The Magistrate's Blog (2005-2012)

This blog has migrated to www.magistratesblog.blogspot.co.uk This blog is anonymous, and Bystander's views are his and his alone. Where his views differ from the letter of the law, he will enforce the letter of the law because that is what he has sworn to do. If you think that you can identify a particular case from one of the posts you are wrong. Enough facts are changed to preserve the truth of the tale but to disguise its exact source.

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Location: Near London, United Kingdom

The blog is written by a retired JP, with over 30 years' experience on the Bench.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Over There

Some years ago I went to stay with friends in Long Island, New York. I took with me a letter of introduction from the Magistrates' Association, and armed with this I contacted the Nassau County District Court who invited me to go and spend a morning with them. I was met at the door by a stocky female in uniform, who was carrying a revolver, a quick-reload clip, Mace spray, handcuffs, and a club. She was the usher, and a total contrast to the ushers in my court. I was made very welcome by the chief clerk, and after a briefing she took me to see a selection of courts in action. Most striking was the overnight remand court, where prisoners were brought in two at a time, handcuffed to each other. I have seen a few characters in my time, but these were really ugly-looking types and I was rather comforted by the handcuffs. Bail was either set or refused by the judge, but the US system requires real money, so the offender has to deal with a bail bondsman to get out.

The highlight was when I was taken into Court Number One and I was invited to sit on the bench next to the judge. He announced me to the court as Judge Bystander from London (by this time I had given up trying to explain about magistrates). He consulted me on all of his decisions and passed me the defendants' rap sheets, of which there were three, one for each level of the justice system. Plea bargains took place in open court, and The People, as the prosecution is called, would make one-day-only special offers of plea reductions, the offer to lapse if not accepted straight away. Very few cases make it to trial, as nearly everyone ends up doing a deal.

The system retains the split between a felony and a misdemeanor (sic) with the lowest level of crime being disorderly conduct. With the latter you are entitled to have your mugshots and fingerprints returned to you, so The People were occasionally offering to reduce charges from a misdemeanor to a disorderly conduct with a waiver, which allows the authorities to hang on to them.

The staff and judges were most friendly and I found the whole experience fascinating. As with so much of America's inheritance from Britain the origin of their justice system is obviously British, but a lot of detail has changed since 1776.

One difference between our systems is that when someone is convicted of DUI (drink-driving) it is possible to ban them from driving except from home to work and back again. Suburban America is totally dependent on the car, and to ban a driver completely might prevent him from working. If he is found anywhere other than on the prescribed route, jail beckons. It's an interesting idea, but the enforcement would be a bit tricky in the UK.