When the fleet of news vans is docked, mast-like antennae jutting upward, outside of the Fulton County Courthouse, they are there for murder, corruption, the headliner drama of Superior Court.
But while the big-shot prosecutors slug it out with the high-priced defense attorneys in front of the media gallery on the upper floors of 136 Pryor Street, real life plays out on the ground floor, in courtrooms 1A and 1B. This is Fulton County Magistrate Criminal Court, for misdemeanors and lesser felonies, crimes like petty theft, bad checks of $500 or less, harassment, aggravated assault, and minor domestic disturbances. Think The People’s Court or Judge Judy. But in real life, it often plays out more like Jerry Springer. A husband and wife who are always calling the cops on each other. A mother upset that her ex-husband’s new wife spanked her daughter. A 40-year-old woman accusing her identical twin of stealing money from her bank account while she was in prison. “While she was cussing her sister out, she yelled, ‘You ugly bitch!’” says court mediator Denise Grant. “They were twins!”
When someone is wronged, they come down to the courthouse and fill out an application for a warrant on the transgressor. That application is then put before the magistrate judge. On the date a case is docketed, both parties are required to appear before the judge with witnesses and evidence to make their argument. (If the complainant doesn’t show, the case is almost always immediately dismissed. If the defendant is absent, the judge can issue an arrest warrant.) But when both parties are present, before announcing their case, the judge will give them the option to step outside the courtroom and see “Miss Grant” in her office. And if an agreement can be worked out in writing, the case will be dismissed.
“People come to court angry, scared, crying, ready to fight,” says Grant, a Brooklyn native who left a career as an emergency medical technician for this gig 15 years ago because it was less stressful. “I try to broker agreements to resolve disputes so that people won’t have a record or they can right a wrong without spending the next two years in court.”
Grant’s decade and a half of hearing people’s personal drama has not only shown her a glimpse of the sometimes depraved and occasionally comical underbelly of the county—not to mention supplying her with hours of spit-take cocktail conversation—but it has also given her unique insight on how to avoid ending up in court in the first place. Here, in her unique and . . . um . . . direct voice, are Grant’s tips to keep your dirty laundry from ever airing in her office:
- Watch your mouth. Your new well-paying job, your grandma’s inheritance, that new sexy lover—you will get a “Good For You!” and later have someone begging you for money, your home invaded, or your lover stolen. If you wouldn’t want everyone to know, don’t tell anyone.
- Watch your temper. We all lose it from time to time, but watch what you tweet, email, text, or say over the phone. Nowadays, cell phones are recording, and the rest can be downloaded or printed out. All that digital chatter is now admissible in court.
- Get the original title. People are selling their grandparents’ cars because they have dementia, some cars are salvaged, and, the biggest thing—they have the title in title pawn.
- Get it in writing. By the way, when you sell anything to a friend, family member, or even your child, decide if you are just going to give it to them or write up a notarized contract. If they are making payments, make them show you that they put insurance in their name. If your brother was a screw-up growing up, he may not have changed.
- Don’t be naive. People need to earn your trust. I’m not getting into a stranger’s car or going to their home. And I do believe in God, but watch those who use God as their partner in crime—I’ve had court cases where the person had gospel music on their phone, quoted scripture, showed family photos, and spoke of how the Lord was going to bless them, and all along they were stealing money.
- Subcontract. You don’t have to go into business with someone 50-50. If they have a talent you need or can use, subcontract them for their services. If you open a joint account, remember that your partner can go down the street and withdraw every dollar.
- Read the fine print. Read contracts all the way through—the court doesn’t accept “I didn’t know” or “I didn’t see that.”
- Don’t let them in. I know we have all needed help over the years, but if you are asked, “Can I come stay with you just for a month or two?” beware. It’s rarely just two months, and once they’re in, it is hard to get them out. If you have the money, pay for two months at an extended stay hotel or two months rent and let them know that is ALL you can do. If they’re mad, do you care? You have a place to live.
- Date with caution. There’s a saying: “Never date anyone who has less to lose than you.” Get to know someone. Just because they are gorgeous or have a beautiful body doesn’t mean they aren’t crazy as hell. And you do not want to have a child with a nut—it’s a life sentence worse than Alcatraz.