Losing it in court
Many of the truths I have witnessed have not only crossed the border into the realm of strangeness, but sadly are, in no small part, caused by the human foibles of mental health problems and alcohol and/or drug abuse. Humor has been a part of my experiences on the bench. But humor can be sweet and sour. After all, humor cannot exist without roots to the tragic truth below its surface.
Several years ago, I happened to be in court where I met another young man. He was charged with walking into a mom and pop grocery store, proceeding to the freezer in the back of the store, grabbing three half gallons of ice cream and simply walking out the front door – completely ignoring the cashier. He was quickly apprehended while walking down the sidewalk carrying the ice cream.
Having been in criminal court (at that time 20 years ago) for two years, I soon learned some cases languish in the magisterial court for too long. These were defendants held in jail for minor offenses who could not post bail. For instance, during this assignment, I met at least three different men who had taken shopping carts home from the super market without returning them. At least that was the theory, perhaps someone else committed the theft of the cart and abandoned it until a homeless person found it. That detail is unknown, but the cart was used by each of the defendants to hold every personal item they owned.
Around this time, the legislature, after apparently receiving “heat” from the Pennsylvania Mercantile Association, cracked down on the “criminals” who absconded with these carts by, of course, increasing the punishment for cart theft. This made it a more serious offense – one that the district justice (as they were known at that time but are now known as magisterial district judge) could no longer handle as a lesser offense with a summary criminal grading. These homeless people were charged with misdemeanor offenses and thus had to have a preliminary arraignment, followed by a preliminary hearing before a district justice could send the case to us for trial or other disposition. Perhaps the defendant should be released on bail during this time…except for one thing. The defendant, being homeless, could not even provide a legitimate address. The district justice concluded that he had to set secured bail. Of course we cannot expect a homeless person to even post the minimum secured bail, so each defendant sat in Berks County Prison during the delay.
Our ice cream thief was not in possession of a cart, but he did steal one and a half gallons of cold refreshment. Secured bail was also set in this case. The defendant didn’t have a prayer of posting any money for bail. Due to jailed defendants like this I had to monitor the inmate list as soon as possible, when they first appeared in court for arraignment. Until this time the court master conducted arraignment. I changed the procedure from that day forward, handling all criminal cases before me rather than the master. The sooner I could monitor these cases the better.
It happens to be Ash Wednesday and I’m arraigning the newest group of defendants, including the ice cream guy. The public defender requested that we immediately dispose of the charges against this young man. Apparently, the commonwealth attorney agreed to a guilty plea, with both sides requesting that I sentence him to time served so he could be released from jail that day.
He entered his guilty plea and it was my job to determine a sentence. Not surprisingly, I agreed to the time served sentence request. He had already spent approximately 50 days in Berks County Prison. Everything went smoothly and it was now my turn to advise him of his appeal rights, which went as follows:
Judge: You understand that you may file a post sentence motion before this court and that you have only 10 days to do so?
Judge: And you understand you have the right to file an appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court and that you must do so within 30 days and that you have the right to legal counsel to aid you.
He stood tall, as if on his toes, looked me right in the eye and answered, “Indubitably.”
I don’t know how long he waited to use that word or if he had ever uttered it before. I do know however that he had observed while sitting in court that day that I drink a lot of water. He was also fully aware that he was not free to leave until I was finished with him. I noticed my chair moving back and forth as I looked down at my papers while trying to continue to advise him (while not looking him in the eye) that if he can’t afford a lawyer one would be appointed for him free of charge. I was never able to continue. Again the court room had been filled with representatives from every type of group mentioned in Part I and they had heard the exchange. It started with strong attempts to refrain from openly laughing, but his spirit had spread and now I’m no longer successful in displaying the proper judicial demeanor. To make matters worse, the defendant attempted to be helpful by saying: Do you want to take a break? (more laughter) Do you need a glass of water? (even more laughter) Take as much time as you need – I’m not going anywhere.
We all lost it!
That night while enjoying Charlie and Mary Ann’s homemade soup in the church’s social room, I told this story to a table of parishioners before attending church. The next Monday at the regularly scheduled church council meeting I was surprised to see the gift of a t-shirt at my seat, along with the plethora of church business before us. The gift was signed by Anony Mouse, “The Church Mouse” and in bold letters across the front of my shirt was the word: INDUBITABLY.
I never saw the young man again. I don’t know if he has been naughty or nice. Unfortunately, the lady known as “The Church Mouse” moved from Fleetwood. She and her husband enrolled in a local church. As for the shirt, I wore it regularly until my wife allowed it to pass onto the hereafter life. It eventually joined our supply of domestic cleaning rags.