Judge with suspended license keeps court spinning

Posted: July 05, 2008

The woman stood in Traffic Court and argued that a death in the family had prompted her to get behind the wheel of a car - though her license was suspended.

Judge William F. Singletary was having none of it.

"I'm sympathetic for you here today, but you can't drive," he said. "I don't drive. . . . If I can't drive, you can't drive."

What was unsaid - and what sets the 27-year-old Singletary apart from other Traffic Court judges - is that his own driving license was suspended last year until 2011.

A motorcycle enthusiast, he once owed the court more than $11,000 for 55 violations, including reckless driving, driving without a license, and driving without insurance.

Besides that, while running for the post last year, Singletary, also a pastor, was caught on tape soliciting campaign funds from motorcyclists at a West Philadelphia "Blessing of the Bikes" event, saying they would "need me in Traffic Court."

For that, a judicial panel could remove Singletary from the bench, an action he is seeking to prevent by arguing he was not aware that judicial candidates were barred from political fund-raising.

But for anyone sitting in his windowless courtroom on Eighth Street near Spring Garden Street, there is nothing to indicate that the judge's history or current problems have affected him in doing the job he was elected to do.

The wheels of justice spin quickly in Traffic Court, and Singletary keeps pace, politely dealing with one defendant and then another in minutes. Twenty in an hour.

Before one session began this week, he laid out some ground rules. Tell the truth. If you are fined, make your payments on time and keep the receipts in a "shoebox under your bed." You can appeal if you want.

"This is your day in court," he said. "This is your day to tell your side of the story."

The stories are short, told directly to the judge and often hard to hear in the spectators gallery.

Once told, Singletary dispenses summary justice.

Defendants who produce documents proving that a broken muffler or taillight had been fixed or that a car was indeed registered or insured are found not guilty and sent off with a "Thank you and have a good day."

In other cases, Singletary accepts some stories - "I'll give you the benefit of the doubt," he said several times - and rejects others.

A young woman who was ticketed for turning up the music in her car on South Street shortly after a police officer told her to turn it down offered some sort of explanation in a barely audible voice.

Singletary fined her $149. "I don't have to be subject to what you listen to in your car," he said.

A police recruit who was stopped for tinted windows was fined $125 after acknowledging they were still tinted. "You've got to set an example," the judge told him. "You're not above the law."

In many cases of moving violations, Singletary imposed fines but dropped the points.

He fined the woman with the suspended license who had a death in the family $185 but cut her a break by not adding another year to her suspension.

Singletary was prepared to offer a similar deal to another motorist also caught driving with a suspended license, but the man seemed determined to continue climbing behind the wheel.

He insisted it was his only way to get to his construction jobs.

"You can't drive, man," said Singletary, who said later that he took a bus or got a ride to work. "I want you to get out of that frame of mind."

The man, whose license is already suspended into 2010, persisted.

"You've given me too many excuses," said the judge, suspending the motorist's license for six more months and fining him $385.

After court ended for the day, Singletary said he did not want to talk about his past or the Judicial Conduct Board proceedings.

But he was willing to offer his perspective on what it means for him as a judge to have been on the other side of the bench.

"I want to be fair," he said, "and give a person the opportunity to tell their story."

Contact staff writer Joseph Gambardello at 215-854-2153 or jgambardello@phillynews.com.

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