New plan to put prosecutors in Phila. Traffic Court

Posted: May 21, 2014

The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office would take on new responsibility for prosecuting traffic violations under a proposal announced Monday as part of a series of efforts to root out corruption in the city's troubled Traffic Court.

Four city prosecutors and 10 paralegals would be dispatched to handle at least 500 cases a day, replacing a system in which police officers often have served in the prosecutorial role.

The shift should bring more uniformity to the outcomes of cases and provide an extra level of scrutiny, Mayor Nutter and District Attorney Seth Williams said in announcing the proposal Monday. Nutter plans to amend the city's annual budget to provide $800,000 for the new staff, with City Council approval.

"The old system had to die and go away," Nutter said. "This court will rise from the ashes of a tainted justice system and provide true justice for all."

Nutter's proposal came on the day that jury selection was to begin in the federal trial of six former Traffic Court judges accused of operating a long-standing ticket-fixing scheme.

But those proceedings were pushed back until Wednesday, after U.S. District Judge Robert F. Kelly got sick and had to be replaced. Judge Lawrence F. Stengel is expected to resume jury selection Wednesday.

That federal case caps a series of scandals in Traffic Court, which Nutter described Monday as "a mockery to the standard of evenhanded justice."

In 2012, an independent report commissioned by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that Traffic Court, from its home at Eighth and Spring Garden Streets, had for years operated two tracks of justice - one for the well-connected, and another for everyone else.

Judges routinely dismissed cases for friends and political allies, costing the city and state thousands of dollars in potential revenue from fines, federal prosecutors have said.

The district attorney's new role in handling traffic violations comes as part of a series of changes instituted since the legislature abolished Traffic Court last year and folded its operations into a division of Municipal Court.

Only one of Traffic Court's original judges remains. Last week, five newly hired hearing officers began taking on cases involving disputed tickets.

Gary S. Glazer, a Common Pleas Court judge appointed to oversee the restructuring, said Monday that the court's transition was in progress.

"There is no book on how to start a new court," he said. "We are figuring out how to fly the airplane at the same time that we're building it."



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