Misdemeanor court, where trespassing won’t get you life (sorry, neighbor)
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An old woman hobbles in to Cook County Circuit Judge Daniel Gallagher’s courtroom, clinging to her cane and a vain hope that a neighbor who has been trespassing on her property will get locked up.
She sits at the front of the courtroom. A few rows back is the source of her consternation — all 5-feet-3 and 105 pounds of her, with salt-and-pepper hair pulled back in a bun.
Elsewhere in the courtroom, a man with a shaved head belches loudly enough to get the attention of everyone around. And another man, with scarecrow hair, begins to nod off till a courtroom deputy slaps her hand against a clipboard to rouse him and says sharply, “Sir, wake up!”
It’s another day in Branch 23 misdemeanor court at 5555 W. Grand on the Northwest Side, one of five branch courts across Chicago, where every morning an often-sad pageant of humanity unfolds. Brawlers, drunks, thieves, prostitutes and the homeless shuffle in. Most will face fines, community service, maybe a few days in jail for their transgressions.
Nine miles from here, the Leighton Criminal Courthouse at 26th and California is where most of the big criminal cases in Chicago are heard. Like the murder trial of Jason Van Dyke, the white Chicago cop convicted of wrongfully killing a black teenager. His trial packed the courtroom with reporters and the curious. In Judge Gallagher’s misdemeanor court, there usually are only the spiders dangling from cobwebbed windows to bear witness.
Much that happens here stems from long-running disputes. They pit neighbor versus neighbor or one member of a couple against the other, says Dawn Projansky, a defense lawyer who worked misdemeanor court as an assistant public defender early in her career.
“If we didn’t have feuding neighbors or feuding family members, what would we do all day? That sums up misdemeanor court,” Projansky says.
Jeffrey Granich, a lawyer who often handles cases in criminal court and federal court, where more is at stake, likes the change of pace misdemeanor court brings.
“It’s not your average convicted felon,” Granich says of cases he’s taken on in misdemeanor court. “I’ve represented teachers, professionals, lawyers, doctors.”
On this particular day in Branch 23, the docket is filled with cases involving assaults, disorderly conduct, trespassing.
From time to time, a shout or the jangle of handcuffs is heard from behind the door to the judge’s right. But Gallagher, who once worked in the public defender’s office, pays that no mind.
He is unfailingly polite — until from somewhere in his courtroom a cellphone blares. “Next one that goes off is mine,” he says.
At one point, a stick of a woman steps up before him. Facing a minor charge, she already has done her community service.
“You’re going to get the case dismissed,” the judge says, smiling. “I’m really thrilled. You’ve finished early.”
Then, he notices the papers in front of him wrongly show she was charged with animal cruelty and says he’ll get that fixed. “I don’t want her to be accused of torturing animals or something ridiculous,” Gallagher says.
A young woman seems agitated at waiting and curses. The judge notices her and asks why she’s there. She tells him.
“You’re here four hours early,” Gallagher says. “You’re going to have to wait until 1 p.m.”
With another curse, she walks out.
The hours grind past for the old woman with the cane. Finally, the judge calls the name of the accused in the case she came to court for.
“Here!” a soft voice calls from the back of the courtroom. It’s the woman with her hair in a bun, who looks like she could be a retired grade-school teacher.
“I see you. How are you?” Gallagher says as she steps forward carrying two bulging grocery bags.
“I’m fine. How are you?” she says, with a nervous smile.
She’s charged with trespassing on the property of the older woman, who was her neighbor on the Northwest Side. But no matter what her old neighbor might wish for her, for this she will not face life in prison. The maximum is one year.
She won’t do a day. She pleads guilty, and the judge gives her four months of community supervision and tells her to stay away from the old woman.
She tells him she’s now homeless. And winter will be here soon.
Gallagher offers the names of programs that might be able to help her.
And he tells her: “It’s going to get cold. There is no reason to sit in the cold. You can always comes and sit in my courtroom.”