Late each afternoon they roll up the carpets, seats and the bench in the judges and the prosecutors stream out of the courthouse and dozens of persons who were arrested that afternoon are left sitting in jail for the night.
Some lose a day's work and others get a well-needed night's sleep, but most of all, the legal process grinds to an early -- and, some feel, unnecessary -- halt.
There were days, even if only a few, when this city had a night court. In 1967, Judge Tim Murphy burnt the midnight oil for three months in the old Court of General Sessions, but the experiment was short-lived. The cost was too high.
Now, however, worrying about escalating overtime costs in the midst of a budget crunch and fatigued police officers, D.C. Police Chief Burtell M. Jefferson and Pretrial Services Director Bruce D. Beaudin have proposed a return to nightside court operations in the nation's capital.
Jefferson wants U.S Attorney Charles F.C. Ruff's prosecutors to work extra hours to review formally the large number of arrests made each afternoon and either drop charges or proceed with the charges. That way, at least those cases that now are dropped the next day -- about 20 percent of all cases -- would be disposed of early and those arrested could be sent home early.
Meanwhile, the Pretrial Services Agency, which interviews every prisoner who enters the court system and makes bond recommendations to the judge, has suggested a full-blown night arraignment court.
Copies of both proposals are now circulating among court officials. Superior Court Chief Judge H. Carl Moltrie I has called a meeting to discuss the proposals, although he has yet to make his position known.
The police proposal calls for the U.S. Attorney's Office to provide a shift of prosecutors from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. each week day to handle those cases stemming from arrests occuring between 1 p.m.
The police department contends that the plan will save "considerable overtime manhours" for its officers, since fewer will have to return to court the next day to assist in processing a case. It also means fewer court appearances for the officers, the proposal says, which will result in reduced officer fatigue.
The police proposal, which was drawn up by Inspector Fred Thomas, also contends that the morning load on prosecutors will be eased because cases can be disposed of the previous night.
Police statictics suggest that about 32 felony and misdeamanor arrests are made each weekday from 1 to 9 p.m. representing about 44 percent of all new cases entering the system. A number of the cases are dropped the next morning, and those are often the individuals who needlessly spend the night in jail.
The Pretrial Services agency contends this plan "does not go far enough," and Beaudin has asked Moultrie to consider full court operations for 16 hours a day instead of the present 8-hour shift.
The police and Pretrial Services have an unusual ally in their effort to work later hours: the American Civil Liberties Union, which has long pushed to speed up the arraignment process and effect a quicker release of persons after they are arrested.
"It's the job of the police to arrest people but it's the job of prosecutors and judges to decide whether they should be held for trial," said Arthur Spitzer, head of the local chapter of the ACLU. "That decision should be made promptly because nobody should have to spend a significant amount of time in jail merely on the police's decision."
Some police officials say they expect opposition to their plan because the costs they save will be borne elsewhere. A court spokesman estimates, for example, that just to hire enough court staff to run a late-night court operation would cost more than $200,000 annually. And that does not include the cost of paying judges and assistant U.S. Attorneys.
One police official said he feared that the U.S. Attorneys Office will be lukewarm to the proposal because prosecutors won't work later hours as the policemen do.
"I think they're hesitant to give it a seal of approval at this time because they don't want to work at night," said one police official familiar with the plan. "There's a feeling in the U.S. Attorneys office that they are professionals and professionals do not work at night."
U.S. Attorney Charles F. C. Ruff calls that an "overstatement."
Ruff said the proposal is "very much the subject of internal debate both in this office and among the police department and the court. I think we are all working to find a solution that eases the burden on the police officer . . . and still does it without placing an undue burden on everybody's resources."
As for the judges, their views are mixed. One said that working the current emergency judge shift, in which one judge is always on call throughout the night, is the worst experience he has had. But another said that there would be little opposition to the new proposals, other than money. The court presently is not paying its employees overtime or working a Sunday shift.