Documents: Charges often OK'd by paralegals

D.A. candidates say weak cases bog down system

Posted: April 24, 2009

THE PHILADELPHIA Police Department isn't the only city agency that must answer for the alleged misbehavior of police narcotics officers.

After police drug squads conducted more than 20 controversial armed raids on small neighborhood groceries and convenience stores, the District Attorney's Office decided to bring felony charges against many of the immigrant shop owners on charges of selling small plastic bags, which are considered drug paraphernalia.

In five cases reviewed by the Daily News, court paperwork indicates the felony charges were approved not by experienced prosecutors, but by inexperienced paralegals, working in the charging unit of the D.A.'s office.

The D.A.'s office says that the records are misleading, and that all the charges were approved by assistant D.A.s.

The charges were eventually reduced to misdemeanors or dismissed altogether when the cases finally caught the attention of judges in court. But in the meantime, the defendants spent thousands of dollars on attorneys, and taxpayers spent thousands for multiple court proceedings - including police overtime.

It's more evidence of a problem that all the candidates for district attorney are citing on the campaign trail: bad decision-making by the D.A.'s office, allowing hundreds of weak, overcharged cases to bog down the criminal-justice system.

In the early 1980s, when Ed Rendell was D.A., he fought a political battle with the Police Department, finally establishing a charging unit inside the D.A.'s office with responsibility for filing criminal charges. Previously, the Police Department could level criminal charges on its own.

"In the old days, assistant district attorneys would review police fact sheets and lend a critical eye to what was going on," said Dan McCaffery, one of the five Democratic candidates for D.A. "Now you have young, inexperienced paralegals, probably a bit afraid of the police and intimidated by them. . . . They tend to be rubber-stamps for the police, and there tends to be overcharging."

Another candidate, Brian J. Grady, who has an active criminal-defense practice, said: "The chief of the unit is still a D.A. He supervises. But most of the people are . . . young people without law degrees. I would put D.A.s back in there, trust their judgment and implore them to use reasonableness."

Candidate Dan McElhatton said: "Overcharging causes a congestion in the system that is needless. If instead of a felony, you have a misdemeanor that can be handled in Community Court, where a judge tells you to stay out of trouble and do some community service, that's a sizeable savings in resources."

And D.A. hopeful Michael Turner said: "We have a prison system that's really overcrowded. The majority of people are there because they can't make bail or they're charged with misdemeanor crimes. We have to divert people out of there into the Community Court system."

Cathie Abookire, spokeswoman for D.A. Lynne Abraham, said by e-mail that in the current system, all criminal charges are approved by prosecutors, not paralegals. The names of paralegals may have appeared on charging papers, she said, because they represented the prosecutors' office at arraignments.

Abookire said that no one in the D.A.'s office would discuss the paraphernalia raids on mom-and-pop stores, now the subject of multiple investigations.

The charging problems aren't limited to the cases of the troubled Narcotics Field Unit described in the Daily News "Tainted Justice" series.

Grady, who has made the issue a keynote of his campaign, described a recent case in which he represented a young woman in her early 20s.

She and another woman fought over a man. Neither woman had any criminal record, but after the fight spilled into the doorway of one woman's home, Grady's client was charged with burglary and aggravated assault, both felonies.

"Their tempers got out of control," said Grady. "It was a case for community service."

Instead, the case went to trial, and his client was found guilty of simple assault, a misdemeanor.

Last year, Grady said, an umpire showed up drunk to officiate a Sunday morning softball game in Northeast Philadelphia. A fight ensued after the umpire threw a softball through one of the players' windshields. Though his client was not involved in the fight, Grady said, the umpire filed a complaint with the D.A.'s office, which had approved a felony charge - "aggravated assault on a sports official."

The charges were thrown out in court, Grady said, when the umpire showed up to testify - drunk again. *

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