ITS NOT ONE of those rights that police officers recite when they arrest someone, but certain people with the right phone connections can avoid spending a night in jail the way ordinary suspects must if they happen to be arrested at night or in late afternoon. Relatively few residents are clued in to this procedure, but it has sprung more than 20 people so far this year. Judges ordered them released almost immediately with telephone calls to police -- a discretionary exercise of judicial power that has been criticized by the city's judicial conduct commission -- but that still goes on.
There are no rules, nor is this part of official court policy. But as Timothy S. Robinson has reported in The Post, the system has been used in a variety of cases ranging from suspects charged with homicide to people picked up on traffic charges. Earlier this month, in a case that was later dropped anyway, an elected city official was arrested on a charge of assaulting a police officer. Though other people arrested that night had to wait several hours until mid-morning for court proceedings at which bail is set, a judge ordered the official's release by phone.
What's wrong here is not that certain defendants can dial a judge and avoid a night in jail. The holding of anyone overnight merely for preliminary court hearings should be avoided whenever feasible; there have been various proposals for a night court system aimed at accomplishing this, but they have been shelved for financial reasons. There is at least one designated emergency judge available each night by phone for Superior Court matters, but this isn't generally known; instead, releases are being provided on the basis of personal friendships and favoritism.
The courts should establish explicit policies for the treatment of all people arrested during the court's "off hours," restricting the authority to designated judges. And if this simple change can't be made for any reason, the police should make up a mini-directory of all the judges' home phone numbers that can be handed to everyone who wants to shop around.