NEW YORK, Dec 14 (Reuters) - On Wednesday morning, the
Manhattan criminal court had one more courtroom than usual:
Jury Room 10, which was pressed into service to handle the
nearly 200 Occupy Wall Street protesters who swamped the
courthouse, summonses in hand, months after most of them were
rounded up by police during a march across the Brooklyn Bridge
One by one, the protesters were called up before Criminal
Court Justice Neil Ross. Each had been arrested for walking on
the bridge's roadway Oct. 1 and received a summons, a violation
typically handed out for carrying an open container of alcohol
or using a city park after hours.
Trials are rare occurrences for summons court, where
routine offenses are normally processed immediately through a
fine or a dismissal.
But the scene inside the courtroom and outside in the
hallways was anything but routine. Like the movement itself, it
was organized chaos, as law enforcement -- this time, court
officers -- kept a watchful eye on the proceedings.
The presence of so many protesters at once -- with hundreds
more are expected over the next week -- presented several
logistical challenges for the court system, which assigned
Justice Ross to shepherd the cases, rather than follow the
usual practice of tapping retired judges, known as judicial
hearing officers, for the job.
In addition, the Manhattan district attorney's office,
which normally does not appear in court in summons cases,
assigned prosecutors Wednesday to ensure all Occupy-related
cases, including other arrests that are being prosecuted by the
district attorney, are handled "consistently and fairly," a
spokeswoman for the office said.
In all, the DA's office is processing more than 1,000
arrests, a number that does not include the 700 protesters,
including Wednesday's group, who received summonses.
'A MATTER OF PRINCIPLE'
In the courthouse hallways, volunteer lawyers in
fluorescent green hats -- members of the National Lawyers
Guild, which has been representing the majority of protesters
throughout the movement's lifespan -- carried clipboards,
calling out names and signing in protesters.
Martin Stolar, an NLG attorney, explained the options to
small groups of protesters, most of whom he had never met
"Hi," he said to one cluster of defendants, smiling
broadly. "I'm Marty Stolar, one of your friendly neighborhood
The protesters had two options, Stolar explained. They
could accept the district attorney's offer of an ACD, or
adjournment in contemplation of dismissal. Under that deal, the
charges would be dismissed and the arrest sealed after six
months, provided the defendant does not get arrested in the
Quinton Mudd, 28, an arrestee who works in commercial real
estate, took the offer, saying he had no further plans to
protest and risk arrest unless something truly inspired him to
do so. Instead, he said, the movement had entered a new phase.
"I feel like the marches helped give that movement its
power," he said. "I don't feel like marching now will
accomplish the goals we need to accomplish."
Some protesters, such as Jennifer Wittlin, a 41-year-old
social worker, chose Stolar's second option -- to plead not
guilty and go to trial -- either because they would not
guarantee they would not be re-arrested or because they felt
their first arrest was unjustified.
"I think it's just a matter of principle for me, feeling
like I didn't have the right to exercise my free speech,"
Stolar estimated that approximately 60 percent of
protesters accepted the ACD offer, and the rest opted to plead
'VERY GOOD CHANCE' OF WINNING
There was, of course, a third option -- pleading guilty --
but Stolar didn't mention that one, instead telling protesters
that they had a "very good chance" of prevailing at trial,
given video clips that appear to show police allowing
protesters onto the bridge before arresting them.
A few minutes after declaring she would plead not guilty,
Wittlin learned her case had been dismissed -- one of a lucky
few whose summonses were never processed, either because the
police officer failed to enter them into the system or because
a clerk found them defective in some way.
Wittlin chose to believe that her arresting officer, whom
she said was particularly sympathetic, had decided not to
process the summons.
"I'm a little bummed," she said. "I was looking forward to
going through the process."
(Reporting by Joseph Ax)
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(A previous version of this story stated that the march on
the Brooklyn Bridge took place Sept. 30. It took place Oct. 1)