This story was originally published by NC Policy Watch on Sept. 21, 2022 by Kelan Lyons
As a recent North Carolina transplant and the newest member of the Policy Watch team, I am getting to know my new home and beat by traveling to courtrooms across the state to observe routine, everyday hearings and share what I see with readers. Each dispatch will be from a different county. Where should I go next? Email me at [email protected]
The stories will not necessarily be about policy problems or systemic issues with the justice system. Rather, what is written will be deemed newsworthy because it is a routine occurrence that might surprise those who haven’t been through the system themselves. Here is a link to the first dispatch.
Shaletta Ryans went to court Monday afternoon without even having to leave jail. She appeared in a Guilford County courtroom via a live video feed, her image beaming onto five computer screens in front of prosecutors, a public defender and a judge. She didn’t say much, but the courtroom’s speakers rattled with the sound of chains, the cacophonous soundtrack of jail.
Ryans had been charged with second-degree trespassing, a low-level misdemeanor that could have landed her in jail for up to 20 days. She’d allegedly overstayed her welcome on a hospital’s grounds. The public defender in the room, John Nieman, said he thought it was a “sin” to charge someone with a mental illness for intruding on a hospital. Left unsaid and unanswered was a question: Where else was Ryans supposed to get help?
The charges didn’t stick. Judge Angela Foster told Ryans she would get out of jail after her hearing. But if the hospital tells her to leave the premises in the future, Foster told Ryans, she must leave.
“I’ll take a dismissal,” Foster said, turning her attention to the next of the 56 cases on her list that afternoon. The words “jail docket” were written on a black bin on the prosecutors’ desk. The pile of papers crammed in there got smaller as each name was called.
It would take less than two hours to get through the docket. Each of the roughly 50 people were in jail at the time of their hearing, appearing in court over a video feed like Ryans.
Cases moved fast, often less than a minute passing between defendants. Too fast for some. Spencer Armstrong, held on a $100 bond for two misdemeanors, told the judge he wanted to get his case over with.
“I want to take care of it right now,” Armstrong said.
“Can’t do that,” Foster said.
“I got too many people on the docket,” Foster said. “Have to keep it moving.”
Most of those on the video screens were Black. Almost everyone had to raise just a few hundred dollars to get out of jail. But for the poor, $500 might as well be $500,000.
Foster appointed most of the people public defenders, an indication of their financial status. Not everyone was happy with that.
Travon Washington told Foster he was going to hire his own lawyer, even after the judge recounted the litany of charges he was facing — drug possession, drinking while driving, assaulting a female, larceny of a firearm, among others — underscoring the possibility that he could spend several years in prison.
Nieman, the public defender, stood up from his desk and walked a couple of steps to another seat, plopping in front of a desktop bearing the jail feed. Altogether, Nieman told Washington, his bond totaled $4,500.
“That won’t even get you in the office to hire your own attorney,” Nieman said. “These aren’t the most serious of charges, but they are serious, and we can help you.”
Washington reluctantly agreed to getting a court-appointed lawyer. Nieman told him to come to the public defender’s office when he got out of jail.
Foster is a district court judge. Most of the people who were in her courtroom Monday were charged with low-level crimes and locked up on small bond amounts. Foster let a lot of people out of jail on an unsecured bond, essentially meaning they did not have to pay money to go home. Instead, they had to sign a piece of paper pledging they’ll go to their court dates and comply with conditions of their bail. If they don’t show up, they will be on the hook for the amount of the bond.
The defendants all attended court virtually, but some of their family members were seated in the wood-paneled courtroom — brothers, mothers and friends. When their loved one’s name was called, they walked past the barrier separating spectators from the lawyers, past the four rows of pews with etchings carved into the wood. Each told the judge they were just there for support, silently watching a live feed on a computer screen of their loved one, handcuffed, masked and wearing a jail jumpsuit, the only color in an otherwise gray room.
Several of the defendants had mental health issues.
Phillip Clarke had been held in jail on a $500 bond for second-degree trespassing and simple assault. Prosecutors recounted Clarke’s history to Foster, noting that he had been found incompetent for prior charges. He’d been in court 13 days ago, the prosecutors said; the police department had been told to do an in-house psychiatric evaluation.
The 64-year-old Clarke stood up and ambled up to the screen. He bowed his head and spoke toward the floor.
“Judge,” Clarke said in a raspy voice.
Foster told him to sit down. She could hear him just fine, she said, if he stayed in his chair.
Prosecutors said Clarke had had other criminal charges dismissed on Aug. 5, Aug. 10 and Sept. 14. Foster had heard enough.
“Sir, we’ve dismissed the charges,” Foster told Clarke. “You’re free to go.”
One of just a handful of white defendants Monday afternoon, Matthew Brandon, was also one of the few who had a private attorney, not a public defender.
Brandon faced a slew of misdemeanor and felony charges, including marijuana and drug paraphernalia possession, maintaining a vehicle or dwelling for sale or storage of a controlled substance, and heroin or opiate drug trafficking. He didn’t have any prior convictions. His bond was $75,000.
His lawyer told Foster that Brandon had wound up in jail after getting pistol-whipped when he was robbed last July. Brandon called the cops, who then searched his home and found drugs, including more than seven grams of heroin. That heroin wasn’t for sale, the lawyer claimed; it was Brandon’s.
“Obviously that’s a lot, but I think that tells you the extent of the addiction issue at that time,” the attorney said.
Brandon had voluntarily enrolled in a drug treatment program since then. He was sober and trying to stay that way.
“I don’t think he’s a danger to the community,” Brandon’s lawyer said.
Foster had Brandon raise his right hand to affirm that he didn’t need a court-appointed attorney. His hands were still cuffed; when he raised his right hand, his left came up with it.
His hands stayed up, even after Foster told him he’d have a $2,500 unsecured bond. His lawyer told him to put his arms down. Brandon stood up and walked out of the video feed’s frame. There were still more names on the docket to call.
NC Policy Watch, a project of the North Carolina Justice Center, is a news and commentary outlet dedicated to informing the public — including elected officials as they debate important issues — and ultimately to improving the quality of life for all North Carolinians.
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