Philadelphia Metropolis


Scandal at Traffic Court

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Traffic Court.jpgWhat a shock.  It seems there is politics involved in Traffic Court.

If you are politically connected you get treated one way; if you are not shut up and pay your fine.

Did money change hands as part of the deal?  Stay tuned for further developments: the FBI is investigating. Subpoenas have been issued.  Traffic Court judges and staff have been questioned.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron Castille, acting in his role as administrator of all state courts, stepped into the scene Monday, removing Michael J. Sullivan as administrative judge at Traffic Court and replacing him with Common Please Judge Gary S. Glazer, who is a former federal prosecutor.

Castille acted after an outside consultant hired by the Supremes did an audit that showed a pattern of "adjusting tickets."

Did I mention? Sullivan is a former Democratic ward leader and Traffic Court is one of the last bastions of party control over the courts.  Note: I did not say influence.  I said control.

There are a couple of things that are important to know about Traffic Court.

1. It is not, in any way, connected with the Philadelphia Parking Authority.  The PPA hands out tickets for parking violations.  Traffic Court adjudicates cases involving moving violations -- running a red light, speeding, going through a stop sign, etc. 

As all Pennsylvanians know, persons guilty of moving violations are subject not only to fines, but also have points charged to their driving record.  Accumulate enough points and you could get your license suspended.

2. Traffic Court judges are not lawyers.  They are not required to be members of the bar.  Some of them do not have college degrees.  Anyone can run for the job, as was proven in

the primary election when it turned out that one of the candidates had a criminal record. John Adams pleaded guilty in 2003 to charges related to theft and storage of computer equipment. He was not amused when I called him about that incident.

To quote Adams: "I am a good candidate for Traffic Court judge regardless of my criminal record." He really said that.

Adams did not win. Since these are below-the-radar races where no one knows anything about anyone is running, the seats usually are won by candidates endorsed by the Democratic organization. Often they are ward leaders. Usually they are hacks.

So, to summarize: We put political hacks in charge of a system involving adjudication of millions of dollars worth of tickets and we get what?

This is not the first time Traffic Court has seen scandal. In the late 1970's, then President Judge Louis Vignola went to jail for taking $32,000 in bribes. A few years later an administrator at the court was jailed for diverting $18,000 from the court coffers. Scandals involving favorable treatment are common.

If Traffic Court resembles anything it resembles the old magistrate system in Philadelphia that lasted into the early 1970's. The job of magistrates was to hold preliminary hearings on those arrested for crimes and to handle low-level offenses. Magistrates also were not lawyers. Magistrates often were ward heelers. And, as it turned out, magistrates were taking money to settle cases and giving tap-on-the-wrist verdicts to allies and friends of ward leaders.

If we offer two kinds of justice -- one for the connected, the other for those who are not -- then we are not offering justice.

Who knows how the Traffic Court investigation will play out. The feds work on their own time line. But maybe -- just maybe -- it may be time to get rid of Traffic Court and hand over adjudication of cases to a body, such as the Bureau of Administrative Adjustment, which hears parking ticket appeals.

The BAA is not perfect. A few years ago, one of its hearing officers were convicted of taking bribes to "adjust" parking tickets en masse. He went to jail.

But, it is a far more transparent system than Traffic Court.

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