Judge Frank Caprio has a knack for extracting narratives for his courtroom reality show, Caught in Providence, where Providence’s traffic violations are put in the spotlight. While the arraigned come to his court with a traffic violation, Caprio pries and takes away a story. The result: heartwarming comedy.
In one February 2019 episode, Alyssa Supriano approaches the mic in Caprio’s courtroom to make her case for her speeding ticket for driving 30 miles per hour in a 25 MPH zone. She explains that her violation was a necessary transition while slowing down, and therefore she should be granted some leniency. Caprio, however, distracted by his own clairvoyance, gives her story little attention. “You know sometimes I have these extra-sensory feelings.” Caprio adds, “I would bet that she’s some kind of an entertainer. Some kind of a dancer.”
She is, in fact, a former professional dancer and she explains what she can do: “I can do a handstand. If I do a handstand can I get a warning?” The courtroom breaks into laughter and with Caprio’s go-ahead, she proceeds to do a handstand. As she got back on her feet, Caprio remarks: “Well, we have a two-minute threshold. You have to do something for two minutes to get special considerations in this court.” He then smiles and explains his reasoning (which is her reasoning, reiterated) to dismiss her case. The show is more than mere antics, though, as the intro articulates: “This is the courtroom of Frank Caprio. Where people and cases are met with compassion. A courtroom like no other. This is Caught in Providence.”
Certainly, Caprio shows compassion when he addresses the arraigned. While his interest in personal narrative offers an opportunity for holistic justice, it also intentionally doubles as a ploy for entertainment. While on one level his process is an acceptance of Supriano’s reasoning, his method is a sort of wild goose chase as he searches for her nugget of star power ripe for television. Caprio’s manner is applauded by fans for his ability to see the humanity in all and his commitment to offering low-income individuals a break. That said, this kind face of justice in Providence is the sole regular presence for the city on nationally syndicated TV. His practice of personal inquiry is much too heavy-handed to purely represent a pursuit of justice. The show itself, while perhaps illustrating an imaginary forgiving judicial system, comes at the cost of coerced participants who must perform for the cameras or risk wasting Caprio’s time.
A Courtroom Like No Other
The Providence Municipal Courts are open 7:30 AM to 2:30 PM, five days a week. But when I visited Caprio’s courtroom on September 23, his session began at 5 PM. Caprio is a quasi-retired judge; he serves just one week each month in traffic court. His courtroom itself is an aberration from the norm in Providence with an airy lobby and gleaming wood interior. Six producers and cameramen sit and stand to Caprio’s right monitoring the cameras set up around the room.
Frank Caprio presides above it all. He looks around as a stroke of genius presents itself: “Let’s get the baby in the shot.” The plaintiff looks through the crowd and asks: “Which baby, your honor?” Caprio laughs, and the producers beam at the three babies present. One couple offers to move into frame with their cradled child to honor Caprio’s soft spot for young families. With his brother Joe Caprio serving as the show’s executive producer, Frank has the ability to call the shots himself.
The procedures begin. Some of the arraigned are clearly intent on winning over Capiro, while others are just there to try their luck in traffic court. Caprio begins by explaining the defendant's traffic violation: usually a right on red when a sign explicitly prohibits it. He asks for the defendant’s explanation of the situation. Three people try (unsuccessfully) to apply the classic Rhode Island excuse: “I don’t know such and such street, I’m from Massachusetts.”
One woman, when asked why she turned right on red, explains that she was in a rush and missed the sign. Caprio turns to a computer screen projected on the wall. The footage is pulled up and played. The cameras clearly show her pass the sign, and seeing no pedestrians or cars, continue on. He asks to see the clip again. She bows her head. The prosecutor interjects, “I didn’t see the sign either.” Caprio chortles, “Case dismissed.” She moves toward the secretary who handles paperwork, and they wave her away.
Stakes on the Small Screen
Since the show’s inception in 2000, Frank Caprio has slowly risen to his current (under the radar) fame. The show has been syndicated nationwide on Fox since September 2018, allowing Caprio to reach a wider audience than ever before. Aided in large part to the virality of the show’s YouTube presence—the Caught in Providence channel has 576,000 subscribers and 124 million all-time views—this glimpse into Providence traffic court entertains an ever-growing audience dedicated to his work. In the comment section on a recent clip posted to his YouTube channel, fans express their adoration for Caprio and his manner. J is ScoobysMom comments, “I Love Judge Caprio, he's the kindest man,” while Denise331 says, “Judge Caprio for President!” Caprio himself proudly highlights this in the courtroom room with letters sent from across the country and, he revels, “as far away as Sweden!” Shown in almost every region of the United States as weekday programming, the show continues to place Providence and its traffic court in the public eye, but not without raising questions about the ethics of the show. What are the implications of using arraigned people and their stories for entertainment? Does the show serve as a publicity stunt for the Providence Police Department?
Courtroom reality shows are tremendously popular and broadly replicated in the US, and Caught in Providence was one of the first shows of the genre. In the highest rated courtroom reality show, Judge Judy, Judge Judy Sheindlin similarly uses her charismatic personality for entertainment in the courtroom. As an arbitrator, her process toward legally binding “arbitration award” takes place on a set dressed like a courtroom. A key difference between Judge Judy and Caught in Providence is that while Sheindlin’s subjects have chosen to have their cases heard by her specifically, receiving a Caprio judgment is the luck of the draw.
Caprio’s show has a more convincing claim to realism than others in the genre, as it at least takes place in an actual court. In my visit, I heard no suggestion of these defendants were cast or handpicked; after roll call, Caprio makes it clear that defendants may request that their court session not be filmed for the show. At the same time, some defendants, conscious of the gains to be made from playing into television tropes, might perform to encourage a pardon, whether as perfect victim or as comedic value. This creates a dilemma for the arraigned: a choice between kinder treatment with unwanted publicity on-camera or an unfilmed alternative.
The mere presence of cameras in a space of justice alters its course. In the Sixth District Court just a 15-minute walk away, police prowl the aisles to ensure that no one records the session. When I observed arraignments at the district court, police barked at me for taking notes. Caprio’s courtroom is not monitored by law enforcement. The only policeman present is out of uniform and serves as the prosecutor (a constitutionally questionable practice only legal in one other state, South Carolina). The camera seemingly influences police to replace aggression with jokes and niceties. This is not to say that this is an ingenious act, but certainly the optics are better in Caprio’s courtroom. With Caprio representing the Rhode Island criminal legal system in the national media, his demeanor overshadows a much grimmer reality.
Naughty or Nice
Frank Caprio makes a point of considering the holistic situation for each of his cases. He intends to let people off the hook if they express good intentions. He asks about their families, congratulates single mothers for their hard work and independence, and then clears their fines. But where a formal ban on unpayable fees and fines would address the issue more broadly, the Caprio method requires charm and a willingness to perform for the camera in order to earn a sympathetic pardon.
This past spring, the College Hill Independent reported on Rhode Island’s court debt crisis, detailing the burdens this debt places on low-income people. With over $50 million in outstanding court debt and 4.5% of the state’s population owing money to the district court, the Independent found that protection from unpayable fines were rarely upheld. The burden of this is immense and lenient judges play a key role in upholding existing laws. In 2008, Senate Bill 2234 created the requirement for ability to pay hearings, so that no fees and fines would be assigned to those who demonstrate serious financial need. Proposed this past January, House Bill 5196 would have improved accountability on these measures, but the bill was recommended for further study and has since remained untouched. It is crucial that judges, like Caprio, consider ability-to-pay when assigning fines to combat cyclical poverty, although many are currently failing to do so.
Unlike the national media, the show frames Providence and Rhode Island judicial system in a positive light. A lenient judicial system contrasts with the narrative of corrupt lawlessness, mafia-run Providence put forward by the podcast Crimetown, which focuses on Mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci and mob boss Raymond Patriarcha. Caught in Providence offers a new (albeit 81-year-old) Italian-American patriarch to preside over the city’s reputation with a gentle manner and an all-but ominous voice.
The Providence Police Department, represented exclusively on Caught in Providence as the unbiased traffic camera, is let off the hook for the reality of on-the-ground policing. As in cities across the country, Providence residents have repeatedly accused the city’s police of profiling. In 2017, when the City Council passed the Community Safety Act (now named the Providence Community–Police Relations Act) to curb profiling incidents, the police union retaliated in a statement citing it as unnecessary.
The ethics of turning people arraigned in Providence into an eccentric cast of characters ripe with humorous explanations of petty crimes is questionable. Traffic court’s stakes seem light. Conviction is not on the table, and fines ranged from $40 to $160 on the day of my visit.
Producers reward those who play into this paternalistic narrative with niceties. During my visit, after Caprio waives her fine, one woman says, “Thank you so much, I really appreciate it.” The producer to Caprio’s left gives her two thumbs up. She repeats a little louder and into the mic, “I really appreciate you doing this for me.” This subtle moment of performance makes for compelling, if not entirely honest TV. “I believe in you,” Caprio chides. “You are gonna be very successful. Give back. Remember to give to your community.”
But when Caprio hopes to create a moment, the defendant does not respond with the show’s required subservient graciousness. “I do,” she says. “I work as a social worker.” Caprio waves her away. The policeman-prosecutor tries to explain the difference between volunteering for a cause and being paid for it. Exasperated, she says that she helps people and doesn’t do it for the money. She leaves the stand annoyed and disrespected, but without a ticket. While Caprio seemingly hoped this woman would play the part of grateful subject, her existing contributions to her community as a low-income public servant ruin his savior agenda.
Caprio comes to the courtroom equipped with his own tricks. He takes a moment away from someone’s testimony to read a letter from a fan who wished to remain semi-anonymous. “This one makes me teary,” he begins. “She’s a fan of the show. Her name is Cher—not who you’re thinking though.” He goes on to say how Cher from Maryland admires his work and has enclosed a check to give to someone who deserves it. He smiles as he looks up from the letter and looks into the eyes of the woman facing him. She’s a single mother, works in a nursing home, and made a right on red while driving to pick up her child from school. Her eyes are respectfully cast down as she awaits her verdict. “And you deserve it,” he says. This moment will likely be screened nationally, and no doubt many will feel touched by sweet moment. But only in this courtroom do the “deserving” get off.
In a rare moment of clarity, the comment section on a recent YouTube video speaks to broader systemic issues not represented by the show, as Bear420bear laments: “If only real courts were like this America wouldn't be so screwed.” Defendants across the country continue to face unpayable fees and fines when their story is not heard. This fate—no one deserves.
NICK ROBLEE STRAUSS B’22 paid a $25 Providence parking ticket in July. Had he known he could, he’d have taken it to TV.