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Gritty Attraction: New York City's Night Court Now a Tourist Stop

/ Source: Associated Press
Image: Robert Smith
Senior Court Clerk Robert Smith shows a 1920 newspaper article, one of his collection about night court, in New York's Criminal Court Building on March 11, 2014. Night court is one of New York’s more peculiar tourist attractions.Richard Drew / AP

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NEW YORK — Jenny Baumann's itinerary for her first trip to New York City: Rockefeller Center. The Empire State Building. Central Park. Night court.

In a city synonymous with theaters and nightlife, the 26-year-old from Munich was perched on a scarred wooden bench in a utilitarian room in lower Manhattan on a recent evening, straining to decode — sometimes even to hear — the methodical hubbub of arraignments in one of the nation's busiest courts.

"It's very interesting to hear real cases," Baumann said as she and a friend watched a judge decide whether to set bail for people facing charges ranging from choking a girlfriend to stealing a six-pack of beer.

It's one of New York's more peculiar and paradoxical tourist traditions, a place visitors extol on travel websites while many residents hope never to wind up there. To travelers, it's gritty entertainment, hard-knocks education or at least a chance to experience real-life law and order on a New York scale.

Image: Robert Smith
Senior Court Clerk Robert Smith shows a 1920 newspaper article, one of his collection about night court, in New York's Criminal Court Building on March 11, 2014. Night court is one of New York’s more peculiar tourist attractions.Richard Drew / AP

Dozens of jurisdictions nationwide hold some court sessions at night, but Manhattan Criminal Court occupies a unique spot in the public's imagination, thanks to TV's "Law & Order" and "Night Court," not to mention arraignments of real-life notables ranging from rapper Sean "Diddy" Combs to French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

The court handles more than 100,000 arrests a year, averaging about 70 to 90 cases during the 5 p.m.-1 a.m. night session. Established in 1907, Manhattan night court once attracted such spectators as John D. Rockefeller and the then-Duke of Manchester. More recently, it's been noted in tour books, including once in the off-the-beaten-path-prizing Lonely Planet guide.

If visitors find allure in night court, insiders understand why. "It is a 'just-off-Broadway show' with a cast of thousands, ever-changing story lines ... real drama, as well as occasional comic relief," said Edward McCarthy, who oversees the Legal Aid Society's defense work there.

— The Associated Press

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