With almost 100 people making their way through arraignment court every day, it is inevitable that there will be a melt-down or two. After all, we are dealing with people who are finishing what for many will be the worst day of their lives. They are coming off alcohol or drugs after a night or two in jail. Or they haven’t taken their meds. The clean, well-dressed and sober person who shows up at the next court hearing is not the person you meet that day.
The melt-down can take different forms. Sometimes it is a medical emergency with the defendant collapsing in court. More often, releasing days or even years of bottled up anger at the system, the defendant makes threats or shouts about the injustice of it all.
How the court deals with the outburst is critical to what happens next.
Recently, one judge decided it would be a good thing to shout back at the defendant. He could cow the man into obeisance. “Be quiet,” he commanded the man, “or I will find you in contempt of court!”
But there was a problem with this approach: Anybody who could be intimidated by the power of the court would not have shouted out in the first place. The defendant only got angrier, the shouting intensified, and the interaction did not end until multiple U.S. Marshalls wrestled the defendant out of the courtroom.
Assisted by the always unflappable court clerks, most judges take a different approach. “Thank you, Mr. Smith,” one judge told a recent defendant who decided he didn’t like the way he was being treated. “Now if you will be quiet please, we can continue with your arraignment.” When the defendant continued to shout, the judge merely continued the process.
His outburst largely ignored, the defendant eventually calmed down. He looked somewhat deflated as he was led out of the courtroom.