A matter of perspective

How you feel about night court probably depends on where you’re sitting — or standing.

District Court Judge Peter Roda enjoys it, from his vantage point on the judge’s bench. During the day, Roda conducts civil court — meaning he mostly rubs shoulders with other lawyers.

“This is a chance to interact with the public generally,” says Roda about the night-court sessions, which he runs with an active sense of humor.

But a couple of the people on the other side of the bench offered a less-than-complimentary critique of the night-court experience.

“It was like a zoo,” said Debbie Dennis, when asked for her opinion a couple of weeks after the Jan. 10 night-court session she attended at the Buncombe County Courthouse. “There were so many people there, we were lost.”

Dennis was accompanying her teenage daughter, Lindsey, charged with running a red light. When they first entered the courthouse, a bailiff checked Lindsey’s ticket and directed them to the registration line. But after that, they were pretty much on their own.

“It was no organization there, much, it didn’t seem like to me,” observed the elder Dennis.

Assistant District Attorney Kate Dreher, who was helping the regular prosecutors with that evening’s session, says she can understand why people might find the scene chaotic. Even some of the judges, she says, have raised that concern.

“It does look disorganized,” acknowledges Dreher, adding, “There’s more organization there that’s not apparent.”

Space constraints in the basement lobby — combined with the large numbers of people involved — contribute to the sense of chaos, she concedes. Having one registration line instead of two, for example, might look better — but people would be lined up out the door, the prosecutor argues.

Whenever more than 350 people are scheduled to appear in night court, an extra bailiff is assigned to assist the three usually on duty, says Major Bill Stafford of the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department.

“When you have 400 people in the basement of the courthouse, tempers do get to an edge, when they’re shoulder-to-shoulder,” notes Stafford.

Both Lindsey Dennis and her mother also say they found the court officials somewhat cold.

“I didn’t like it — kind of scary,” says Lindsey, who’s 16. “They just weren’t very friendly.” On the plus side, however, she also notes: “I did learn a lesson — it was just too much trouble. I don’t want to go back.”

Adds her mother: “I can understand these people — they deal with this stuff all the time. … That may be why they’re not the hold-your-hand, friendly type.”

Dreher, however, says efficiency often gets in the way of friendliness.

“What she’s missing in terms of atmosphere and warmth is being made up for in terms of efficiency and predictability,” maintains Dreher.

In the midst of the milling lobby crowd, prosecutors talk with defendants, grant continuances, and arrange plea bargains in traffic cases, Dreher explains.

But many people don’t realize that prosecutors are ethically barred from advising defendants about their cases, because the two sides are in an adversarial position, she explains. Also, offering legal advice is the “bread and butter” of the defense bar, she adds.

“We try to help people if we can, but my hands are kind of tied,” she observes.

Those constraints mean that Dreher can tell people what others ask for — but she can’t explain why it may or may not be in their best interest to do the same. Often, people waiting in line will explain the options to one another.

“People help each other down there,” concurs Dreher.

In speeding cases, she says, people mostly ask the district attorney to reduce the charge to driving nine miles over the limit (in hopes of saving money on their insurance). They may also ask for a PJC — a prayer for judgment continued.

But that’s something only a judge can hand out. If the judge doesn’t impose conditions, a PJC means that final judgment is indefinitely withheld — and no conviction appears on the person’s record.

And many people, says fellow Assistant District Attorney Julie M. Kepple, mistakenly believe that a speeding charge can be reduced to a charge of improper equipment. It can’t, she emphasizes.

Speaking of speeding, however, Debbie Dennis says she found that the judicial process went much quicker, once she and her daughter made it into the courtroom.

“What I like to do is move everything along, so people don’t have to hang around and stand in lines,” notes Roda, adding, “I think we owe that to the public.”

Stafford says the bailiffs have “zero time” to spend with individuals when the lobby is packed. Sometimes, the bailiffs have to quiet the crowd, since people who are supposed to be in court need to be able to hear their names when they’re called.

And because of the limited seating available, family and friends must sometimes be excluded from the courtroom. That decision, says Stafford, would be made by a district attorney or judge.

“I don’t think people understand the court system — especially night court,” he observes.

Debbie Dennis would agree with him on that point.

She happened to see her attorney at the courthouse, and he agreed to represent her daughter in night court. The case was voluntarily dismissed by the district attorney.

Accordingly, she recommends that people hire a lawyer, even if it costs a couple of hundred dollars.

Nevertheless, she adds, “It’s sad that you have to get an attorney because you’re intimidated by the courts.”

Why night court?

Night court serves several purposes, according to District Attorney Ronald L. Moore.

Initiated locally about seven or eight years ago, night court is intended to make court appearances more convenient for members of the public, by letting them take care of their traffic tickets without disrupting their daytime schedules, Moore explains.

Night court also helps the district attorney’s office manage the day-court docket better, says Moore, avoiding wild fluctuations in the number of daytime cases.

At night court, people accused of misdemeanors can be appointed public defenders. The sessions also help get cases to court as early as possible, he adds.

“We’re just trying to get rid of the minor stuff and get the lawyers appointed, and help day court run a lot smoother — which it does,” says District Court Judge Peter Roda.

In addition, people who want to talk to a prosecutor about their traffic ticket can do so in the night-court registration line, instead of diverting prosecutors’ attention from more serious cases they might be working on during the day, according to Assistant District Attorney Kate Dreher.

Night court also means one less court appearance for crime victims, Roda notes. Before night court was initiated, crime victims could waste a whole day in court, waiting to have their case heard — only to see the defendant apply for a court-appointed lawyer, which meant that nothing else could be done on the case that day. No victims are directed to go to night court, the judge says, because no guilty pleas are allowed in cases involving individual victims.

“I think it helps out, that way,” says Roda.

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