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'Madhouse' Expected for Occupy Wall Street Court Hearings

By DNAinfo Staff on December 12, 2011 7:59am

Judge Melissa Jackson.
Judge Melissa Jackson.
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Richard Drew-Pool/Getty Images

MANHATTAN CRIMINAL COURT — The occupation is moving to the courthouse.

More than 700 Occupy Wall Street protesters are expected to appear in court this week to answer a slew of summonses — potentially creating a nightmare scenario for courthouse personnel.

The hundreds of demonstrators who were hit with tickets in recent months present a challenge to court personnel and attorneys who will scramble to stay organized and prepare for heated battles over what would normally be considered minor cases.

"It's going to be a madhouse there — that what I predict," said Manhattan Criminal Court Administrative Judge Melissa Jackson, who also described the coming week and the handling of the protest cases in general as "an administrative challenge."

The protesters will appear on Dec. 14 to 16 and Dec. 22 for their arraignments, following months of arrests and ticketing at protests across the city, including at Brooklyn Bridge, Union Square and Zuccotti Park.

Throughout the course of the 2½-month protest, police have made about 1,070 arrests, according to numbers provided by prosecutors. That number does not include the roughly 700 summonses issued.

Unlike most criminal cases, the District Attorney does not handle any of the roughly 100,000 summonses issued by the police and other agencies every year.  Most of those incidents are violations, akin to parking offenses.

This means the judge and defense lawyers in the Occupy Wall Street cases will have to adjust the unusual summons court situation, where trials are uncommon and where a prosecutor will not likely be involved.

"It's going to be interesting how the summonses are going to be handled and we don't have an answer yet," Judge Jackson told DNAinfo Friday. "I really don't know what's going to happen."

Jackson said that Manhattan Criminal Court Judge Neil Ross is being specially assigned to the summons court, which normally handles traffic tickets and other municipal offenses, in order to deal with the flood of cases. They may even get backup from Manhattan Supreme Court justices for trials when they're available.

Whereas summons holders often accept dismissal offers as soon as they are called in court, many protesters have vowed to fight the charges. Others are not willing to risk taking the standard offer because it can be voided if they are rearrested within a six month period.

This means the court could potentially be conducting hundreds of trials for disorderly conduct, the most common charge.

Hundreds of protesters were given desk appearance tickets for the same charge, which are handled by the DA's office because the cases are generally considered more serious. About half of them plan to take the cases to trial.

Martin Stolar, of the New York chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, which is defending the majority of the ticketed protesters, said the situation is unusual because summons holders rarely decline dismissal offers.

"Nobody's taking a plea and paying a $75 fine," Stolar said, even though it is very likely the judge will offer his clients the same dismissal deals that were offered to the approximately 680 individuals who were issued DATs instead.

Dozens of attorneys are expected to work the summons arraignments next week and a large staff of legal volunteers have been working to support the OWS defense effort, Stolar said.

But Jackson said that the court is prepared for the worst and has made strides in dealing with mass arrests since the 2004 Republican National Convention.

"It was stunning the volume that came in [in 2004] and the court did its best at the time to absorb it," the judge said, explaining that the issuance of DATs and summonses has helped the court accommodate the volume of arrests and "allows the court system to deal with these cases in a more efficient manner."

Jackson praised the court system for the way that it has handled the OWS cases so far, adding that she and other court administrators have worked hard to make sure en masse appearances of the activists are handled smoothly and efficiently.

If the cases do go to trial, they will generally last a day or less because they will be tried before a judge instead of a jury.

Prosecutors could also choose to jump in and consolidate the defendants' cases, holding a single hearing for groups of people arrested in the same vicinity, she said.