September 17

This Day in History


Sep 17, 1884:

A California judge sets a record for trying criminal cases

Judge Allen disposes of the 13 criminal cases on his Oakland, California, docket in only six minutes. Although he apparently set a new record for speed, defendants in Oakland's criminal court did not stand much of a chance of gaining an acquittal. In a 40-year period at the turn of the century, only 1 defendant in 100 was acquitted.

The following transcript from an 1895 trial was printed in the Oakland Tribune:

"I didn't think I was drunk, your Honor," said Gus Harland.

"Not drunk?" said the court.

"Not very drunk."

"How drunk?"

"Well--I could see the moon."

"It was raining hard Sunday night when I arrested that man," said the officer.

"Six dollars or three days. Next."

Although Judge Allen was notoriously speedy, the quick disposition of criminal cases was not necessarily commonplace in early American courts. In the early 1800s, criminal courts were often held up by those who used them to settle personal problems. For instance, in Philadelphia, a man named Henry Blake was prosecuted by his wife in criminal court "for refusing to come to bed and making too much noise, preventing her from sleeping." Today, the courts would immediately dismiss such a domestic squabble.

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