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After An Arrest: Understanding the Courts: A Q&A interview with Dr. Catherine Cerulli

Catherine Cerulli

Catherine Cerulli is the director of the Susan B. Anthony Center for Women's Leadership and the Laboratory of Interpersonal Violence and Victimization (LIVV), and an associate professor in Department of Psychiatry at the University of Rochester. Her team researches court processes and special populations, and we asked her to answer common questions about what people can expect if they arrested and need to appear in court.

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your research?

I am a former prosecutor and I have been working on issues surrounding domestic violence and child abuse since 1983. I do limited criminal defense work, usually when it involves someone arrested because of an abuse history. My team studies court processes related to special populations, including family court and criminal court. I focus primarily on domestic violence, suicide and homicide.

What can an individual expect if he or she is going to court for the first time?

Everyone’s case is individual. It depends on whether the individual is arrested at the scene or if they are given notice to appear. If they are arrested and are being held there has be an arraignment within a certain time frame. Depending on the nature of the case, there is a mandatory timeframe during which they have to appear before a judge. During the first appearance, they will be read their rights and hear the charges against them. There will be a discussion about their attorney—whether they have an attorney, whether they can afford one, whether one will be provided for them. If the case involves an assault against another person, they may have a restraining order issued against them.

Tell me about courthouses.

Depending on the location, courthouses can very hectic and chaotic relative to sounds and smells. It is often difficult to secure parking and challenging to get through security clearance. Sometimes, the court has metal detectors and people will have to take off belts and remove objects from their pockets. For a person with mental illness, that can be very distressing.

It’s best to think about those things in advance and if possible plan to get to the courthouse early. If possible, have a friend drop off and pick up at the door. You also want to be thinking about the time of day your court appearance is. You may be in court a very long time. If the person has to take medication on a schedule or if there is an issue with eating—if someone might become hypoglycemic if they don’t eat—plan to bring medication and food with you.

Are there times when a defendant does not have to appear in court?

If there’s a reason why you think that it would be best for you or your loved one not to appear in court, check in with the defense attorney and see if any accommodation can be made. There are times that the defendant’s appearance can be waived.[i] For example, if the family is trying to get someone into residential treatment, the attorney may be able to inform the judge that the person is in treatment. There are certain times an appearance can’t be waived, like a probable cause hearing.

If an individual with mental illness is arrested, what are the possible reasons their case might be dismissed?

Some specialty courts, including mental health courts, might put the patient into a diversion program. The diversion program usually ends up with a plea bargain and the individual in a treatment plan.

There are times when the charges are dropped because a motion is dismissed in the interest of justice. People should not lose hope – families hear that a loved one has been arrested and they panic. But it’s important to know that it’s a very complex system full of nuances and the job of the defense attorney is to figure out how to resolve the case in the interest of the client.

How can family members advocate for a loved one with mental illness who has been arrested?

I think you want the defense attorney to do their best. It’s important to be a resource to the defense attorney. It’s important for the family to know that the defense attorney works for the client and they have an obligation to the client—they are not doing you a favor. I think a lot of people, especially with a public defender, they really worry they have a bad attorney. That’s not really true; public defenders are some of the best attorneys that there are because they are in court every day. They know what they are doing. Families think if an attorney is free, he must be bad, but that’s not true. Do not despair.

Families should to be sure to connect with their attorney before the court appearance if possible. This is particularly challenging for families, because the attorney is often in court all day. To reach them, call early in the morning or during the lunch hour. If you can’t reach the attorney, call their office and ask for a fax number or email address and send the information that way.

Let the attorney know the client’s history and see if they can advocate getting their family member into a specialty court. There are lots of specialty courts: mental health courts, veterans courts, domestic violence courts, DWI courts and drug courts.

It’s important for family members to know that the legal privilege that prevents attorneys form talking to the family doesn’t prohibit families from talking to the attorney. There can still be one-way communication. You can still let the attorney know what’s going on. A lot of people think that if the attorney won’t talk to them, that they can’t talk to the attorney

To learn more about how the criminal justice system works, check out this chart from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, or  NAMI’s resources on navigating the justice system.

[i] In these situations, the attorney will represent the client’s interests during the court appearance.