Nix: Steer Dollars From Traffic Court

Posted: July 11, 1986

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has called for creation of a separate agency to take over the job of collecting motorists' fines and costs from Philadelphia's scandal-ridden Traffic Court.

Under the high court proposal, Traffic Court would be limited to ruling on the guilt or innocence of cited drivers and would no longer act "as a collection agency."

Chief Justice Robert N.C. Nix Jr. said the proposal hinges on the willingness of the General Assembly to enact legislation authorizing establishment of an agency to collect fines and to dispose of traffic cases on an administrative basis.

Nix, in a City Hall news conference yesterday, said the recommendation was based on a report issued in May by a 13-member committee Nix appointed in

December 1984 to study Traffic Court operations. Nix named the committee during a ticket-fixing scandal that ultimately saw 15 people convicted.

In addition to authorizing creation of a new agency, Nix said, the General Assembly will have to "decriminalize" minor traffic violations so an administrative body can dispose of them.

As long as traffic violations remain technical summary criminal offenses, said Nix, only judicial officers can dispose of them.

Treating minor traffic offenses as crimes, he added, is "absurd."

Under the high court's plan, all fines and costs that were not contested and were paid voluntarily would be remitted directly to the new agency.

According to Nix, such voluntarily paid fines now amount to "well over one-half" of the $16 million Traffic Court collects annually.

If a motorist chooses to contest a fine, Nix said, an informal hearing would be held at the administrative level.

If the matter cannot be disposed of at the administrative level, he said, the motorist can then take the case to Traffic Court.

"The effect of such a change would be to limit the role of the Traffic Court to the purely judicial function," said Nix. "In this matrix, the role of the Traffic Court is conformed to the traditional role of a judicial body and can be monitored and controlled by the traditional and tested safeguards for the operation of a judicial system."

The administrative agency would not be part of Traffic Court, said Nix, but would operate under "the auspices" of the executive branch of the city and/ or state government, since both the city and the state share the revenues received from traffic law enforcement.

Nix appointed Supreme Court Justice William D. Hutchinson to head a three- member committee to develop a program to bring about the creation of the new agency.

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