Courts talk the tow talks

Language: Street crimes bring colorful and puzzling terms into Baltimore courts, widening vocabularies of judges, lawyers and jurors.

September 07, 2000|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

As a top litigator for a Baltimore law firm, William D. Quarles had to speak the language of legalese, riddled with words like collateral estoppel and nunc pro tunc.

Now a judge on Baltimore's Circuit Court, he is forced to learn another language: street-ese, laced with such words as "banked" (mugged on the street), "ready" (crack cocaine), "hooptie" (an old car) and "kick it out" (give me all your money).

It's a lingo that all of Quarles' fellow judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers and court reporters have to learn.

With Baltimore's crime concentrated in the rough-and-tumble, drug-ridden streets, nearly all criminal cases in the city come complete with witnesses or defendants who talk about "eight-balls" (one-eighth of an ounce of cocaine) and refer to the police as "5-0" (from "Hawaii Five-O").

"I am bilingual," said defense attorney Warren A. Brown. "When most people hear `eight-balls' they think of billiards or something."

"English is my second language," echoed Deputy State's Attorney Haven H. Kodeck. "There is no book, no text, no video that will teach you that stuff. You just pick it up.

"You talk about eight-balls [outside of work] and people look at you funny."

"It's on-the-job training," Quarles said.

The phenomenon of street-ese in the courts is not limited to Baltimore. Trade magazines for court reporting sometimes include glossaries for new street talk so those documenting testimony can understand when a witness says that he had a gun in his "dip" (waistband).

A Washington, D.C., court reporting company has a link on the Internet to the "Totally Unofficial Rap Dictionary," which defines such words as hooptie and "blunt" (a marijuana-stuffed cigar).

Barbara V. Dobson, a court reporter in Baltimore for the past 20 years, said she relies on her ears: "I always just spell it phonetically."

Some things are lost on court reporters. Dobson said she once read a transcript where the common exclamation "Yo!" which is in Webster's Dictionary, was spelled throughout as "Yoe!"

Judges, lawyers and court reporters face another hurdle trying to sort out justice every day: nicknames. Nicknames are widely used on the street, allowing drug dealers to conceal their identities. Often witnesses have no idea what a person's real name is.

Lawyers or judges, when questioning witnesses or arguing cases, find themselves referring to people only as "Pineapple," "Big Lucille," "Itchy," "Pumpkin," "Fast Damon," "Soup," "Spew" or "Beefcake."

Someone will ask a witness, "'What's his last name?" said Dobson, "and the answer is `I don't know, we just call him Pooty.'"

Sometimes, street lingo brings into court practices that symbolize the city's worst woes.

Take the phrase "baby's mother," which essentially describes unwed mothers. Male defendants and witnesses routinely refer to their "baby's mother" as part of their lives. The women are not their girlfriends, nor their wives, but remain a fixture in the family hierarchy.

Quarles remembers being stumped one day when a witness referred to someone as his "baby's mother's sister." Who would that be? Quarles thought. Then it came to him: that's the equivalent of a sister-in-law, if they were married.

"It's sort of like working a puzzle because you mentally have to work through the relationships," Quarles said. "Like, oh, that's a niece."

"In a sense you are seeing the social pathology: the breakdown of the family, superficial relationships, all of which crime is but a symptom," Quarles said, adding that his chair on the bench often feels "like a front row seat into the decline of civilization."

Brown, the defense lawyer, said sometimes he feels like a translator between the drug world on the street and the world of the courtroom.

"It's a separate society out there, and they have their own language, their own standards and their own rules," he said. "You've got to, in a sense, educate the jury."

The case against Glenn Brown, 22, and Kevin Bailey, 20, defended by Warren Brown last spring in Quarles' court, was nothing short of a full immersion course.

The two were accused of stealing a woman's car at gunpoint. Their defense? They were not car thieves, they were drug dealers. The woman routinely lent the car in exchange for money or drugs, and this time they kept it too long and she got mad.

Besides, they argued, they wouldn't want to steal the car - it was a "hooptie."

The jurors believed them. The men were acquitted of all charges after both defendants and a witness testified about the inner workings of the drug world with astonishing candor.

"Why would [someone] lease their car to you for crack cocaine rather than just outright paying you some money?" Warren Brown asked Bailey when he was on the witness stand.

"It's the same reason we have prostitutes," Bailey responded. "I've had women offer their bodies and all type of things, man. It's crack. I guess they are addicted. They don't want it. They need it."

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