The movie theater-style seats at traffic court, lined up in weary, brown rows, are not altogether uncomfortable. It’s a good thing, because Court Room 116 is packed, and most people will get to know their seats pretty well before their cases are heard. Some will arrive at 9 a.m. and wait until 1 or 2 in the afternoon. A couple of men have women at their sides who look more anxious than they do. But most people come alone. Now and then a lawyer walks the aisle whispering the name of an unknown client. No one ever answers.
In the very last row, two men sit slumped down in their seats, the requisite cool kids in the back of any classroom. As Judge Tim Murphy calls one case after the next, doling out the same admonishments and his trademark handshakes, they kill time with some shop talk.
“I had to walk here today. Someone stole my tires,” says one.
“Both of ’em?” asks the other.
“Someone gonna get theirs stolen today.” And then, after some laughter: “I’ll probably go down to a college. Georgetown or something.”
“I saw some parked outside,” offers the other. “But they had chains on ’em. Might have to get yourself some cutters.”
Just then, the judge calls a five-minute recess. The lawyers disperse, while the back rows voice their complaints, quietly. “Goddamn, I’ve been here forever,” mutters the bike-theft victim/perpetrator.
The two men will wait until, hours later, they are called up to face the consequences of their open-container violations. They negotiate a payment plan with the judge, and walk each other out. As they finally pop out from underneath the grinding wheels of justice, a woman in a purple sweat suit settles in for the next phase of her nap.
Since Police Chief Larry Soulsby threw down the zero-tolerance gauntlet in March, D.C. Superior Court has hosted more than its share of controlled chaos. Hundreds of extra officers were unleashed on the streets with orders not to come back without arrests. They did as they were told, and now the courts are dealing with the fruits of their labors. Traffic court, destination for a strange amalgam of drunken drivers and petty troublemakers, has been hardest hit. Embarrassed white executives, escorted by private downtown lawyers, face their DWI charges alongside the grungier offenders and their court-appointed attorneys. Interspersed among them are the “quality of life” criminalspublic urinators, public drinkers, and panhandlers.
“It seems like they’re giving away free money. I mean, God, everybody’s there,” says Ray Carignan, one of the regular court-appointed attorneys staked out at traffic court. Carignan hasn’t seen these kinds of crowds in recent memoryat least not since the city raised the police’s pay. Of course, things slowed down just as much when their pay was cut. “The police drive the front end,” he says. The prosecutors and the judges are left to just pedal harder in response.
People in the city prosecutor’s office say they are routinely staying until 8 or 9 at night, even on Saturdays. Robert G. Rigsby, the city’s principal deputy corporation counsel, says that before March his office was processing 30-40 cases daily. Today they handle about 100 a day. “We have extremely dedicated people that are getting a little bit tired and frustrated,” he says. “We’re hoping and praying that we’re able to hire more people.”
Rigsby’s staff of six lawyers is expected to handle an estimated 23,000 cases this year. As a point of comparison, the city of Philadelphia handles 20,000 such offenses a year, Rigsby says. And they have 28 people on staff.
While the police are busy trying to improve residents’ quality of life, the quality of courthouse life has degenerated. “It’s more crowded and congested,” Carignan says. Traffic court, always a misnomer in D.C.’s system, is seeing more and more people who don’t even have cars.
Defense attorney Raymond Jacobson has worked the traffic court beat for 10 years. The other day, he says, a man arrested for an open-container violation was asked by the judge why he didn’t just go into his house to have a beer. “Because I’m homeless,” the man answered.
As a result of all the incidental traffic, the more serious DWI cases get short shrift, Jacobson says. The police make mass arrests for public-nuisance crimes. Then, when the offenders don’t pay their nominal fines, the judges issue bench warrants for their arrests. Eventually, the police haul them in again. “Can you imagine the cost of doing all this for a $10 fine?” Jacobson asks.
The runaround has drawn more police to traffic court, too. One veteran traffic-court lawyer, who refused to be identified, says he thinks officers are becoming more involved. The other day a cop with gray hair stopped him in the hall for directions to the cafeteria. “I thought he was joking at first,” the lawyer says. But it’s too soon, he adds, to see if the cops who are becoming newly acquainted with the courthouse will keep coming back.
There is little consensus over the long-term impact of all of this drama. Traffic-court lawyers, as is their occupational birthright, seem fairly jaded. “They’ve told police to go out and make arrests, and they’ve made the easy ones,” Carignan says. “Making arrests for possession of open containers in D.C. is like shooting fish in a barrel.”
He concedes that people may one day change: “Sooner or later they’ll get the message and drink inside. I don’t know that it accomplishes much.”
Rigsby, up for a vacant Superior Court judgeship, sees a brighter future: “In the community, people feel safer. They have hope. In the courts, the defendants are taking this a lot more seriously.”
But Rigsby’s last prophecy seems the most likely of all: “This is going to be a very hot summer, and I don’t foresee things slowing down.”CP