New rules will govern city courts

"Everyone agrees that the criminal justice system in Philadelphia is broken, and everyone agrees it must be fixed," Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams (right) says.
"Everyone agrees that the criminal justice system in Philadelphia is broken, and everyone agrees it must be fixed," Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams (right) says.

After an Inquirer series uncovered a court system in chaos, the state Supreme Court took action to devise procedures specifically for Philadelphia.

Posted: April 04, 2010

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has imposed tough new rules - effective Tuesday - ordering city judges to work harder and giving prosecutors more time to mount their cases and potentially win more convictions.

In one key change, Municipal Court judges can no longer postpone hearings when defendants, police, witnesses, and victims are in the courtroom and ready to go, a little-known practice that has contributed to the pervasive delays that have bogged down the Philadelphia criminal courts.

Some judges have been stepping down from the bench early in the day without completing the list of cases assigned to them. Delayed case files then are marked with the notation "Ready - not reached."

Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, saying he was responding to a recent Inquirer series that described a court system in chaos, has won the backing of the full seven-member Supreme Court for new judicial rules that will apply only in Philadelphia, where some 60,000 new cases enter the court system annually.

Castille exercised his power as the state's top judge to ban the "Ready - not reached" practice unilaterally.

"We're taking some pretty dramatic steps to improve things," said Castille, who was Philadelphia district attorney from 1986 to 1991. "We obviously recognize there were some problems in the system."

Most of the changes will affect the lower-tier Municipal Court, where defendants are arraigned, misdemeanor trials take place, and preliminary hearings are conducted to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to hold defendants for trial on felony charges in Common Pleas Court.

In taking action, Castille cited an Inquirer series that found the city courts in crisis, widespread witness fear, a massive fugitive problem, and thousands of cases tossed out with no ruling on their merits. Of cases that end without a conviction, 84 percent fall apart in Municipal Court.

"Maybe it takes something like your articles as an impetus," he said in outlining the changes.

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

The reform agenda was crafted by the chief justice and Justice Seamus McCaffery, who has been overseeing an overhaul of the Philadelphia courts in response to The Inquirer's findings.

Castille and McCaffery have also named a blue-ribbon panel to work with consultants and recommend further reforms of the city courts.

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams predicted the changes would have a "huge impact" and increase the city's conviction rates.

"Everyone agrees that the criminal justice system in Philadelphia is broken, and everyone agrees it must be fixed," he said.

Critics, led by McCaffery, a onetime police detective, have long complained that Municipal Court judges have allowed preliminary hearings to turn into protracted "mini-trials" - in sharp contrast to the abbreviated hearings in Philadelphia's suburbs and across the state.

The new rules would require judges to hold preliminary hearings even when defendants do not show up for court.

"The case shall proceed in the defendant's absence and a warrant of arrest shall be issued," Castille wrote in one section of an eight-page list of new directives.

This change is aimed at cracking down on Philadelphia's massive number of fugitives. At last count, 47,000 fugitives from city courts were wanted on bench warrants.

After The Inquirer published its examination of the Philadelphia criminal justice system, Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.) proposed legislation to make it a federal crime to intimidate a witness in a local court case. He also has urged the U.S. Marshals Service to to help Philadelphia track down its court fugitives.

Prosecutors will also get more time to conduct preliminary hearings under the new rules.

For years, the rule in Pennsylvania has been that prosecutors must schedule preliminary hearings within 3 to 10 days of an arrest. As of Tuesday, according to an order approved by the entire seven-member high court, Philadelphia prosecutors will have up to 21 days to do this.

Castille, McCaffery, and city prosecutors say that simple change will stop many cases from being tossed out of court with no decision on their core allegations.

Another change orders judges to ask defense lawyers first - rather than prosecutors - whether they are ready for a hearing to proceed.

That change was made, Castille said bluntly, "so the defense can't game the system."

Some defense lawyers privately acknowledge that they routinely delay cases by seeking spurious postponements if they know prosecution witnesses and victims are in court and ready to testify. The hope is that at the next hearing, the victims and witness won't show. The tactic is especially common in domestic-abuse cases, to give battered spouses time to cool down, some defense lawyers say.

Other lawyers bitterly dispute that such tactics are routine, saying they fight fair.

"Gamesmanship, I don't buy into that," said Michael J. Engle, president of the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

He added: "Some people do that. But I think it's in the minority of cases."

The changes are in large part designed to modify the impact of the so-called three-strikes rule.

Under court policy, judges are permitted to dismiss a case after the prosecution has had to request three delays in putting on the preliminary hearing because it has been unable to get its witnesses into court.

Prosecutors say the three-strikes rule is abused by some defense lawyers, who play a delaying game to get "strikes."

Prosecutors also say that the rule requiring the first hearing to be scheduled as soon as three days after an arrest almost always guaranteed a first "strike" because they say they could rarely get a case together in such a short time.

In still more changes backed by Castille and McCaffery, the high court reached into the minutiae of Philadelphia courtrooms to impose new standards for the behavior of defense lawyers and judges.

The court barred judges from postponing cases until they have checked three times whether they are ready to go. And it said judges cannot reschedule cases until after 11 a.m. on any given day.

The court also decreed that defense lawyers must make preliminary hearings a priority over other court proceedings, except trials, unless they give judges two days' notice.

Engle, of the defense lawyers association, said that directive was impractical and would likely prove impossible to enforce. Philadelphia judges, he said, "can have fun telling the federal judges a lawyer has to be at 55th and Pine when he's scheduled to be in federal court at 9 a.m."

"It's not going to happen," he said. "I'm not sure how it can be done."

As the pace of reform has quickened since the Inquirer series - and as the high court and the district attorney have pushed a common agenda for change - the defense bar has grown increasingly vigorous in its opposition.

Charles A. Cunningham, a top lawyer at the Defender Association of Philadelphia, did not return calls late last week. At a forum on proposed court reforms sponsored by the Philadelphia Bar Association earlier in the week, he predicted that permitting more cases to advance in Municipal Court would in turn clog dockets in Common Pleas Court.

Cunningham said critics of Municipal Court judges seemed to want to have it two ways, complaining that jurists were reluctant to sit on the bench for a full day but also faulting them for presiding over protracted "mini-trials."

He scoffed at the idea that the criminal justice system was broken. It has "flaws," he said, but still dispenses justice.

Veteran defense lawyer Joseph C. Santaguida also said he was skeptical that the new policies would have much impact.

If prosecutors could not mount a preliminary hearing within 10 days, he said, they would likely fail at the task within three weeks.

The problem, he said, was not time, but victims or witnesses unwilling to show up for court.

As for barring judges from postponing "ready" cases, Santaguida said that ignored the fact that judges faced jammed rosters every day.

"The only reason they ever get out at a reasonable hour is because so many cases aren't ready," he said. "What are you going to do? Make them work until 11 o'clock at night?"

McCaffery, a former Municipal Court administrative judge, said the system was on the verge of real change.

"All of this combined will have a dramatic effect," he said.


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

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