A day waiting to appear as a witness in D.C. Superior Court reveals a lot of unnecessary inefficiencies. Imagine:
After a burglary in late April, you are subpoenaed for mid-June. As directed, you arrive at a relatively crowded waiting room at 8 a.m. Little happens for the first hour, but stories begin to circulate. You learn that the most impatient of those around you have good reason. This is the second, third or even fourth time they have been subpoenaed to wait, but not yet to testify. Many have jobs and, as one commented, bills to pay. And for many, the $30-a-day witness fee doesn't fully compensate for a day's lost wages. Some are beginning to wonder if it is all worthwhile.
Maybe the stories you hear just happen to be exceptions; you hope so. That notion quickly disappears. Two witnesses are called to the counter across the front of the room and dismissed, having been paid a partial witness fee for their time. The suspect in the case is ill. Another group--four potential witnesses--is told that, although the judge is ready, there has been a problem: no marshal can be found to bring a detained suspect and the defense attorney together. All involved will have to wait. One group is called to a court chamber, as are a few others during the morning.
You are called, with five other potential witnesses involved in your case, to talk with a counsel, not the one who had "papered" the case six weeks earlier. She is briefed on the case and explains the questions you will be asked on the witness stand. You are there basically to say that you had not authorized anyone to enter your property and remove your property on the date of the break-in. You return to the waiting room, but with the understanding now that your case might not come up today.
As noon approaches, several further witnesses are dismissed with vouchers to compensate them for their time. Those cases have been "successfully" pleaded during the morning. The counsel you had met with earlier leaves to handle another case. If she isn't free when your case is called, another counsel will be assigned to you. She cautions you to check with the person in charge if you haven't been called to see another counsel within an hour. After following that advice and waiting again, you meet with yet another counsel. He tells you point blank (thank goodness for candor) that he does not expect to handle the case, but a rerun of your morning meeting takes place. In the end, he does handle the case.
After lunch, you return with a new sense of optimism; after all, it is only your first day. Repeat performances of the various morning scenarios occur. At 3:15, your case is called. What luck! Among those remaining are five witnesses to a February crime who have just been told that they might be released shortly to come again, a third time.
Frustration boils up in people who came feeling they had both a civic responsibility and a stake in this process. It is juvenile court. No one is realistically expecting anyone to be "locked up," but hoping instead that maybe, just maybe, some lessons might be taught.
Limited tax dollars are being wasted. A purse snatching involved a small loss, two days of waiting for four non-police witnesses meant $240 in D.C. taxes had gone for naught, not to mention the lost productivity from jobs untended. In your own case, three of the witnesses are with the D.C. Police Department. At least one is being paid time-and-a-half for his frustration and wasted time. He says he averages two days each week passing time in the courthouse instead of on patrol. In more than 10 years on the force, this is the first time he has been involved in a trial held on the first day he is called. The others are being paid also, not to be on the streets, but to sit, bored and frustrated.
The delays inherent in ensuring deliberate and fair consideration of a case, no matter how minor to those not directly involved, should not be put aside in the interest simply of reaching a speedy conclusion. But this does not mean we should ignore unnecessary inefficiencies. The situation could be changed:
5 Assign cases to specific counsel or teams, so the cases can be reviewed in advance and pleading can be completed before the trial date. If resolved by pleading, cases wouldn't end up on the docket and witnesses wouldn't need to be called --or paid.
5 Assess realistically the number of cases that can be heard on a given day. Estimates won't always be exact, but they should be more reasonable than the overblown dockets that appear to be routine. Case assessments would also allow for staggered subpoenas with witnesses for cases at the end of the docket called for the afternoon only.
Instruct subpoenaed witnesses to check with the court in advance of the trial date to confirm the readiness of the case.
4 Alert police witnesses to a potential trial appearance and then summon them when the case is near the top of the docket. The nature of their jobs demands that they be readily accessible, and this would leave them on duty, where we need them most, while holding down expensive overtime.
To make sure that the commitment to fundamental rights remains strong, these administrative inefficiencies should be dealt with quickly. If not, there is the risk that a disgusted public will push roughshod for change. At best, a disaffected public and police force will be increasingly reluctant to make the effort needed for our judicial system to work. Before either happens, administrative reforms should begin.