People entering the basement of the Buncombe County Courthouse this Monday afternoon are struggling to get their bearings. They are greeted by the sight — and sound — of hundreds of people already waiting in the lobby for their turn to appear in night court.
Night court serves as an entry point for most people new to the court system, since it’s the venue for traffic offenses and first appearances in misdemeanor cases.
And what an introduction.
On this evening, Jan. 10, the court calendar indicates that 392 people are scheduled to appear in the nighttime version of District Court, held on Monday and Tuesday evenings. And, while the 5:30 p.m. crowd is waiting to get in, some of the 189 people scheduled for the 4 p.m. session are now leaving. Add in those folks’ friends or relatives who’ve tagged along, and you have a living, breathing sea of people who really didn’t want to be here, to begin with.
Two long lines have already formed in front of the window where people register their names to be called for court. The lines — A-L and M-Z — snake around corners before disappearing into the bowels of the courthouse. Even though officials have opened a second courtroom to handle the overflow, folks still have to stop at the window first.
Part of this night’s glut of cases is due to a backlog that built up when the courthouse was closed for a couple of days over the holidays. Also, law-enforcement officers — who set the court dates — scheduled cases for this night instead of the previous Monday, because they weren’t sure the court would be in session the first Monday of the new year, officials explain. (It was, in fact, and was nowhere near as busy as it is this night.)
A low roar builds, as more and more people enter the lobby, which seems dimly lit despite several overhead fluorescent lights. Apart from the ceramic-tile floor, the courthouse basement boasts few of the architectural flourishes adorning its grander counterpart upstairs.
To get in, people first must go through a security checkpoint, like those found at airports. Bailiffs (sheriff’s deputies assigned to the courthouse) watch as people deposit their keys, change and other metal objects in plastic containers and place their hand-held belongings on a conveyor belt, to be scanned by an X-ray machine.
The next step is a stroll through a metal detector. Keys, steel-toed boots — or even, sometimes, metal buttons — will set off the alarm, bailiffs say. If it goes off, the bailiff asks the person to stand with his or her feet apart and arms open wide, to be checked with a hand-held Super Scanner metal detector. Holding the detector a few inches from the person’s body, the bailiff passes it up and down the torso, arms and legs.
Down a hallway leading to another courtroom, Ronnie Noble — wearing a work shirt emblazoned with his first name — finds himself near the end of the M-Z line leading to the registration window.
“I don’t even know if I’m in the right line,” says Noble, who is facing a charge of obstructing traffic on Patton Avenue. “I don’t know if you’re supposed to be here to go to court. … Hopefully, it’s the right line.”
Jeff Sheets, wearing a shirt and tie, was nabbed for driving 40 mph in a 30 mph zone. He’s surprised by the number of people crowding in. “I didn’t expect such a backup,” he remarks.
Just ahead of Sheets, Floridians Henry Rodriguez and Jose Membrillo compare the Florida and North Carolina court systems.
“Our court system is totally different,” says Membrillo. “You just go in and pay your fine … and go home, or go to jail.
“I’ve never seen this system right here,” he adds.
The pair, who are working on the new Home Depot in Hendersonville, say they weren’t told exactly where to go for their court appearance, other than to Asheville. So they wound up asking “about 10 people” before they found the courthouse, Membrillo says.
On the other side of the lobby, Debbie Dennis of Weaverville is getting impatient as she waits in the A-L line with her 16-year-old daughter, Lindsey, who was charged with a traffic violation.
“This is our first time here. It’s terrible,” complains the elder Dennis. “We’ve been standing in line 20 minutes. My daughter got a ticket for running a stoplight — which she didn’t do. It was yellow.”
Assistant District Attorney Kate Dreher announces that people who are ready to “plead” — plead guilty, that is — should raise their hands, and she can take care of their cases right there in the lobby. She is one of two prosecutors working the lobby that night.
Debbie Dennis and Deborah Bryant (waiting just ahead of her) raise their hands, but Dreher has decided to tackle the M-Z line first.
“If you get out of line, you’re going to lose your place,” Dreher tells the crowd.
Eventually, Dennis and Bryant drop their arms, after the assistant district attorney has disappeared around a corner.
An alarm goes off, and a couple of bailiffs charge into action, parting the crowd to investigate. A court volunteer, Gene Myers, says later that it’s not unusual for people to set off an alarm when they go out the wrong door.
As they wait in line, Bryant and the elder Dennis discuss the tickets that brought them there and offer critiques of night court.
Bryant seems less perturbed than Dennis by the line and crowd. “I don’t see no problem with it,” she says about the way things are being run.
She does, however, have a problem with her speeding ticket — her first. “I can’t afford to have a ticket against me,” Bryant emphasizes.
Debbie Dennis spots a lawyer friend in the lobby and consults with him about her daughter’s ticket.
As the line inches along, Debbie Dennis looks around at the wall-to-wall people. “Too many in one night,” she says.
Bryant adds, “The police officers had a good time that day.”
Dreher reappears at the head of the A-L line, and soon reaches Bryant.
Bryant tells the prosecutor that she doesn’t want to plead guilty to her speeding ticket but, instead, wants a “prayer for judgment continued.” For that, Bryant will have to appear before the night-court judge, she’s told.
Dreher confers with the Dennises, who maintain that Lindsey went through a yellow light, not a red one.
“You go in and tell the judge what the situation is,” Dreher says. “It’s a little tricky with a 16-year-old driver, because I don’t want her to go out and get killed.”
People continue trickling into the lobby; one man sets off the metal detector.
“You should’ve taken your keys out, and you wouldn’t have to do this,” a bailiff admonishes one man, as she finishes her sweep with the hand-held detector.
District Attorney Ronald L. Moore, who has been selecting a jury in a murder trial upstairs, gets off the elevator and makes his way through the crowd.
“Tonight’s one of those weird nights when there’s hundreds of people here,” notes Moore, adding that night court usually handles 200 to 400 cases in one session. “What’s happened is, we’ve missed some Monday nights, because of the holidays.”
A couple of bailiffs are questioning an older man who’s made it through the metal detector and X-ray machine with his cane and backpack. The bailiffs believe he’s drunk, and he apparently can’t produce a citation to be in court. They hustle him back outside.
At the door of one of the courtrooms, two parents are waiting for the mother’s name to be called, so they can enter.
“It’s slow,” the mother says, when asked how it’s going.
A bailiff walks out of the courtroom into the hallway and calls out several names — but not that of the waiting woman, who is charged with a school-attendance-law violation.
The mother, who didn’t want her name to appear in print, says she was charged because the couple couldn’t arrange for one of their children to attend summer school, to make up for days missed during the school year. Both parents are clearly unhappy with the south-Asheville schools.
“We either had to work or stay home,” the woman reveals. “We tried to call and explain it to them, but they didn’t want to hear.”
By now, Debbie Dennis and her daughter have seen the judge and are leaving the courtroom. The younger Dennis’ case was voluntarily dismissed by the district attorney’s office, according to court records.
Entering the courtroom is like stepping into another world. The lighting is brighter, the trappings are modern and — except for the officials at the front of the room — the atmosphere is hushed. About 20 people wait quietly in the audience.
Because the assistant district attorneys are taking guilty pleas in the lobby, many people never even make it into the courtroom — they simply pay their fines and go.
Assistant District Attorney Julie M. Kepple calls out, “Margin 139, Jonathan Griffin.” Silence.
“He must’ve shown up to get on this list,” Kepple tells District Court Judge Peter Roda, who is presiding over this court session. “I hope he’s not sitting in the other courtroom.”
They move along to the next name. Before each new case, Kepple calls out the person’s name. This evening, most cases take only a matter of minutes.
Roda is addressing Nathan Cartwright:
“You, too, are charged with misdemeanor larceny,” the judge says, asking whether Cartwright would like a lawyer.
“Yes, sir,” he replies. He’s handed paperwork to fill out, which the judge will then review to determine whether he qualifies financially for a public defender.
Rules of the game
Typically, there are two types of cases in night court: traffic infractions and misdemeanors. The traffic charges carry lesser penalties than misdemeanors. On this night, more than half of those charged face speeding and other driving-related offenses.
Among the other cases are: several women charged with working as adult entertainers without a city license; a man charged with “inhaling toxic vapors” — a can of gold spray enamel; a man charged with misuse of the 911 number; and a woman accused of assault by pointing a gun.
Each case follows a similar pattern, Kepple says later. First, she finds out whether the person has an attorney. If they do, their case is set for day court, she says.
Defendants facing a misdemeanor charge are asked if they want a court-appointed attorney. Such defendants may either hire their own attorney, represent themselves, or ask that a lawyer be appointed to represent them, at public expense. People charged with traffic infractions are ineligible for court-appointed attorneys, Kepple says, because they don’t face jail time for their offenses.
Those who want court-appointed attorneys are asked to fill out an affidavit of financial status. The judge reviews the affidavit and decides whether the person qualifies. The defendant is then given a court date and the telephone number of the public-defender’s office, which it’s their responsibility to call.
Those wishing to represent themselves are asked to sign a waiver of court-appointed counsel. At that point, they may make a plea bargain with the district attorney.
Many people accused of speeding agree to pay a higher fine, in return for getting their speeding level dropped to nine miles over the limit, which may help reduce their insurance rate.
People charged with misdemeanors are then arraigned — meaning the judge reads the charges the defendant faces and the maximum penalty, if convicted.
Those who want a trial are given a daytime court date. Others simply ask for a continuance. Those who plead guilty are sentenced and then told where to go to pay their fines and court costs.
At the end of the session, an order for arrest is issued for those people facing misdemeanor charges who haven’t shown up for court. Some no-shows charged with traffic infractions may face an order for arrest as well, Kepple says.
Bryant has now made it before the judge and asks for a prayer for judgment continued.
“You’ll have to come back during the day,” Kepple tells Bryant, giving her a new court date.