How to Interpret New York City Courtroom Names
Or...so what do APN, N60, AP6, W50, and TAP-A mean anyway?
By Don Murray, Esq.
Understanding a little about how the New York Criminal Justice System organizes cases in the courts will help you understand the situation of a person accused of a crime.
Frequently, one of the very first questions an experienced criminal defense lawyer will ask when contacted about a criminal case will be aimed at learning the name of the courtroom where the case is next to be heard. Because an experienced criminal defense lawyer in New York should understand the significance of each of the criminal courtrooms, it is possible for the lawyer to know a fair amount of important aspects of a case just by knowing the name of the courtroom where it is being heard.
This is true because of two important facts in New York. Courtrooms are divided not only into courtrooms where certain types of cases are handled, but different courtrooms are designed to handle different stages of criminal cases. Therefore, just by knowing what courtroom your case is in, an experienced criminal defense lawyer can know generally how serious the case is AND how far the case has progressed in the system toward trial.
You too can be let in on the secret, however, and it isn’t really that mysterious. But in order to understand how the system really works, you need to understand some basic concepts.
First, it is important to understand the two types of crimes recognized by New York State. New York recognizes two categories of crimes: misdemeanors and felonies. Generally, misdemeanors are considered to be less serious offenses and felonies are considered to be more serious offenses. Examples of misdemeanors in New York include shoplifting (petit larceny), possession of a very small amount of cocaine, and driving while intoxicated (first offense). Examples of felonies in New York include robbery, burglary, sale of cocaine, and murder.
Being convicted of a misdemeanor, while it is still a crime and gives you a criminal record, generally carries fewer consequences than being convicted of a felony. A felony conviction (aside from substantial prison possible) results in the loss of certain civil rights, like the right to vote and to possess a firearm.
Actually, the legal official definitions of misdemeanor and felony in New York are pretty simple. In New York, a misdemeanor is defined as a crime for which the maximum punishment COULD be up to one year in jail. (There are some misdemeanors in New York for which the maximum punishment is 90 days, but the key is that if it can’t be punished by more than one year, then it is a misdemeanor.)
A felony in New York is defined as any crime for which one possible punishment is more than one year in jail. In other words, if a jail sentence of one year and one day or more is possible, then it is a felony. That does NOT mean that if you are charged with a felony or even if you are convicted of a felony that you MUST go to prison for more than one year.
In dividing up cases among the courts, it made sense to create one court for handling the less serious (misdemeanor) cases and to create another court for handling the more serious (felony) cases. By dividing cases up in this way, more experienced staff (judges, prosecutors, court personnel) could be diverted to handling only the more serious cases and less experienced staff could learn the “ropes” on less serious cases. This division of cases between serious (felony) and not so serious (misdemeanor) sounds like it would make things nice and simple, and for the most part it does. But, as with everything in life, there are a few complications.
One complication and source of constant confusion is the names of the courts. In New York City, the name of the Court that handles misdemeanor cases is “Criminal Court”. Thinking about that choice for a minute reveals one source of confusion. Generally, people are under the impression that if you are charged with a crime you will go to “Criminal Court”. This makes perfect sense to everyone, except the people who designed the New York City criminal justice system. Under our system, only misdemeanors are heard in “Criminal Court.”
The Court that handles felony accusations, the real serious crimes, has a different name. And if you can’t figure out why they would limit a place called “Criminal Court” only to misdemeanors, you probably won’t be surprised to learn the confusing name of the court they send felonies in New York.
In New York, felony criminal accusations are heard in “Supreme Court”. That’s right. Supreme Court. Most people assume that a court called “Supreme Court” is going to be the highest court in the land (like our Federal Supreme Court). Perhaps the use of the word “Supreme” fools people. But in New York, felony accusations are heard in “Supreme Court”, the LOWEST court for felony accusations. (Just in case you are interested, if you get convicted in the lowest court (Supreme Court) you can appeal to “The Appellate Division” and if you lose that appeal, you have the right to ask “The Court of Appeals” to review that decision.)
Perhaps you believe that the law has been intentionally made obscure and difficult by lawyers in order to create reasons for people to hire lawyers. If so, the names of the criminal courts of New York City are certainly evidence in support of your theory.
In any event, if you are charged with a felony in New York, then you will be prosecuted and potentially taken to trial in Supreme Court. Even though you are charged with a serious crime, you are NOT in Criminal Court. You are in Supreme Court. Only if you are charged with a less serious, misdemeanor will you find your way into Criminal Court. Got it?
Now that you fully understand this concept, we are done with all the possible confusion between Criminal Court and Supreme Court, right?
Well, not exactly.
There are a couple of situations that arise as a criminal case progresses that require a little finessing in the system.
The first situation arises right away in the process. How is the system going to handle it when a person first is arrested? People tend to get arrested at inconvenient times and especially in New York City, lots of people tend to get arrested in general. In fact, in New York City, people are pretty much getting arrested non-stop 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
With all these people being arrested all the time, there is probably going to be some sort of Court Appearance required for them pretty soon after arrest right? Right. In theory, a person is supposed to be brought before a judge for arraignment (first appearance) within 24 hours after arrest (or so says our highest Court, the Court of Appeals).
Now if the Courts are divided so that the more serious cases are handled in Supreme Court and the less serious cases are handled in Criminal Court, that means that people arrested for serious things will have their arraignments before Supreme Court judges in Supreme Court and people arrested for not so serious things will have their arraignments before Criminal Court judges in Criminal Court.
Well, not exactly.
The Supreme Court wants to deal with serious cases all right, but people get arrested for serious cases at such inconvenient times, and the volume of arrests is such that Supreme Court judges would need to be sitting in arraignment courtrooms day and night seven days a week 365 days a year.
Now, remember how Supreme Court was where the more experienced, personnel would be diverted so that our most serious cases would be sure to be handled with the utmost care and expertise? How likely is it going to be that the system that isolates the most experienced judges to be Supreme Court judges is going to make part of the duties of those highly experienced legal minds to sit in night court until 1:00 AM and on weekends and on holidays in order to conduct first appearances? Doesn’t sound likely does it?
Well, then you won’t be surprised to learn that the system carves out an exception for arraignments. Supreme Court doesn’t do regular arraignments on fresh arrests. Criminal Court is allowed to (or made to depending on point of view) do every single one of those night, weekend, and holiday (not to mention regular day) arraignments.
Therefore, when you visit arraignments in New York City, you will see all manner of cases in front of the same judge in the same courtroom. The person accused of murder will be arraigned after the person accused of jumping the turnstile at the subway. Supreme Court concedes authority of its serious cases to Criminal Court for the purpose of arraignment.
Ok, Supreme Court handles the serious cases, Criminal Court handles the not so serious cases, and Supreme Court lets Criminal Court handle all the arraignments. So that’s it then. After arraignment, all the serious cases go directly to Supreme Court, right?
Well, not exactly…
In order to understand why this is, it is important to understand another bit of procedure in criminal cases. You need to understand a bit about the Grand Jury and Indictment.
Remember that the Supreme Court is the big fancy serious Court. The Supreme Court doesn’t handle just any old type of case. It has to be serious. But truthfully, the Supreme Court is SO important that we ask Supreme Court to handle only serious cases that have been pre-approved as good enough for Supreme Court.
In fact, in our system, we have this group of people selected at random to serve for a certain time (called a term), who do nothing but decide whether cases are good enough to be heard by judges in Supreme Court. Like the bouncers outside exclusive clubs, they don’t let everyone in who is lined up inside.
These people taken together are called a Grand Jury. And when they decide that a case is good enough for Supreme Court to deal with it, they issue a document called an Indictment. An indictment is a written permission slip that tells Supreme Court exactly what accusations are good enough to be brought there. An indictment is usually a very simple document that lists the name of the accused and a list of names of the crimes (with very brief general descriptions of the facts) that the Grand Jury has determined to be good enough for Supreme Court.
Now the people in the Grand Jury do not come to these conclusions on their own. They are guided in their decision-making process by the District Attorney’s Office, the agency that runs the Grand Jury. It is the job of the District Attorney’s Office to present cases for the consideration of the Grand Jurors and to instruct them on the law enough so that they can make intelligent decisions about whether cases are good enough for Supreme Court.
As a practical matter, the burden to show that a case is “good enough” for consideration by Supreme Court is extraordinarily, even shockingly low. If the District Attorney’s Office can convince the members of a Grand Jury that it is “possible” that the accused committed a crime (usually a felony), then the burden has been met and the case is legally “good enough” to be heard by Supreme Court. It is therefore extraordinarily easy for the District Attorney’s Office to get an Indictment from a Grand Jury. It is usually fairly difficult for a Grand Juror to come to the conclusion that it is “not possible” for the defendant to have committed the crime.
While it may seem a bit absurd to have this step in the process in which the burden is almost altogether absent, the thinking was that it was important to have some sort of check on the Government at the initial stages of a prosecution. In theory, if the Government is clearly prosecuting someone without a shred of credible evidence, a Grand Jury would have the opportunity fairly early on in the case to end it by refusing to indict. A refusal to indict would mean generally that the case would be dismissed and the defendant would be spared the misery of waiting a year or longer in jail to have his day in court at a full blown trial.
Nevertheless, despite the theoretical possibility that the Grand Jury has the power to refuse to indict any given case, the practical reality is that all Grand Juries indict just about everything that comes to them. In many cases, with the legal burden so low, this is as it should be.
But if there is this intervening requirement that felony charges must be “screened” by a Grand Jury, then there is the question of what happens to the case in the system after arraignment but BEFORE the Grand Jury indicts the case?
After all, this Grand Jury thing is going to take time to set up. Witnesses need to be gathered. The case must be organized even for some minimal presentation for a Grand Jury. Now we know that Criminal Court is allowed to do the arraignment, but where does the felony case go AFTER arraignment but BEFORE indictment by a Grand Jury?
The answer is that felonies are sent to special courtrooms in CRIMINAL COURT that specialize in babysitting felonies until they are indicted. In Queens, for example, most non-drug felonies are sent to Courtroom AP6 before indictment. Drug felonies are sent to Courtroom APN before indictment. Some sex offense cases and gang related cases are also sent to APN before indictment as well. In Manhattan, most non-drug felonies are sent to Part F while they are pending indictment.
Every county in New York City has its own version of this courtroom. More and more these days, as well, new specialty courtrooms are created to handle particular types of cases. In Queens, for example, domestic violence felonies are sent to AP4 before they are indicted. Inexperienced lawyers or lawyers unfamiliar with this oddity might make the mistake of assuming that any case in AP4 MUST be a misdemeanor. But that is no longer the case. In Queens, AP4 cases can be domestic violence felonies, even though most cases in AP4 are misdemeanors. A really strange thing happens in these courtrooms, however. Especially in Queens, where there is a strong policy related to plea-bargaining before indictment, many felony accusations are resolved by agreement BEFORE indictment. In other words, the prosecutor and defense lawyer are able to agree on an appropriate resolution of the case (both plea and sentence) before the case is presented to a Grand Jury. Now if the prosecutor and defense lawyer and defendant all agree to a particular plea and sentence, then as long as the judge is ok with it, the plea can go forward in AP6 or APN, right?
Well, not exactly…
If the proposed settlement involves a plea to a felony, there are a couple of problems. Generally, it is impossible to plead guilty to a felony unless there has been an indictment. So how do you solve this problem before indictment? MUST the prosecutors present the case to a Grand Jury, even if there is going to be a plea bargain?
The law allows for a document to be created called a Superior Court Information that can serve as indictment. It looks just like an indictment, but instead of being written up by the Grand Jury it is written up by the District Attorney’s Office with the consent of the defendant. Ok, so armed with this Superior Court Information (SCI for short), NOW we can go forward with the felony plea in AP6 or APN, right?
Well, not exactly…
The problem is that a Superior Court Information is too much like an indictment. That means it is a creature of SUPREME COURT. That means that a mere Criminal Court judge is not allowed to have anything to do with it. That means that since the judge in AP6 (in Queens) is a Criminal Court judge, the plea to the SCI must be transferred to some Supreme Court judge.
And that is exactly what happens…sort of.
An SCI from AP6 (in Queens) is transferred to a courtroom called W50. This W50 courtroom is considered Supreme Court. Therefore, it can handle the taking of the plea to a felony.
So where is this other courtroom W50 in relationship to AP6? How many floors away is it? Well the truth is that W50 is the exact same courtroom as AP6. W50 simply occupies the same courtroom at a time when AP6 is not operating.
The changeover from AP6 to W50 is an amazing thing to watch, much like the changing of the guard in Buckingham Palace. The court staff completely changes. Criminal Court Officers are replaced by Supreme Court Officers, Criminal Court Reporters are replaced by Supreme Court Reporters, even Spanish Interpreters are swapped out, though one might thoughtlessly assume that the Spanish Language in Criminal Court fairly closely resembles the Spanish Language spoken in Supreme Court.
But the most remarkable thing of all is the transmutation that occurs on the Court bench. No new Supreme Court judge comes to relieve the Criminal Court judge. Instead, the SAME Criminal Court Judge is suddenly transformed into a SUPREME COURT judge – before your very eyes. This miraculous feat is accomplished quite legally and without the use of mirrors by special provisions within our laws.
Therefore, in Queens, AP6 and W50 share the same courtroom and the same judge. As of the writing of this article, W50 generally takes over between 11:30 AM and 12:00 PM and will last until the lunch break at 1:00 PM. W50 also starts up again after lunch at 2:00 PM and lasts until about 3:00 PM when AP6 comes back to finish out the day.
APN and N60 in Queens have a similar dual relationship in the same courtroom, although N60 comes back second in the afternoon. W50 and N60 come up in order to resolve felony cases before they are indicted. If a case is not resolved with a felony, it is either reduced to a misdemeanor and sent “down” to regular Criminal Court, or it is eventually presented to the Grand Jury for indictment. Cases can linger in AP6 or APN for quite some time as the negotiation process continues.
In other counties, there are versions of this same procedure using different names but the idea is generally the same.
In Queens County, nearly all indicted cases are sent to Courtroom TAP-A for arraignment on the indictment. Just as cases are arraigned after arrest, the Supreme Court requires that all new cases coming in be arraigned on the indictment. At this arraignment, the defense is provided a copy of the indictment and the defense usually asks to file written motions requesting certain hearings.
Therefore, if someone has a case in Queens scheduled for TAP-A, an experienced criminal defense lawyer will know that the case has probably recently been indicted and is on for arraignment, OR that the case is scheduled for decision on motions that were requested at the arraignment. In any case, if a case is scheduled for TAP-A, the case has already been indicted. TAP-A is a Supreme Court Courtroom and ONLY a Supreme Court Courtroom. Therefore, it can only hear cases that have been found to be good enough by the Grand Jury. In other words, TAP-A can only hear cases that have been indicted.
Cases do not generally linger for long in TAP-A, the way they might in other courtrooms. Because of the District Attorney Office’s plea policy, most cases that have been indicted are going to progress further toward trial. Once there has been a decision on motions, there will generally be one or more pretrial hearings ordered that must occur before the case is considered ready for trial.
Most cases are sent to courtroom K12 for hearings. Certain types of cases may get sent to special courtrooms. Some gun possession cases are sent to a special “gun court” in Queens. But if someone has a case whose case is next scheduled for K12 in Queens, then that means that not only has the case been indicted, but it is next scheduled for one or more pretrial hearings. Not all hearings are held in K12. If the judge in K12 is busy, he will simply send hearings to other judges in other courtrooms that day.
When the case is "sent out" for hearings now, the judge who accepts the hearings will usually keep the case for trial.
The other counties in New York City are not precisely the same but all run variations on this theme.
One interesting variation in Manhattan is the somewhat cynical concept of “hearing into trial”. In Manhattan, when a case is sent out for pretrial hearings, it is typically also sent out for trial to follow immediately thereafter.
This is a somewhat cynical concept because it of course assumes that the pretrial hearings will not generate any issues of significance to the case. It also assumes that there will be no issues worth taking time to consider either by the attorneys or by the court
From the perspective of the defense it also provides virtually no time to absorb the burst of information that comes at the time the pretrial hearing is conducted. In most cases, it isn’t until the pretrial hearings are conducted that the Government provides any police reports or information of significance to the defense. If there is a gap in time between hearing and trial, as one might reasonably expect there to be, there would be time to fully digest the materials. On the other hand, when defense counsel is required to shift gears immediately into selecting a jury and conducting a trial, it is difficult to give the materials the attention they probably deserve.
What Do the Courtroom Names Mean in New York City?
An experienced New York City criminal defense lawyer can frequently tell you many important things about a criminal case based only on knowing the name of the courtroom where the case is next scheduled to appear. Not only can the general level of seriousness be predicted, but the stage of the case in the New York City criminal justice system can be predicted as well. Read this article to learn how this is possible.
Call 718-268-2171 for more information or to schedule your free consultation with a New York criminal defense lawyer from Shalley & Murray.
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