In NBC’s new revival of its popular 1984-1992 sitcom Night Court, Judge Abby Stone (Melissa Rauch) presides over a cavalcade of irreverent defendants during the night shift at Manhattan Criminal Court. While it may seem like a distorted reality for the sake of comedy, night court actually exists. And it’s somewhat of a tourist attraction.
According to The New York Post, the real New York City Criminal Court maintains evening hours of 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. to handle the prompt arraignment and other preliminary hearings of more than 100,000 arrestees each year, some of whom may not be able to make appearances during normal business hours. The offenses range from shoplifting to drug charges to refusing to pay cab fare, creating a constant churn of casework.
According to onetime assistant prosecutor Allison Mahoney, the late hours help facilitate a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial. “Arraignments at night are the same as arraignments during the day,” Mahoney told A&E. “A defendant is brought in and advised of the charges against them. Then an application is made for bail or remand or [they are] released on their own recognizance. The judge decides what to do.”
Perhaps owing in some small measure to the show, the proceedings are often host to tourists hoping to get a glimpse of the justice system as well as law students. Writing for Thrillist in 2015, Laura Reilly described an irreverent scene in which people were brought before a judge for wildly eclectic reasons. One defendant accused of MetroCard impropriety asserted he had once defended himself before the Supreme Court; another was accused of attacking someone with a cleaver.
In a high point, the judge read from a statement in which the defendant was quoted as saying: “My cousin and his two brothers jumped me. That’s why I sh*t myself.”
Original Night Court creator Reinhold Weege was influenced by the court, though he was more intrigued by the judges on the bench than the characters brought before them. “I was moved by the craziness of New York Manhattan night court,” he said in 2002. “There were stories in the newspaper at the time of judges with serious emotional problems who the state had a hard time getting rid of. I thought, gosh, it would be terrific if we could get a judge through the system who was a little off center, a little wacky.”
That fictional judge became Harry Stone, played by the late Harry Anderson; Rauch portrays his daughter in the new iteration.
Courts in Bronx County, Kings County, and New York County are active until 1 a.m.; Queens County handles cases until 11 p.m. Night courts can also be found in Illinois, California, and other states. NBC's Night Court airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m.