Former Traffic Court judges' defense set to begin

Posted: July 09, 2014

Combined, they have won acquittals for clients charged with corruption, graft, theft, and murder.

But for the last month, some of Philadelphia's highest-profile defense attorneys have pooled their vast legal brainpower to pick apart dozens of routine traffic tickets.

This week, they hope those efforts will pay off as they begin to present their case in federal court on behalf of five former Traffic Court judges charged with fraud and conspiracy.

Government lawyers are expected to wrap up their presentation to jurors Tuesday after 18 days of testimony.

So far, dozens of court employees and ticket holders have described a long-standing culture of favoritism at Traffic Court for family and political allies.

Judicial assistants routinely passed index cards between chambers flagging certain cases for "consideration," as they called it, and more often than not those requests would result in a dismissal or a significant reduction in penalties and fines.

Federal prosecutors have alleged that practice cost the city and state significant revenue in unpaid fees. But throughout the case, lawyers for former Judges Michael J. Sullivan, Michael Lowry, Robert Mulgrew, Willie Singletary, and Thomasine Tynes have fought back with a ticket-by-ticket approach.

As their thinking goes, if each of the tickets in question was faulty from the get-go, what option did their clients have but to throw them out?

And since a ticket's fines are not due until a guilty verdict is entered, prosecutors cannot argue that the judges deprived the government of any revenue it deserved, the defense attorneys say.

"Prosecutors call it consideration," Tynes' lawyer, Louis Busico, said during his opening statement to jurors in May. " Consideration is their evil way of saying the word discretion."

This step-by-step strategy has led to a few surreal moments in court, such as when lawyer Paul J. Hetznecker, who made his name handling criminal defense and civil rights cases, argued with an FBI agent Tuesday over whether exceeding the posted speed limit is enough to convict someone of speeding under Pennsylvania law.

Unsafe driving is necessary, too, Hetznecker said in defense of client Robert Moy, a Chinatown businessman accused alongside the judges.

Earlier, questioning from Singletary's lawyer, William J. Brennan Jr., prompted an admission from a retired Bucks County district judge and government witness that left prosecutors cringing. When looked at in the most negative light, Judge Ruth Dietrich said, "I guess I could be perceived of fixing tickets."

It may not be the flashiest defense strategy. But if those lawyers can convince jurors that each ticket was rightfully dismissed, that might be enough to acquit.

Federal prosecutors Anthony Wzorek and Denise Wolf have laid out their case against the judges along a similar course. Each stands charged with mail and wire fraud, based on 50 citations they handled from 2008 to 2011.

The government has also lodged a larger conspiracy count, stemming from what they describe as Traffic Court's unspoken policy of judges honoring consideration requests from their colleagues. Many of the judges also face charges of perjury and lying to federal agents.

"Consideration was that we were asked to look out for someone so they didn't get hurt - points on their record or their license suspended," Kevin O'Donnell, a former assistant to Lowry and government witness, explained to jurors last month.

But what prosecutors describe as a consideration, defense attorneys have repeatedly chalked up to a fair use of judicial discretion - the same discretion, they contend, prosecutors used in deciding whom to charge in their case.

Most of the government's witnesses testified under grants of immunity from prosecution. Many of those who did, including court staff and individual ticket holders who called asking for favors, are just as culpable in any purported conspiracy, the defense lawyers have argued.

Angela Halim, the lawyer for Mulgrew, has maintained that nearly every ticket recipient who came before her client received some sort of break. During cross-examination, Halim asked: Who is the government to say that those with connections to the court received treatment any different from those without?

"Judge Mulgrew almost always gave everyone some sort of break - that's called a plea bargain," Halim said. "The point of Philadelphia Traffic Court was for the ticket holder to come in and walk away with something less than what they came in with."

Busico, attorney for Tynes, blames Philadelphia's unique system for handling traffic tickets. Judges were often forced to be more lenient, he said, because unlike in other jurisdictions, Philadelphia police do not routinely show up to defend their tickets in court. If citations are faulty or missing information, the judges were obligated to downgrade or dismiss, he said.

After all, Brennan has stressed, not one of the judges stands accused of accepting a bribe.

(Notably, it was his client, Singletary, with whom prosecutors came closest to suggesting a quid pro quo, showing jurors a video Wednesday of the former judge promising his "hookup" to a group of bikers in exchange for campaign donations.)

Still, those arguments have at times come dangerously close to a sentiment expressed by several of the government's own witnesses: This is Philadelphia and that's just the way things work.

Or, as William DeStefano, lawyer for Lowry, put it during cross-examination of one government witness: "All that was being asked was that in the sea of tickets the judges are looking at each day, that they take a special look at some."

Ultimately what jurors make of the defense case - which is expected to take up to two weeks - could come down to whether they are willing to meet such arguments with a similar shrug.


jroebuck@phillynews.com

215-925-2649

@jeremyrroebuck

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