'Organized Chaos': G-20 Hearings Begin in Pittsburgh Municipal Court
October 22, 2009
Perhaps a member of security staff at city court described yesterday’s G-20 arrest hearings… Perhaps a member of security staff at city court described yesterday’s G-20 arrest hearings best: “This is crazy as hell.”
Hundreds of police officers, lawyers and defendants — many of whom were Pitt students — came to Pittsburgh Municipal Court to find what some lawyers called “organized chaos.”
“No one knows what’s going on,” attorney Sean Logue said.
By 8 a.m., around 100 people had lined up outside the court entrance to go through the metal detectors. Inside, a day of confusion, contradiction and emotion awaited.
The district attorney’s office had set up a plea-bargaining table to make offers to some defendants.
The prosecution color-coded defendants’ files to designate which deals they were eligible to receive. Those with green or yellow stickers were offered reductions from misdemeanor to summary offenses or postponements for 50 hours of community service, which will be proved at a later date.
Lawyers and defendants crowded the second floor of the building, discussing their sentences, making deals and trying to figure out where to be and at what time.
At one point, the din of the crowd got to be too much.
“You need to be quiet,” a deep-voiced officer shouted from behind the district attorney’s table, commanding nearly instant attention. “We need to get this taken care of.”
In the terms of the deal, people offered community service could only accept if they did not want to go to their preliminary hearing, district attorney spokesman Mike Manko said.
But many of the criminal complaints the defendants received were vague, to the point where some defendants weren’t told the specific complaints officers had against them. See the related graphic for examples from the documents. Visit pittnews.com to see the full documents.
“It was based on what they were charged with,” Manko said of the offer. “It was made clear to them this morning and they were given the option of what to do.”
Manko said it didn’t matter whether specifics of the arrest were given in the criminal complaint.
Before the hearings began, Magisterial District Judge Kevin Cooper commanded silence in the courtroom. People awaiting their hearing were whispering with lawyers and one another as a few cell phones rang.
Cooper stopped one of the cases, unrelated to the G-20, to give a warning to remain quiet.
“There will be absolutely no talking in this courtroom. There are too many important cases today for there to be talking,” he said.
He asked those who came into the room late to swear themselves in.
“Your right hand. Not your left hand. Your right hand.”
Hearings were held in three separate courtrooms. Plea bargains were officially made in one small 21-seat arraignment room, where defendants and their attorneys accepted community service or asked for their hearings to be postponed.
Withdrawn vs. dismissed
The prosecution withdrew charges for Pitt student Nathan Poloni, along with Ryan Kingston and Kimberly Siegel, Manko said. Kingston and Siegal were put in the group offered community service by mistake, he said, and their charges will be officially withdrawn.
The court’s chaos was a result of arrests made the day after the G20 summit, when hundreds of people gathered on Forbes Avenue to protest police action the night before became belligerent, throwing things at officers who had converged on the area. Hundreds were arrested, and were then booked at a temporary booking station set up nearby. Eventually, SWAT was called in to control the crowd and disperse them. The hearings on October 21st were preliminary hearings, and not everyone arrested had a hearing that day. Seventy-five more were scheduled to appear in court on October 23rd.
A Pitt law professor named Jennifer Sadler explained that court is always fast-paced and “crazy,” and that she could understand why people described the day as chaotic.