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Misdemeanor Cases Get Night in Court, Panamanian-Style


PANAMA CITY — On a mercifully cool tropical night, toddlers, expectant mothers and white-haired seniors squeeze onto six lime-green benches, waiting as two secretaries type out complaints. Many giggle nervously at each burst of profanity issuing forth from behind the door to the detention area a few feet away.

On the other side of the door, half a dozen men are crowded into the single holding cell. Outside the cell, handcuffed to its bars, a naked, middle-aged woman shouts obscenities.

This is night court, Panamanian-style.

From dusk to dawn, these administrative courts mete out justice in bar brawls, family fights and other nocturnal altercations. They are among the few vestiges of the U.S. presence here that will not disappear when the United States turns over the Panama Canal on Dec. 31, 1999.

The Panamanian government instituted the courts during World War II as U.S. servicemen poured into this tiny country. When they weren't protecting the canal or training in the jungle, the soldiers and sailors supported a red-light district of bars and brothels. They got into trouble with the law so routinely that when courts opened in the morning, the jail cells were full.

Some of that trouble--including rape and arson--meant prison sentences. But most of the crimes were simple matters of public drunkenness or fighting. Panamanian authorities decided that the best solution was an administrative court--without lawyers or much paperwork--where soldiers could cool off or sober up for a few hours in a holding cell, pay a fine and often get back to base before their passes expired.

"That way we did not have to make them prisoners and wait until the next day" for a formal trial, said Miguel Moreno, a respected attorney who was a legal advisor to the Panamanian Foreign Ministry at the time. "Most of the problems occurred in the red-light district where so many American soldiers went, so we put the night court nearby."

And that is where the court remains--even though the red-light district disappeared years ago and most of the defendants are Panamanian these days. The port city of Colon and raucous San Miguelito also have night courts.

"These are the areas that have the most conflicts," said Eliodoro Hernandez, the night court judge here. "The constitution says that justice should be uninterrupted, but the courts only work until 4 in the afternoon. So, here we are."

"Here" is a clean, spartan office with a metal, government-issue desk, four straight-back chairs and a bookcase. Hernandez, who has the second shift, arrives every night at midnight with a legal briefcase full of files and a thick copy of the administrative code.

For $900 a month, he unravels family arguments, rip-offs and street bouts, any kind of conflict that does not involve more than a $250 fine or leave someone so badly hurt that a doctor decides the victim needs at least 10 days off work to recover. Robberies, rapes and murders wait until morning.

"I see a lot of women with swollen eyes," Hernandez said. "We try to take preventive measures."

That often involves referring families to counseling or requiring antagonists to sign a peace bond: an agreement that if either one starts another argument, the aggressor will pay a stiff fine. Those who cannot pay the fine do jail time.

The naked woman shouting obscenities at the court on a recent Friday night was clothed and taken to a psychiatric hospital for observation.

"Sincerely, this is not an attractive job," Hernandez said. "I wanted to be a litigator, but there are 5,000 lawyers out there. I don't have the money to start my own practice, and I don't have the influence to get a job in a fancy firm."

Although he mostly sees Panamanians, Hernandez does get an occasional GI, such as the case right after the disturbed woman.

Earlier, the U.S. sergeant and his Panamanian girlfriend had been brought into night court after U.S. military police broke up a violent argument at their home on an army base.

After more than an hour, the erstwhile couple signed a $200 peace bond. As they walked out into the nighttime breeze, the sleeping toddlers, expectant mothers and seniors were still there--along with others--waiting for night court justice.

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