“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” -Mark Twain

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Local Travel: A Day in Cook County Criminal Court, aka "26th & Cal."

My company gives everyone the opportunity to take one day off a year for "Experience Day.” Sky-dive, ride the entire El system, get a tattoo, go kayaking, fly a plane.  My first idea was to spend the day inside O'Hare's air traffic control tower.  I spent 2 months to try to find a way in by means of a few phone calls. Long story short, they called me back and said they were too busy of a tower to be able to accommodate a day of job shadowing. Fair enough, they are one of the busiest airports in the world. So Plan B was to spend the day at 26th and California. Home of the infamous Cook County Criminal Court and jail. I heard it was a very interesting place to go, quite an experience.  Sounded perfect for Experience Day.

I knew phones weren't allowed inside, so I left the iPhone and iPad at home, grabbed the work Blackberry and a notebook, hid the Blackberry under the front seat of the car, and stepped inside.  I had no idea what I was doing.  I wanted to take notes.  I have only been in court once, and that was a civil matter.  This was a different ball game.  I walked around a bit to get a lay of the first floor, observed the flow of people, read the signs on the doors, checked out the posted court schedules.  Finally I walked up to the woman at the information desk and asked her the "rules."  Did a sign "Court In Session" mean I couldn't go in? Where was I allowed to go? Where was everything?  She said that the courts are open to the public and I can walk in and out at any time.  The big courtrooms were on the 4th-7th floors, with the wooden benches.  The 2nd and 3rd floors were smaller courtrooms with the seating in back behind a glass partition with speakers.  There was a jury selection currently going on in court 500 that I might be able to check out, if the judge allowed the public in for those.  She said it might be interesting to watch, so that's where I started.  Behold, the courtroom door was locked, so I guess the judge wanted jury selection to be private. 

I walked across the hall to another court instead. Inside there were a few people in the audience, seated on the wooden benches, like church pews.  Some lawyers were up front, but I didn't see a judge.  Were they on lunch break? One man caught the attention of one of the lawyers and asked a question in Spanish. I realized that perhaps being bilingual when working with the Chicago public is a really good idea.  After a half hour of me observing and trying to determine who was who - state's attorney, public defender, clerk, etc - I skipped out to find more action.  I peeked into a few other courts but no judges.  On the 7th floor I found a room with a lot of people outside, obviously lawyers talking to their clients. I figured there may be some activity going on here, so I slipped inside and sat down.  There was a judge, the lawyers, clerks, and definitely something happening.  

Finally court was in session! In the audience, a man looked like he was accompanied by his mom.  A few other people were in the audience.  I figured out that the state's attorney (SA) was seated opposite the judge's bench, that the public defenders (PD) were to the left, the clerk beside the judge, stenographer down front.  Bailiff. But I couldn't figure out who the woman was in front of the judge, standing at a table with a cart full of files.  Came to figure out later that I think she was part of the SA's paperwork team.  The clerk called each case, and each time a dependent would meet their lawyer in front of the bench.  I noticed that every single dependent, when approaching the bench, kept his or her hands clasped behind their backs.  They weren't cuffed.  Was this protocol?  Were they supposed to do this?  Dunno.  Some defendants were seated in the audience.  Some defendants, in DOC uniforms, were escorted into the room by the sheriff.  

At one point the judge started yelling at a defendant, "Use the thing that's between your two ears!" I think he didn't report to someone, his parole officer perhaps, and was now in trouble for it because the judge yelled to him to "Go report!" then slammed the docket onto the bench.  Another case was called.  But there were suddenly more players in the room.  There was a different buzz of activity than earlier.  I looked around and I was alone.  I was the lone observer, this was the last case of the day.  T defender walked in and was seated at the PD's table, with the sheriff seated behind him.  A cop walks in from a side entrance and takes the witness stand.  Oooohhhh.... I get to watch a real trial!!  Yay!

He was sworn in ad the PD began interrogation of the witness.  Then the young assistant SA cross-examined. The the PD.  Then the SA. Objections were heard and over-ruled.  The SA started asking the same questions again but slightly twisted.  The judge got frustrated and told her that he can hear and that he listens and she doesn't need to waste the court's time repeating questions.  She was clearly shake up and stopped questioning. She sat with her older colleague who sounded like he was giving her advice. I realized that most of these lawyers were probably 7-10 years younger than I.  

In short, the charge was unlawful possession of a controlled substance.  The defense's argument was that it was a 4th Amendement case and asked for a dismissal.  As the lawyers were asking the young Officer R, the arresting officer, the witness, questions, I can see how a witness would get flustered, how a memory could be distorted by questioning under stress.  On May 26th at 951 N. Lawler the officer arrested the defendant for possession.  But the search and seizure argument was coming into place because the defense claimed that the officer didn't know nor could see exactly what the defendant had in his hand when he saw him, therefore why stop him and question him?  The cop suspected a drug deal was being conducted based on the history of the neighborhood and the suspect handling something in his hand in front of other men gathered around him, and the defendant then tried to throw away what was in his hand when the officer approached him.  He kicked it under the squad car but the cop was able to reach it (turns out, later lab tests would reveal it was herion).

The judge determined there was sufficient grounds for a search, and therefore the subsequent arrest (backing up the charge was the lab results). But I could see the case for the 4th amendment argument. The only testimony was that of the cop.  No other witnesses.  This was one man's word against another.  There were no other cops or people present at the time of the arrest.  No one else to confirm why the cop searched him. Is this a case of the ends justifying the means? The judge ruled there were sufficient grounds.

At this time, the PD was explaining the defendant's rights to him.  The SA then spoke to the PD, then the judge, and they all disappeared to the judge's chambers.  I asked another PD what was happening, and she explained that the State had made a plea offer and they were going offline to discuss it together, along with the defendant's background and history of the case.  When they returned to the courtroom a few minutes later, the defendant and PD took their places in front of the bench, while the SAs stood at the side counter. The State explained that due to the defendant having six prior felonies, they asked for 5 years prison. The defendant then pleaded guilty and the judge explained that by entering his plea, he waived the right to a trial by jury, or a bench trial, and he had 39 days to appeal (as I understood it).  The judge then sentenced him to 2 years with one year probation.

During one of the recesses, the PD was complaining how court costs were unconstitutional, and one of the SA file clerks said how she doesn't talk about those at work since its a sensitive topic.  After the sentencing, I caught up with the PD in the elevator and asked her what she meant about unconstitutional court costs, because I had overheard the judge tell the defendant what his additional fines and court costs were.  But how to the defendants ever pay them if they're locked away for years?

She explained that often the court costs are more of a debt that just go on record. Some defendants can pay them, and some cannot.  But what had her worked up was that the costs then fund the Public Defender's office, but some of those funds are also allocated to the State's Attorney office. Wait a  minute... So in essence, the criminals are funding the people who are prosecuting them.  I began thinking, is this a 5th amendment case as well?  Suspects have the right to remain silent and not incriminate themselves.  But by participating in the legal system and paying fees, is that working against them?  Is that a form of self-incrimination?

Later that evening this thought also struck me... It was that man's seventh felony.  He's back in prison for 2 years.  Six prior felonies and prison time didn't deter him.  So I wondered, here was a career criminal, and was he in this lifestyle because he had no other options?  Not a legit job prospect with that history.  With no money comes no means to support oneself legally.  Perhaps prison was more like a guaranteed home for him, where he could get 3 hots and a cot every night without living on the streets.  Illegal activity was a way to support himself.  Granted, that is public money that's going to support his lifestyle, but is it the lesser of another evil, of having him on the streets dealing drugs, propping up the gangs, fueling the cartels?  What is our end goal, to keep violence and drugs off the street?  Then in this case, jail and our tax dollars is the better deal.  The only other option is a program to give the man a means of legal support, perhaps expunging his record, or finding in meaningful employment. Teach a man to fish... But our system isn't set up that way.  From streets to jail without any chance for reform before jail.  Because as I'm seeing this, either way, the public will fund these criminals. If we accept the inevitable, then perhaps the real question we should me asking ourselves is, "What is the best use of public money, the best sustaining, with the best outcome?"