Despite verdict, reforms in Traffic Court take hold

Posted: July 25, 2014

For decades, irate prosecutors have pursued corruption in Philadelphia Traffic Court and won significant convictions - only to have ticket-fixing become standard practice once again.

But this time around, even with Wednesday's mixed verdict in the latest Traffic Court trial, reform may be too advanced to stop.

Of course, it helps that Traffic Court no longer exists.

"The reforms have been implemented and are in practice as we speak," said Deputy District Attorney Laurie Malone, who oversees a new team of city prosecutors handling ticket cases. "So there's no going backward."

After the FBI raided Traffic Court in 2011, the state Supreme Court sent in two former prosecutors to oversee the court and look anew at its culture of ticket-fixing.

The result was a scathing report by William G. Chadwick Jr. documenting the entrenched practice of tossing tickets for the politically connected. Even before the report's release, Common Pleas Court Judge Gary S. Glazer took over administrative oversight of Traffic Court with a mandate to stamp out corruption.

The shake-up went into overdrive after nine current or former Traffic Court judges were federally indicted in 2013. In record time, the legislature and Gov. Corbett abolished the court, folded it into Municipal Court, and replaced most of its elected judges with appointed hearing examiners.

The results have been striking.

In 2010, a year before the FBI went public with its raid, Traffic Court tossed out 3,195 tickets "in absentia" - the accused motorist didn't have to appear in court, a sure marker for a possible fix.

Last year, the court tossed out just 169 tickets that way.

Overall, the acquittal rate in Traffic Court fell from 23 percent in 2010 to 14 percent last year.

"That gives you a glimpse of . . . how things have materially improved," said Chadwick.

"The crux of our report was that the court operated with two tracks of justice - one for the connected and one for everybody else," he said. "We have worked very hard over the last few years to make sure that is gone forever."

The court's 110 employees kept their jobs, and cases are still heard at the old Traffic Court building at Eighth and Spring Garden Streets.

Working with Municipal Court President Judge Marsha H. Neifield, Glazer and Chadwick picked the five new hearing examiners. All are lawyers - unlike the typical Traffic Court elected judge.

In May, Mayor Nutter and District Attorney Seth Williams announced that for the first time, the District Attorney's Office would prosecute Traffic Court cases, at a cost to taxpayers of $800,000. Previously, police detailed to the court would serve in effect as prosecutors and witnesses alike.

Malone said prosecutors and hearing examiners are assigned cases randomly each day. If you aim to fix a case, she said, "you don't know who to call."

"We want to make sure that every citizen that walks in there knows he is going to get the same deal as the guy right next to him," she said.

Glazer said he had worked hard to revamp the culture, holding ethics classes and even "customer sensitivity" sessions.

"I think this is a marvelous place now," he said. "It's not perfect, but I think the hearing officers are terrific, the D. A.s are good advocates, the court staff has embraced the change."

Only one elected judge, Christine Solomon, still hears cases. Her term ends in 2017; then, the seat will be abolished.

While she was not charged in the federal probe, the state Supreme Court has sought to discipline her for allegedly stonewalling Chadwick's 2012 inquiry. That matter is pending.

Suspended Traffic Court Judge Michael J. Sullivan, acquitted of all charges Wednesday, holds the only other "grandfathered" seat. His position also will end in 2017.

Lawyer Roy DeCaro, who as a prosecutor in the 1980s won convictions in the last major ticket-fixing cases, said the newest reforms should hold - "at least for the next several years."

Calling Glazer "straight-arrow tough," DeCaro said, "Those guys down there would be very foolish to come even close to fixing tickets again."

Lawyer William J. Brennan Jr., whose client, former Judge Willie Singletary, was acquitted of fixing tickets but convicted of making false statements to the FBI, agreed: "I would think that if I was a judge, if my mother called me about a traffic ticket, I'd say, 'See you in court, Mom.'"

215-854-4821 @CraigRMcCoy

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