Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Federal Jury Acquits Philadelphia Traffic Judges of Corruption.

Motorists hate traffic court. It’s usually their only recourse after receiving a moving violation. They hate traffic court for several reasons. First, they have to take time off from work to go to traffic court at the court’s convenience, often paying for parking near the courthouse. It’s a costly inconvenience for the scofflaws. Second, they hate traffic court because they know they have little chance of winning. The jaded and jaundiced judges have heard it all before. You know you were speeding or went through the stop sign. The ticketing officer knows it. And the judge knows it. The radar guns were properly calibrated. Losing in traffic court entails fines, penalties, and points on the driving record. The officer has to account for every ticket, so tearing up the ticket is not an option. Your best chance is if the ticketing officer fails to appear at the hearing. Other than that possibility, traffic court is not a winning prospect. Except in Philadelphia and some outlying communities. One phone call and the ticket is dropped. The elected traffic court judges, who did not have to be lawyers, could drop the ticket on their own without a hearing. Philadelphia is a one-party city. Politics and cronyism permeated Traffic Court. The Democratic machine selected the candidates for Traffic Court Judge. Who do you know? Political connections could get a ticket dropped. Phone calls from a city council office or ward boss, or from a friend or relative result in dropped charges and dangerous drivers remaining on the road. The citizenry knew for decades the system was corrupt, but it too a five year FBI investigation and an FBI raid of Traffic Court in 2011 to break it open. Several judges and fixers were arrested. Some judges pled guilty to bribery. Chief Judge Fortunato Perri, Sr. admitted fixing tickets in exchange for a patio, discounted lawn services, seafood, car repairs, and porn. Everyone arguably has a price, which does not have to be money. Five judges pled not guilty and fought the charges. The prosecution could not show that any of the five accepted money, or game tickets, or received special favors, or any other form of bribery. It may have been part of “business as usual.” It may have been part of the job. But no consideration exchanged hands. A federal jury in July deliberated 1½ days before acquitting all five judges of conspiring to fix tickets. However, four of the five were convicted of perjury before the grand jury or of lying to investigators. Pennsylvania professionalized the traffic court system after the scandal erupted. Pennsylvania sadly has had corrupt judges in recent years. The most egregious case involved a “Kids for Cash” conspiracy. Two juvenile court judges in Luzerne County (Wilkes-Barre) received over $2.6 million in bribes to find arrested teens guilty and then send them to privately owned juvenile detention facilities. Many of the teens were first offenders whose “crimes” at worse were of a “Mickey Mouse” nature. At least one committed suicide and another, an honor students, had her college hopes shattered. The two judges initially pled guilty, but the federal district rejected their guilty pleas. Judge Michael T. Conahan subsequently pled guilty again while Judge Mark A. Ciavarella, Jr. was convicted on 12 of 39 counts. Judge Ciavarella was sentenced to 28 years in prison and Judge Conahan 17½ years. Over 2400 teens had their convictions expunged, but the damage had been done. Los Angeles had a different system for fixing parking tickets (not moving violations). The city’s Department of Transportation had a “Gold Card” desk staffed by two employees. A plastic “Gold Card” was distributed to the Mayor’s Office and Council embers. It contained a special phone number whereby the Mayor’s office or Council members could request a “fast track” review of a parking ticket. Tickets were thereby dropped, often without any explanation. The City also about $15 million in revenue from thousands of “fixed” tickets over 20 years until the scheme was revealed in 2008. At least these were only traffic tickets and not moving violations. Los Angeles and Philadelphia both exhibit one of the worse images of justice. It all depends on whom you know. Citizens are especially aggrieved when traffic tickets are involved because we all understand tickets.

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