Super Lawyers
William C. Altreuter

Friday, May 02, 2014

To Niagara Town Court last night, representing a victim. It's a good idea to do that if you can-- it shows the prosecutor that your client is serious, and prevents them from treating the matter as routine. When I do it-- which is not all that often-- I make a point of looking sharp. The bow tie helps, as does a fresh shine on the shoe leather. You don't want to overdo it-- go with a plain grey flannel if possible. The prosecutor isn't going to be glad to see you, and the defense lawyer is going to be even more unhappy. You don't belong on their planet, and both of them resent your injecting themselves into a process that they both believe is exclusively their province. There is a thin electrical sensation in the back of their nervous systems that also resents the fact that if the victim's civil action hits, your fee will be more than they are making for that evening, but that goes unsaid.

Because I do not regularly appear in courts where the chief business is grinding out criminal dispositions I have time to think about the process. I always notice that the people who are in there are a lot more used to the place than I am. It's a precarious world, and most people don't realize that they are maybe just one fuck-up away from never being able to get away from it. Town Court is a court of limited jurisdiction-- it is for misdemeanors and violations, not felonies. One year, or a thousand bucks are the top penalties. A thousand bucks might as well be a million though. These are not people with credit cards-- these are people who scrape up the bread for their DWI fines and pay in cash or with two or three money orders. They don't have a regular relationship with a bank is what I'm saying. They don't really have a regular relationship with many institutions, actually, except maybe (probably) the county. If they had a relationship with the State of New York they'd be in County Court, not siting in these orange fiberglass seats in this linoleum floored, cinder block room. A lot of them are young-- like, probably they should be in high school young, and the reason they aren't is in their lap, the toddler who was their ticket out of school. That kid has no shot, of course. The Town of Niagara is pretty diverse racially, and the room is about evenly divided between black and white. The races mix comfortably: they all know each other. For some reason there weren't many Native Americans there last night, but there were some. No need for a Spanish interpreter.

A woman in a Hamilton Tiger Cats sweatshirt approaches a lawyer. "No, I can't take your case," he says. She asks why. "Because it's the summer and I don't want to spend my Thursday nights here. I'm not taking any cases."

A different lawyer is at the bench talking to the judge. "They're telling me they can't find the PSI," he says. "What's a PSI?" my client whispers to me. "Pounds per Square Inch," I whisper back, and the guy in front of me laughs. It's his Pre-Sentence Investigation report that's missing, and that is probably good news-- when they find it he'll be going back in for a while, but tonight they'll just mark the case over for another week or two, and he'll stay out.

The shoes tell a lot of the story. That pair of Air Jordans don't look like courtroom attire, and neither does that Harley tee shirt, or those camo pants, but for as much time as these people spend in court, they don't really have courtroom clothes. They don't have church clothes. They have the clothes they own, and that's what they come to court in. 

These people are the lucky ones. The unlucky ones are wearing chains and jumpsuits and are sitting over against the wall. One fuck up. One bad break. One time when they each pushed their luck too far, and now here they are, in this fluorescent lit room where they will keep returning for most of the rest of their lives, for their own case, or for their kid's case, or for their grandchild's case. It doesn't seem strange to them. Chances are their mother brought them the first time, to pay a fine for their father, or to pay a fine for themselves, and maybe -- probably-- when they walked out they were holding their grandmother's hand, and looking over their shoulder. Shoplifting a six pack. Going for a joyride. Getting into a scrap in a parking lot. It doesn't take much. Sometimes it's just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Lots of times the Town of Niagara is the wrong place to be, just like the billion shitty little towns just like it.

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