I could feel him staring at me from three seats back. He was disheveled and old. I think. Which in some men can be difficult to tell when they are not sartorially at their best. His uncut beard was white with age. His hair was white too. That’s not exactly right. It was that peculiar shade of grey mixed with a yellowish hue. His hair, I presumed, had once been blond. You couldn’t say it was long or short. A hair clipper and shampoo had not been acquainted with his scalp for some time. He fidgeted in his seat awaiting his turn at what accidentally passes for justice.
“As is the case in our criminal justice system, Monday mornings for many courts are arraignment days. In municipal court this usually involves handling all of the cases where arrests were made from Friday evening until Monday morning. The usual gamut runs from domestic violence, assaults, petty thefts, your odd peeping Tom, the DUIs who couldn’t bond out, and, of course, the public drunks.
There is a small courtroom in the basement of the jail which is reserved for arraignments. This was more cost effective than transporting our unwilling guests downtown to the municipal court building. There are never defense lawyers there. The entire exercise is to “process”. We let them know the charges, ask if anyone wants to go ahead and plea or have a court date set, and assign a court appointed lawyer for those who qualify. In and out, in and out. If you do this job long enough, or as my predecessor warned me, too long, you get to know the customers (prisoners). We have quite a few frequent flyers. It is a bad thing being on a first name basis with the bailiff and the clerks, and worse yet, the judge.
A very pretty young lady appeared at arraignment who had been arrested for DUI. She had been at a wild party and foolishly decided to drive home. Not only do the police cars have video cameras but so does the station where the official intoxilizer machine records their alcohol levels when they “blow” into the tube. This lady was so drunk she was cussing up a storm and raising hell making threats against the police, the mayor, the governor, and there was some mention of her third grade teacher.
“Lady,” the arresting officer pointed out, “do you know you are being recorded and the judge is going to see everything you do?”
“Wad you say?”
“You’re being recorded. The judge is going to see this.”
“Where the damn camera.” She demanded. The cop dutifully pointed it out.
Suddenly, she pulled down her tank top shook her substantial assets at the video recording and said as loud as she could, “Hey Judgie baby, I’m Stephanie, baby. I ain’t drunk or nuthin. Let’s party.”
The cops added the charge of Indecent Exposure. Perhaps, a first for the police station. I think the officers just wanted to show off the evidence, so to speak.
Her turn came and I asked her how she wanted to plea to DUI and Indecent Exposure?
“I ain’t pleading to not nuthin, not nuthin at all cause y’all ain’t showed me the evidence.” She said.
“Ma’am, we don’t show you the evidence here, we just set a trial date if a person does not want to plea guilty.” I explained.
“I ain’t pleading, I ain’t saying anything more cause y’all won’t show me the evidence y’all are hiding. What y’all all afraid of, huh. Ain’t got nuthin on me?”
The prosecutor was on the ball. “Judge, I know this is highly unusual, but can we please show her the evidence now?”
“I ain’t going to no room with no cop. Y’all show me right here. That’s right. Show me.” She demanded.
“Ma’am, you don’t want to do that in court in front of these people.” I suggested.
“Do too,” she quickly imparted.
“Ok. Please set up the monitor and show her right here and right now.” I ordered.
That old adage to be careful what you ask for applies. She didn’t know she was the evidence.
So they played the full recording. Car swerving, being pulled over, falling down in the grass, and wanting to go pee.
When we got to the “Hey Judgie” part she reddened, slumped down as far as she could in her chair, put her hands over her face and sheepishly said she thought she might as well enter a guilty plea after all. I dismissed the Indecent Exposure charge. I understand the tape has become a staple at the P.D. and all beginning DUI officers are required to see it. By coincidence, a great many cops now volunteer to make DUI arrests.
An irate local businessman appeared in front of me one Monday morning. He had gotten so drunk at a football party he tried to walk home, lost his wallet, cell phone, and one shoe somewhere along the way. Our trusty constabulary swept him up from the side of the road and since he reeked of alcohol they tossed him in the drunk tank. He managed to sober up right at the moment the clerk motioned for him to come forward.
“Where the hell am I”, he incredulously asked as he limped his way to the front.
“You’re in jail.”
“Did the Saints win, where’s my wallet, where’s my shoe, oh, yeah, where’s my wife?” At least he had his concerns listed in order of his priorities. I like an organized person.
“I can’t be drunk cause I’m here.” Inescapable logic.
“Sir,” explained, “I think you have that reversed. You were drunk and that’s why you are here.” He was released. Embarrassed, but released. That’s what we did with the Public Drunk offenses. We just let them sober up and come Monday morning they were released with “time served”. Sort of like Otis the town drunk on the Andy Griffith Show. Off he went, still a good bit hung over. I was later told he called his wife to come get him, but after two more hours of waiting he called a cab. How he got back in his house much less paid the cabbie I don’t know.
Casinos are everywhere and a mixture of transients escaping the cold weather or looking for menial jobs brings in the public drunks. They can be most interesting and sometimes the most pitiful. Sadly, former military members appear in their ranks at levels that did not exist in years before. Homelessness is the common denominator. Sadness is the rule.
Finally, we came to the poor guy who kept staring at me all morning. “Mr. Endris, you are charged with Public Drunk, sir.” I said.
“Public Drunk. Public Drunk. Why I never! I’ll have you know sir I am a professional alcoholic!” He boldly and indignantly declared.
“Good Lord. They weren’t supposed to pick you up. I am so sorry. This jail is only for nonprofessional drunks. Why, you have no business being here.”
Suddenly, the gentlemen pulled at his coat, adjusted his shirt collar and straightened right up. I reached all the way over the bench and shook his hand and he gladly reached back.
“It’s these rank amatures who give you professional alcoholics a bad name. I am tired it. Officer, you release this man instantly. He is a professional.” I ordered loudly. The Bailiff smiled.
He stood there and for a second we bonded, as they say we had a moment. He was proud of being a professional alcoholic and duly recognizable by a court of law as such. He adjusted himself and didn’t say another word, but as he left he turned around and gave me a little salute. I saluted back.
The criminal justice apparatus, especially on the lower rungs, has a multitude of flaws, and this court level is where most citizens come into contact with the system. There is no place to properly house and treat people who habitually suffer from substance abuse. Unless you have access to insurance, heartlessly you are all alone and at the mercy of the streets. The same is true of persons in need of mental health treatment. The overwhelming number of prisoners in jail should not be there and are suffering from untreated mental health issues. Treatment has the possibility of success. Incarnation has the certainty of failure. The cruelty of the system – and the politicians who refuse to recognize this human disaster and do something – is that society suffers from this uncaring neglect. Those who pass through the portals of the law are all in some way victims.
At least from time to time a judge can add a small amount of levity to the proceedings and thus humanize the process. People understand. It is not intended to be dismissive. Jail is no place for rehabilitation, only misery. If only, if only I could do more…
Writer’s note. I am long retired but recall these stories as if yesterday. I trust you will understand the profound impact some of the defendants had on me. I occasionally wake up having what my wife refers to as a “court-mare”. She tells me to recess court and go home. Sleepily, I roll over and comply.