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We Are Shocked!

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Like Casablanca's Capt. Renault, I am shocked, shocked to learn about reports of ticket-fixing at Traffic Court outlined in today's (Nov. 21) Inquirer.

Reporter Craig McCoy got ahold of an investigation report ordered up by the state Supreme Court that concluded that Traffic Court had "two tracks of justice -- one for the connected and another for the unwitting general public."

Who is doing the fixing? According to the report, the "requestors"  -- I love that name -- tend to be ward leaders, local elected officials, and the usual crew of Democratic party big- and medium-sized wigs.

Among the "requestors" who get special treatment include Traffic Court workers and their families. As the Inquirer reported, while the acquittal rate for the general public was 26 percent, it was 84 percent for court employees and their relatives.  What a striking coincidence.

There is no word on what the Supremes, who also serve as administrators of the state court system, will do with the information included in the report.  They have already replaced the former head of the court with a real live judge who is a former federal prosecutor, so the fixing that went on has (one hopes) gone on hiatus.   

More ominously for current and former Traffic Court judges, the U.S. Attorney's office and the FBI are already in the midst of an investigation into hanky-panky at the court.

The feds are like the Eye of Mordor when it comes to local corruption -- a relentless force hard to avoid once they fix their gaze on you.

What was happening at Traffic Court is not an aberration.

Traffic Court was designed to work this way, as part and parcel of the Democratic organization (and, before it, the Republican organization).

First of all, it is just barely a court at all. The "judges" do not have, nor are they required to have, law degrees. Often, they are political hacks -- ward leaders or their minions elected because they got the endorsement of the Democratic party or because of the accident of drawing top ballot position.  A recent example: Judge Willie Singletary, who was a traffic scofflaw, was elected a few years ago when he got the top ballot spot.  Singletary was removed from the bench by the Supremes this year after he showed a cell-phone shot of his, um, willie, to a female staffer.

Second, the court is all patronage.  The 115 employees are there because they come highly recommended -- by ward leaders. They tend to be committee people or friends or relatives of ward leaders.  It is all politics, all the time.

Various attempts have been made to professionalize the court, which processes 17,000 cases a year, but all is for naught as long as it remains firmly in the patronage orbit.

One thing to note about the investigation, conducted by former city prosecutor William Chadwick, was "no one inside Traffic Court alleged that money or anything else of value changed hands." It was, instead, influence peddling.

The study did note that "preferential treatment in a traffic case has substantial financial value." Traffic Court does not adjudicate parking tickets.  It handles only moving violations, including reckless driving and running red lights and stop signs. Convictions can mean not only substantial fines -- sometimes running into hundreds of dollars -- but also can result in points being added to a driver's record or even license suspension.

My favorite story in the report involves a part-time judge named Warren Hogeland. He told Chadwick's investigators that when he arrived on the court then-administrative Judge Bernice DeAngelis urged him to fix tickets.

"This is Philadelphia. We do things a lot different in Philadelphia," Hogeland, who's also certified as a district judge in Bucks County, said she told him.

After a while, Hogeland said, he decided that fixing tickets was wrong and told DeAngelis he would cease and desist.

"I want you to understand. This is Philadelphia," she said, rising and pounding a table, Hogeland recalled in the report. "This is the way we do things. I want you to get with the game plan."

Which suggests my idea for a new signage outside of Traffic Court headquarters on Spring Garden Street.  Maybe something in neon that would read, simply: This is Philadelphia.

It says everything we need to know.

-- Tom Ferrick

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