Suburbs may offer an answer for Philadelphia courts

District Attorney Seth Williams says he wants preliminary hearings "to become what they are in the other 66 counties."
District Attorney Seth Williams says he wants preliminary hearings "to become what they are in the other 66 counties."
Posted: March 07, 2010

Judge William Maruszczak's courtroom is hardly the stuff of Law & Order.

Often, there isn't even a prosecutor. Police officers put on criminal cases, outlining only the barest details to persuade the judge to hold a defendant for trial. Victims seldom take the stand. Defense lawyers ask few questions. No stenographer keeps a record.

Hearings conclude within minutes.

"We move 'em in. We move 'em out," said Maruszczak, a district judge in King of Prussia. "We don't mess around."

If Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams and the state Supreme Court have their way, this no-nonsense approach will be the future in Philadelphia Municipal Court - the city's equivalent of the suburban district courts.

Williams and two justices of the high court want to transform Municipal Court, the court at the heart of the breakdown of the Philadelphia criminal justice system. They say it is out of step with every other county in Pennsylvania.

They are pushing for change in response to an Inquirer series that depicted a Philadelphia court system in crisis, plagued by low conviction rates and the dismissal of thousands of cases each year.

The series showed that when city criminal cases collapse, they largely do so in Municipal Court. Of all violent-crime cases that die, The Inquirer found, 82 percent fall apart in this lower court. The court system's own statistical reports, reflecting 60,000 cases of violent and property crime, also show the Municipal Court breakdown.

A key reason cases fail is that Philadelphia judges have allowed preliminary hearings to evolve into complex proceedings with often lengthy testimony. This permits defense lawyers to dig deeply into the prosecution's evidence and to move to dismiss a case if a victim or a police officer fails to appear.

"That's not the purpose of a preliminary hearing," said state Supreme Court Justice Seamus P. McCaffery, a former administrative judge of Philadelphia Municipal Court. "It's strictly prima facie evidence - the lowest rung on the evidentiary ladder."

In other words, the standard should simply be whether a defendant is more likely than not to have committed the crime.

McCaffery, Williams, and the state's chief justice, Ronald D. Castille, propose streamlining these crucial early hearings, clearing the way for cases to move more quickly toward a decision on the merits.

They would permit more hearsay testimony at preliminary hearings, especially in cases of property crimes. Police officers, for example, could recount what they had learned from talking to victims, rather than the victims' being required to take time off from work for initial hearings that are regularly postponed.

Another change under consideration would require judges to hold preliminary hearings in absentia when defendants fail to show. Judicial rules permit this, but it is rarely done, despite Philadelphia's massive number of 47,000 fugitives from court.

On some issues, Castille and McCaffery have the power to simply direct local judges to modify their courtroom practices. In others, the high court might have to issue a formal order to bring about change.

These proposals worry some members of the city's defense bar, who say the measures would undermine the rights of the accused and do little to ease the burden on victims.

Daniel Walls, a veteran public defender who supervises the office's preliminary-hearing unit, said he believed many such hearings were far too brief.

"All I see is our people having their cross-examinations cut off," he said.

The Defender Association represents defendants too poor to hire a private lawyer. It represents about two-thirds of all indigent defendants.

Marsha H. Neifield, the president judge of Municipal Court, did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

McCaffery, designated by the high court to shake up the Philadelphia courts after the Inquirer series, said a preliminary hearing is held merely to determine whether there is enough evidence for a defendant to go to trial. Prosecutors need only show that a crime took place and that the defendant was likely involved.

That is a more relaxed standard than at trial, where judges or juries must decide whether a defendant is guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt."

At the early hearings, McCaffery said, "it's such a low threshold that in the counties you can have a police officer read a report in the record and the case is held for court."

That happens routinely in courtrooms across Pennsylvania, but not in Philadelphia.

In Maruszczak's King of Prussia courtroom, the rules are spelled out on a chalkboard:

"The question at a preliminary hearing is not whether there is sufficient evidence to prove defendant guilty beyond reasonable doubt, but rather, whether prosecution must be dismissed because there is nothing to indicate that defendant is connected with a crime."

Below the message, it says: "Do not erase."

The judge said those words, written by his predecessor, had been on the board in that courtroom for more than 20 years.

The rules were on display Tuesday as Maruszczak made quick work of case after case, disposing of a prostitution case, two drug cases, bad-check and identity-theft charges, and a shoplifting case in hearings that lasted only a few minutes each.

On the same day in Philadelphia, defendants and victims sat around for hours in courtrooms at the Criminal Justice Center as lawyers sparred over evidence and a judge sifted through the facts in a similar list of cases.

In one case, the prosecutor and public defender spent about an hour arguing over a burglary of an auto-repair shop. A key question: whether stolen Snap-on tools offered for resale by an admitted burglar were the very same tools taken from the shop.

This sort of legal squabbling is routine at the courthouse and in hearings held daily at police districts across the city.

Williams, on the day after he was sworn in as district attorney in January, handled a round of cases at the courtroom inside the police station at 55th and Pine Streets in West Philadelphia.

In one stolen-car case, Williams was unable to proceed because the victim, Philadelphia psychiatrist Richard Cohen, had patients to see and could not make it to court.

On Dec. 25, Cohen and his daughter had left a tennis center at the University of Pennsylvania to discover that his 2005 Mercury Marquis was missing. Police arrested a suspect in the now banged-up car four days later.

In the suburbs, the case could have gone forward with the testimony of a police officer alone. In Philadelphia, it could not proceed in the absence of the victim. Williams had to ask for a postponement.

In a recent speech to the Philadelphia Bar Association, Williams cited the case as an example of the city court's unduly cumbersome process.

"I don't want preliminary hearings in Philadelphia to remain mini-trials," he said. "I want them to become what they are in the other 66 counties."

Cohen, for one, said he would welcome that.

While the doctor said he was willing to go to court, he said his absence from his job imposed a burden on his patients.

"Emotional pain is the worst kind of pain, and I'm trying to help people with severe problems," he said.

The push to change preliminary hearings is only the latest skirmish in a 15-year fight to simplify the sessions in Philadelphia.

In the mid-1990s, at a time of fiscal crisis, Mayor Ed Rendell pushed the courts to permit greater use of hearsay in drug cases. To cut police overtime, the courts agreed that a single member of a narcotics squad could testify about the actions of fellow officers in a drug sweep.

The Defender Association fought this change and overturned the arrest of a PCP dealer. But the District Attorney's Office appealed, and the state Superior Court affirmed the policy shift.

In 2001, when McCaffery, a former homicide detective, became administrative judge of Municipal Court, he expanded the use of hearsay testimony in preliminary hearings to stolen-car and burglary cases.

After McCaffery left Municipal Court in 2003, however, many judges once again began requiring victims to show up.

Critics say this has exacerbated delays in Philadelphia's clogged courts, driving down conviction rates and aggravating victims, witnesses - and some lawyers.

Bonnie-Ann Brill Keagy, a leader of the defense bar in Montgomery County, said she had stopped taking Philadelphia cases out of frustration with the system's gridlock.

"I haven't had a case in Philadelphia for nine years because I just couldn't take it anymore," she said during a break from hearings in Maruszczak's courtroom. "The number of times I had to go for hearings was just unmanageable."


Reforms Under Consideration

Preliminary hearings are used only to determine whether to proceed to full trial. Proposals to streamline them include:

Allowing victims to testify without having to be present. Police officers instead could recount what victims said in their investigation.

Requiring judges to conduct a hearing even if the defendant fails to show up.


Contact staff writer Nancy Phillips at 215-854-2254 or nphillips@phillynews.com.

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