in the Court
One day in the life of Cheektowaga Justice
Cheektowaga is by no means unique among sprawling suburban towns in having one end that is practically urban while the other is essentially rural. But unlike many other such suburban "border" towns, Cheektowaga's judicial branch has a decidedly rural feel to it in that neither of its two popularly elected justices, Thomas Kolbert and Ronald E. Kmiotek, holds a law degree. This lends an uncharacteristically informal air to the mostly monotonous proceedings, which are broken up by the occasional breach of protocol (such as when the judge momentarily forgets to swear in a witness who is about to give testimony) or confused arguing (when a defendant's case has been remanded back and forth between courts so many times that the assigned counsel can't make heads or tails out of the file and the judge hasn't a clue what he's supposed to be ruling on). But then just before you're lulled to sleep by the court's old-fashioned folksiness, some poor lifelong drunk up for a probation violation is sentenced to a year in jail for nothing more than failing an alcohol test at his halfway house.
The Cheektowaga Court is in operation Monday-Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. The following is a report of the court's proceedings from this past Tuesday, July 30. The names of the defendants have been omitted.
8:27 a.m.: I pass through the rudimentary security check. No food or beverages, cell phones, pagers, or recording devices are permitted inside. The elderly bailiff is amazed when the metal detector still triggers after I've removed 14 or so items from my various pockets. My belt buckle causes the buzzing, but they don't make me undo it like in the airports nowadays.
8:40 a.m.: The doors open and the younger of the two white-shirted bailiffs (whose graying pompadour and extra-long sideburns give him a vaguely yokelish appearance) instructs those with civil disputes to enter. The plaque up on the bench tells us that Ronald E. Kmiotek is to preside over the day's proceedings.
8:43 a.m.: Kmiotek enters the courtroom. He is a large, jowly man with thick dark hair and eyebrows that appear dyed. He looks like one of those elderly uncles who is rumored to have been a real mean bastard when he was younger, but has now mellowed to the point where he seems harmless, if not exactly friendly.
9:07 a.m.: A short black attorney with shaved head and glasses (one of the few wearing an actual suit) is perusing a brochure for "We Wan Chu Cottages." Meanwhile, another black male directly in front of me is rhythmically raising and lowering his left leg at a rate of just under 30 per minute. His girlfriend has an intricately sculpted hair weave that looks like it would repel asteroids.
9:20 a.m.: The clerk reads the roll call of scheduled criminal cases.
9:42 a.m.: Kmiotek returns.
9:55 a.m.: The day's third criminal case has a no-show female defendant. This is the second date in a row she has missed, so a bench warrant for her arrest will be served. Next up is a mid-30s, ruddy-complexioned white male with massive Popeye forearms and brand-spanking-new tan work boots. His elderly mother looks on as he pleads guilty to DWI for a $100 fine (with $65 surcharge).
10:04 a.m.: Handcuffee #3 is brought in, a sullen-looking, stout white male with pencil-thin mustache and ornate, garishly colored tattoos running up the length of his right arm, apparently all the way to where the shoulder and neck meet. As this defendant takes his seat, the younger bailiff moves to rouse a heavy-set black male (accompanied by a woman and small girl) who has fallen asleep.
10:34 a.m.: The first female in handcuffs is brought in. She's a nearly spherical middle-aged black woman in orange shorts and hideously clashing tangerine tank top who requires rather more escorting than most. Once seated, she slouches over with her head resting on one shoulder, looking sort of like the Pope giving a speech except for the toothless half-smile that remains plastered on her face for as long as I can manage to keep my eye on her.
10:40 a.m.: A young black male charged with marijuana possession and various traffic violations has no attorney, and so is dispatched downstairs for the ACD forms. Next we have a pair charged with petty larceny. One is a short, stout black female with hair neatly pulled back in a bun (which only serves to accentuate the extremely wrinkled state of her skirt). The other is a tall white male, slovenly dressed and wearing a gray NY Yankees cap. Both look like they just rolled out of bed.
10:55 a.m.: The sleeper's female companion is called. She faces charges of second degree harassment and driving without a license. After he is one of many pink-faced, rail-thin white males wearing a goatee and an angry expression. I notice his shirt is actually tucked in, and it occurs to me that this is the first defendant so far to have done so. He's charged with marijuana possession.
By now my ears have adjusted somewhat to the sound of the courtroom and I am able to make out more of what the judge is saying. His speech is very practiced and terse (entirely understandable under the circumstances), and yet the ups and downs of his intonation rarely seems to correspond to the sense of what he's saying. I don't know what to make of this except that the resulting effect is mildly unsettling.
11:04 a.m.: The younger bailiff is hot on the trail of another sleeper, this time a heavy-set black male whose son had been carrying the morning edition of The Buffalo News when they entered the courtroom. This bailiff will henceforth be referred to as the Sleep Enforcer.
11:14 a.m.: The Sleep Enforcer nearly nabs another victim, this time a young white female with strawberry-streaked blonde hair and a large cat tattoo on her back. She's sitting hunched over with her head almost in her lap, but she snaps awake before the bailiff can get to her. I take particular note of this as I'm now starting to nod myself.
11:24 a.m.: The nearly sleeping woman is up. Turns out she's 28, has a 4-year-old child, and feels she's ready to turn her life around because she's finally in a "stable relationship." She's sentenced to a $100 fine on her DWI charge.
11:30 a.m.: We get two more male defendants in cuffs: a short bald black fellow who looks a bit like Emmitt Smith and a lanky middle-aged white fellow with a long braided ponytail. Meanwhile, the attorney for the nearly sleeping woman is still up at the clerk's desk fiddling with the paperwork, which leads a bow-tied southern dandyish-looking public defender to ask the judge if he'd like him to remove him from the courtroom. This, the day's first bit of verifiable intentional humor, is barely acknowledged by the judge.
11:37 a.m.: We now have a few young adult white males accompanied by one or both parents. Among the other recent arrivals is a gray-suited attorney whose slicked-back hair is slightly mussed. He sits just across the aisle from me perusing a day planner in which every fourth page is a full-color picture of a pug striking some "cute" pose.
12:14 p.m.: Handcuffed Emmitt Smith faces numerous charges, including an intriguing "false impersonation" that has been reduced to disorderly conduct. All but a few of the charges are dismissed. The judge appears to have warmed up and is now effortlessly tossing off such standard legalese phrases as "contrary to the provisions of."
12:21 p.m.: One of the parent-accompanied young white males is up for his DWI charge, but he is quickly sent downstairs for ACD forms. He is just the second defendant thus far who had the foresight to tuck in his shirt (for the record, my shirt isn't tucked in either, but then I'm not appearing before the court on criminal charges). His two parents look a bit like yuppies and not as unhappy to be there as might be expected.
12:43 p.m.: Our newest cuffed defendant is a diminutive, nervous-looking fellow wearing a particularly hideous Miami Dolphins T-shirt.
12:54 p.m.: The courtroom is nearly empty now as Dolphins guy is on, facing a probation violation that may or may not involve attempted assault. There's much confusion over the case (is there time served? was it 90 days? which charge is he on probation for? etc.), and it is several minutes before judge and attorney can figure it all out. It seems the violation was failure to show up for drug court. The attorney gives the day's longest defense statement by far, which reveals that the 40-year-old has been an alcoholic most of his adult life, has been married to the complainant for 12 years, has been incarcerated for the past month, and is looking into a 30-day in-house treatment program. He has relatives in Florida, where he hopes to relocate and turn his life around. "I just have to get a change of environment," he says. Just under the bell, the attorney gets in that the defendant's continued alcohol problems are partly due to the fact that his wife works in a bar.
1:12 p.m.: Next up is another lanky white truck driver type with long hair and mustache. He appears extremely dejected and remorseful and is also up for a probation violation (from a petty larceny charge). The probation officer goes through the details of the case for about 3 minutes before Kmiotek remembers he was supposed to swear him in first. He does so, and the officer starts over. The violation here is a failed alcohol test at his residential treatment facility. It becomes clear from the judge's statements that this defendant has been here more than once before: "Mr. [name omitted], this court has been very kind to you, and your family has been here every time... they're genuinely concerned that you might die from this..." The family is his mother, sister, and brother, the latter a small mustachioed fellow wearing a blue NYPD cap and an extremely dirty white T-shirt that reads "Newport Pleasure" (I'd been noticing him nervously going in and out of the courtroom for most of the morning). The sentence, essentially for failing a urine test for alcohol, is 1 year in county jail. The brother and sister nod approvingly.
1:27 p.m.: It's now just me, another man (the final defendant's brother as it turns out), and the final defendant himself. Kmiotek asks me who I'm there for; I tell him I'm just watching. "Good," he says, "more people should go to court and see what actually happens, instead of believing all those... rumors." Unconvincingly, I tell him I agree. Thankfully, the defendant's attorney returns, now under the impression that his client has served out all but two days of his sentence and might as well be released now with time served rather than being sent back to jail for two days. The judge doesn't like the sound of that at all and goes into a convoluted explanation about how the case was remanded because he hadn't previously gotten into the record any statement imploring the defendant to think about his past crimes and the effect they have had. So Kmiotek now gets this all-important statement into the record and only then releases the man with time served. I decide that two days' worth of leniency is the closest thing to a happy ending this story is likely to get, and make my way outside.