The nine oak benches in Camden Municipal Courtroom No. 2 held a squirming crowd. Tightly packed, their thighs almost touching, some sighed impatiently.

There were 60 or so in the room, with more in a line out the door, waiting to see the judge about tickets - for loud music, tinted car windows, trespassing, loitering, littering.

The clock crept toward 11 a.m. Two-and-a-half hours since court started on the fourth floor of City Hall. The painter from North Philadelphia whose shift would begin in three hours was growing anxious. So was the young woman from Willingboro whose family shares one car. Her mother needed to drive to a call-center job in two hours.

Around noon, Judge Teofilo Montanez-Santiago made an announcement that drew groans. He could not complete 18 cases until after lunch.

"You are to return at 2," he told the crowd.

Camden Municipal Court - one of the busiest in New Jersey - is busier than ever. Nearly 125,000 cases were filed between July 2013 and June 2014, the court year, up from 97,000 the previous year. The volume has prompted the city to add a fourth judge, two public defenders, and a prosecutor. Administrative staff are up to 33 from about half as many.

The chain of events began in a brown-brick building two blocks away at 800 Federal St., headquarters of the Camden County Police Department.

It took over policing in May 2013 after the city disbanded its old force, and has focused on citing even minor offenses in hopes of snaring the real bad guys - killers, robbers, and drug dealers.

Last week, police said they stopped a man for urinating in public and found him in illegal possession of a loaded revolver.

Law enforcement officials call it the "broken windows" strategy, which has been used to reclaim neighborhoods in various cities, but which has also stirred fears of police overzealousness and harassment. Many in Camden Municipal Court expressed annoyance at being singled out for petty offenses.

For certain violations - obstructing windshields, not maintaining car lights, riding bicycles without bells - more tickets have been written than in a decade.

From July through October, the court received 99 cases of riding a bicycle without a bell. From July 2012 to June 2013, there was one.

Caught in the dragnet have been people from Philadelphia to South Jersey: a Voorhees youth wrestling instructor cited for improper behavior after refusing to show officers his ID while waiting for a bus, a Glassboro man who flicked a cigarette butt out his car window, a Camden social worker ticketed for not using her right-turn signal.

"It's crazy, man," said Nicholas Mitcho, 28, who tossed the cigarette. He was fined $83 Wednesday and had to take the day off from his IT job.

"I try to do my best to be a law-abiding citizen," said Robin Jefferson, 52, the social worker. She had come to court three times before to fight her ticket, using nine hours of work time, before getting it dismissed Wednesday.

Jefferson questioned the rationale for the flood of citations.

"Are these people really not obeying the law," she asked, "or is it just about squeezing more money out of law-abiding citizens?"

Confusion in the courtroom can compound such concerns. Some don't realize they can pay their tickets online. Others go to court expecting to resolve cases quickly. They often find doing so is not easy.

Confusing, intimidating

After the judge left for lunch, it was as though Prentis Williams, 58, a painter in the Camden School District, had become a ghost.

He was unsure whether his case had been resolved or whether he needed to see the judge again. The courtroom staff could not find his case - or any record of him.

But there he was, the only defendant left in the courtroom, slightly graying black hair, blue jacket, and jeans, a gray baseball cap in hand.

Williams slowly spelled out his first name.

"P-r-e-n-t-i-s."

"I only have a Charles Williams," the data entry clerk told him, repeating the name. Prentis covered his face with his left hand and shook his head.

Court administrator Palmira "Pam" White joined the search, poring through the judge's files.

"He couldn't have called you," she told Williams. "You're not on here."

"Wow," Williams said. "I've been here since 8 o'clock this morning. I came up and talked to the judge."

He had, in fact, gone in front of the judge twice.

But his case represented what is perhaps the most confusing part of Municipal Court: how to plead when one disagrees with the charge.

That minute or two in front of Montanez-Santiago can be intimidating. If you approach him incorrectly - wear shorts, speak softly, don't raise your right hand in time - he will scold you.

Often, too, defendants are pressed to strike a deal. Plead guilty to one charge, and authorities will drop another.

The arrangement, made in part to speed cases, can complicate matters.

Williams had pleaded not guilty to obstructing his license plate, only to be told by the judge he was reneging on his deal.

Then the case somehow got lost in the system.

"I'm pissed about it," Williams said, waiting for the afternoon session, when Montanez-Santiago would hear his case a third time. "I don't like it. They shouldn't have even wrote these tickets."

Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson did not respond to requests for comment.

The thinking with "broken windows" is that major criminals often also violate minor laws, so focusing on those offenses nets more serious arrests.

But police should separate criminals from, say, a grandmother who forgot a turn signal, said Michael Jenkins, a professor at the University of Scranton who has written a book on how departments use the strategy. Police, he said, also must focus on a second facet of the strategy: working with the community to improve relations.

"Too often, police just interpret it as strictly having to ticket or arrest people," he said. "And I think that's not always beneficial to the community. It kind of misses the point of 'broken windows.' "

Camden Mayor Dana Redd acknowledged the frustration but said, "Camden is a city that abides by the law. So what you can't do in Collingswood you can't do in Camden."

Judge Robert T. Zane, who oversees municipal courts in Camden County, said he hoped people who are ticketed once would learn not to break the same law again. With the high volume of cases, "are there going to be problems? Absolutely," he said. "In a busy court there are always some problems that come up."

But Zane applauded the court staff, who resolved 123,000 cases in the last court year, up from 100,000 the previous year. "I think they've done a terrific job," he said.

$45 cab ride

Jasanna Franklin, 19, of Willingboro, leaned into a window marked "Customer Service," pleading with the person on the other side. The family has one car. Her mother needed it to get to work. Franklin, who had hoped to resolve her case in the morning, needed to reschedule.

She was denied. She would have to return by 2 or face an arrest warrant.

So Franklin, cited for trespassing for staying on the Camden waterfront past curfew, drove home and took a cab back. It cost her $45, she said.

Back at City Hall, she walked through the metal detector, below the American flag, into the hall of elevators.

On the fourth floor, the doors opened. Franklin, her daughter Sanai in her arms, walked into the gold-and-black tiled hallway, waiting again for her case to be heard.

At 2:01 p.m., five hours after she first arrived, the courtroom door opened.

The court official called her name. She entered, joining a fresh set of nearly 60 faces.

mboren@phillynews.com

856-779-3829 @borenmc