother playing Nintendo in her seat and points at the boy sitting next to her. “You’re going to have to explain why he’s not in school if the judge asks,” the bailiff says. The mother doesn’t even look at him. “Tell them you’re a dropout,” she whispers to her son, with a smile. No need, though. The Nintendo mother is “no-papered.” “Thank God,” she says, with an exaggerated sigh. “God bless you,” says an older woman next to her, clutching a sky-blue lunch cooler.
At 11:20, the clerk announces the end of unassigned citation calls. “Ah, man! That’s it?” Thirty-five attorneys bum-rush the door. Where once there were 40, now there are five.
Within the next 30 minutes, 10 people are dismissed, charges dropped. A woman sitting in the spectator rows watches them leave. “So they just spent the night in jail and then they let them walk? I’m confused,” she says. The decision to set them free rests with two assistant U.S. Attorneys working in the papering office. They check out the evidence and charges and determine whether a case is solid enough to process.
“The police have the power at any time to throw you in jail, take your shoelaces away, and put you in with these nasty guys,” says Warnock. “It can happen to anybody at any time.” He says that whenever he has middle-class clients, they’re appalled by the lockup and arraignment process: “They’re always freaked out. They can’t believe that anyone’s treated that way.”
As the day wears on, the chatter gets louder. The bailiff comes back to chastise the crowd now and then. Ignoring two spectators and one attorney who are snoring outright, the bailiff singles out a man sitting quietly in the back. “If you’re gonna be in this courtroom, you’re gonna have to take the hat off, please.” To a man standing in back, he yells, “If you’re going to stay here, you need to find a seat.” Then, preceded by a sharp clap of his hands: “If you need to have a conversation, please take it outside.”
Two middle-aged women considerately take their personal squabble into the hallway. “You wasn’t here when he told my son to whoop your ass,” one yells at the other. “Nobody threatens me!” comes the answer. A silver-haired attorney steps between them. “OK, settle down, ladies,” he says.
A wiry young man who looks as if he really should be in juvenile court wanders out of the courtroom with his mother. “He said, ‘No paper.’ What does that mean?” he whispers to her. The mother nervously fingers her pocketbook latch. She doesn’t know. “I guess we oughtta call your dad,” she says. But her son wants an answer. He interrupts a gaggle of gossiping lawyers standing in front of the list. “Excuse me. Um, hi, they said, ‘No paper.’ What should I do?” A female attorney stops talking and turns to him. “Oh, you can go,” she says.
He still doesn’t believe it. “You mean I don’t have to come back to court?” he asks. “No, you’re free to go.” He lets out a tentative smile, still awaiting the punch line.
Samuel Lee Cates stumbles out of the courtroom, looking worse than any of the 50-some arrestees so far. The arm of his button-down striped shirt is shredded. Same goes for the sweater on top. He says he remembers someone taking a razor blade to his clothes, but he has no idea how he got the shiny red bruise on his forehead. “I didn’t do nothing,” he says over and over again. On the list, the charge next to his name reads “simple assault.”
But Cates says the last thing he remembers is falling asleep on the floor of the shelter he calls home. Now he stands outside the courtroom, quietly asking lawyers if they know of a bathroom he can use.
For all his battle scars, Cates’ face looks surprisingly good. Like Mitchell, he somehow manages to smile as he mulls over his options. His belongings are back at the station where he was arrested, but he’s not sure where that is. And even if he knew, he would have no way of getting there. “How am I gonna get my ID?” he wonders aloud. “Am I at the courthouse now?”
Before he wanders off, I let him in on the rumor that you can use your lockup wristbanda white plastic shackle that brands all arresteesto get a free ride on Metrobus. His face goes blank as he stares at his wristband. Then he breaks into a smile. “Oh, yeah, right. What you trying to do, girlfriend, get me locked up again?” It’s a hearty laugh he lets out for someone with no money, no shoelaces, and no right sleeve. CP