Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Courtroom 12: video remand

These days, this is how my mornings go:

I get up around 7:45, as late as possible while still having enough time to shower and eat breakfast, the most important meal of the day. I eat Raisin Bran with bananas cut up in it, because I am old and bland, much like the cereal itself. I drink coffee which may or may not have little chunks of grounds floating in it. My coffee machine is in a box 190 kilometres away and I have not yet mastered operation of the manual coffee press.

I put on my suit. This involves selecting from maybe four shirts and eight or so ties. The combinations are getting more questionable each day. I only have one suit, a solid black two-piece. Another suit will be ready as of Friday, at which time my wardrobe options will broaden dramatically.

I leave the house around 8:30. I walk the seven or so blocks to work. Despite the fact that it has been 30+ degrees and humid as 'Nam for the last week, I keep the suit jacket on. To take it off would expose the fact that the shirt beneath is short-sleeve, and we all know that is inappropriate. More often than not, I am running late and have to proceed at a dignified canter. Often at this point I spill some coffee on my sleeve.

By the time I arrive at my office, I am sweating through my short-sleeve shirt, which means that the jacket must remain on for the foreseeable future. At the office, I receive a box or boxes of files that the Public Prosecution Service paralegals have compiled. In these files are the persons who are to appear in Video Remand Court today, accused of violating the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

I pile the files on a jaunty little trolley and roll the trolley down the street to 80 Dundas, the London courthouse.

At the courthouse, I have the distinct privilege of bypassing the metal detector with but a nod to the police cadets manning it. Though I have been doing this for three weeks and the cadets know me by name, every day I'm sure that this privilege will evaporate and I'll be forced to stand in line with the wretched masses and surrender my keys, belt and contraband.

I leave my (sometimes second) coffee in the lawyers' lounge, which is sort of like that one bank commercial? where the janitor builds the makeshift dressing room? for the one little girl hockey player? and it's like a closet with a two-by-four nailed to two buckets? The lawyers' lounge is sort of like that but with a metal shelf. The gaggle of defence lawyers sort of stop talking when I enter. I wonder whether this is because I'm new, or because I'm acting as the federal Crown, or because I'm taller than they are and I have a mean glower.

In the courtroom, I sit at the end of a long table, along with one of the cadets from the front door, a provincial Crown, a carousel of defence lawyers emerging from and retreating to the lawyers' lounge, and duty counsel.

O, Noble Duty Counsel. You with your weatherbeaten tweedy jacket; with your spectacles befitting a man half again your age; with your mustache that was never stylish in any era; with your midsection heroically engirdled; with your competing airs of bemusement, befuddlement, imperiousness and mirth.

This is more of a composite of duty counsel.

One of the cadets told me that, at the EMDC prison facility, he often saw accused persons returning from court appearances furious at the performance of redacted one duty counsel in particular. I guess you wouldn't pick the job if you were a half decent defence lawyer. Unless maybe you're truly pure of heart and spirit. But what would such a person be doing in a courtroom? Take that shit back to Narnia.

At the head of the class is the court clerk, the court reporter and the justice of the peace. So far I have seen five or six different JOPs, each with a different personality and approach to his or her position. There is an ol' softie, a man apparently afflicted with Short Man's Syndrome, and a nice lady who almost nods off during the proceedings.

The justice of the peace is a mere figurehead; Madam Clerk seems to hold all the knowledge and power in the courtroom. I wonder if she gets paid well. Potential alternative career?

Back down at the table, the young officer-in-training feeds files to the provincial Crown, who handles all the Criminal Code offences and thus about five times as many matters as I do. I generally sit quietly and highlight the names of people charged under the CDSA, very careful to stay inside the lines since I can't ask for another copy if I mess up.

In the corner of the room is a television mounted on a swivel bracket. This television displays a cell in a prison somewhere in southwestern Ontario. Orange-jumpsuit-clad accused persons appear in this cell one-by-one, to speak to their lawyers or duty counsel on a private phone, to be told their next appearance date, and to be judged by me.

You have never seen a sorrier parade of ne'er-do-wells, addicts, skids and inveterate fuck-ups persons alleged to have committed crimes. Possibly. Many have been incarcerated for weeks and months, and are ostensibly content to remain so, while their plea dates are pushed back ad infinitum by inattentive lawyers and Crowns. Most are seeking legal aid, which requires interviews and is backed up for months due to lockdowns in the jail.

Occasionally the court clerk will ask which way the Crown will elect on a hybrid offence. If my boss, the real federal Crown, has indicated whether we will proceed summarily or by indictment, there is a check mark in the corresponding box. More commonly however, the Crown hasn't read the file yet, the boxes are empty, my stomach drops and I sweat more. I may shuffle papers and flip through the file, then reserve election. This happens often. And if the clerk asks for an estimation of court time needed for a plea, God help me.

No one cares about this except me, of course. No one expects me to know anything, to make any decisions or to act like I belong there. They're patient, and it seems to matter little to them if I reserve election all summer long. I've been surprised by how informal the courtroom is, how much banter takes place between counsel, clerk and JOP. Until somebody's cell phone goes off, at which point they all scowl and the offender is reprimanded, and they act like they've been solemn and professional all along.

It takes between two and three hours to get through the list of names. Sometimes I read the files and show the juicy bits to the cadet next to me. Sometimes he tells me about incidents in which he was involved with the people on the screen. One guy was head-butting parking metres and exposing himself, and responded to a taser in the chest by asking, "Why'd you do that?". One guy got caught coming into the Courthouse with $400 worth of morphine and cocaine. One guy punched the cadet in the face. Everyone seems to think video remand court is a deadly boring experience. I enjoy it immensely. I might not say that at the end of the summer, but for now it's like taking a detailed tour of the seedy underbelly of the clean, quiet retirement city where I grew up.

When we're done in 12 Court, I have to go back to my office and find some real work to do. You know, like blogging.

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