Once a month, teenagers who get caught smoking cigarettes stand before a judge.
Tucked between two courtrooms that host trials for the worst of the worst — murderers and rapists included — sits Hillsborough County Judge Nick Nazaretian's Courtroom, 53A.
This Friday, he heard from three underage teens accompanied by their mothers.
Each hearing is more of a wakeup call than a trial. The judge shows the teens a damaged lung, a jar of tar and a picture of tracheotomy. He's even had teens escorted to the court's holding chamber.
Nazaretian, who starred in Tru TV's Pet Court, hears all sorts of cases. From speeding boaters to messy homeowners, he punishes lawbreakers. But for one Friday a month, the judge tries to deter teen smokers from becoming real criminals.
"It's an opportunity to put a hand out, to give some guidance," Nazaretian said.
• • •
The first girl's name was Miracle Cooper, a 16-year-old who wears her hair in dreadlocks.
"What's your brand?" Nazaretian asked her.
"Black & Milds," she replied.
The judge asked if this was her first time.
"That they caught me," she said.
Then the judge asked if she's done any hard drugs. He called across to the bailiff: "Dave, do we have tests available today?"
"We do, sir."
No drug tests were administered this Friday, but the threat helped elicit confessions.
Not this time, though.
He addressed Miracle's mother, who stood beside her in front of the judge. He asked if she knew her daughter smoked cigarettes. The mother responded with frustration.
"Listen to me — I've got seven kids. There's a lot that my kids do," Katina Wynn, 37.
The judge presses on, but he is met with rising anger. He tries to urge her to stop her daughter from smoking.
"I don't smoke no cigarettes," Wynn said.
A loud and jumbled defense of her parenting poured out from her mouth. The judge threatened to hold her in contempt.
The mother stormed out of the courtroom.
The daughter stayed behind, in silence.
Nazaretian tried to reassure the girl standing before him — alone. "You seem like an intelligent person," he tells her.
"You have a future."
• • •
Next up was Michael Knoebber, 16. He had flippy hair and a white printed T-shirt. Even standing before a judge, he remained self-assured.
Michael and his mother headed for the podium. After a discussion about where he went to school, the judge caught him by surprise with a question: "Do you want fries with that?"
If Michael didn't turn his life around, the judge warned, he would be trapped in minimum-wage jobs forever.
Michael told the judge he has been smoking cigarettes since seventh or eighth grade, sometimes stealing his mother's leftover cigarettes.
"It was kind of me trying to be a rebel type of thing," he said.
Cigarettes and drugs can attract dangerous friends, the judge warned: "I'm not trying to be Mr. Doomsday."
He ended their chat with a warning, "You're on my radar. Don't come back."
• • •
Last came Jessica Swaim, 16. Her mother stood beside her.
Nazaretian posed questions about her life goals (to be a veterinarian) and grades (D's and F's).
He kept asking her questions. Her answers were standoffish. Her demeanor was uninterested.
"Quit chewing your nails in front of me," he boomed.
He threatened contempt of court. On cue, the bailiff pulls out his handcuffs, the metal clinking together.
Have you used marijuana, he asks? She had.
Her mom turned red and began rubbing her eyes.
"Look at mom," he said to Jessica, "She's shocked."
Next they spoke of alcohol.
"I don't remember drinking since December," she said.
Again her mother seemed to be caught off guard.
"I know you're upset," the judge said, "but at least you know."
• • •
The courtroom now empty, the judge sat in his chamber and reflected on the morning.
He sees the tiniest portion of teen smokers. Only if teens fail to pay fines or attended mandatory antismoking classes are they summoned to his courtroom. But he sees this as his chance to correct "antisocial" behavior and get these teens back on track.
Reflecting on Friday's three cases, he said he thought the results were mixed. For Miracle and her mother, he said, "I think our message was lost."
Jessica's mom seemed to get the message, and Michael seemed like he might turn it around.
"Two out of three's not bad."
Eric P. Newcomer can be reached at (813) 226-3401 and firstname.lastname@example.org.