Anyone who is surprised about all the indictments handed down this week for a gaggle of Philadelphia Traffic Court Judges doesn’t know much about Philadelphia Traffic Court. Personally, what surprises me is not the fact that these judges are in trouble for allegedly “fixing” cases, but that it took so long for someone to say anything. I have been a PA Drivers License Lawyer for over twenty years and have had the pleasure of going to Philly Traffic Court probably almost a thousand times. That said, for those that are unfamiliar with how this unique animal of american jurisprudence works, let me lay it out for you.
When a cop gives a person a ticket, that ticket calls for an appearance at the famous address of 800 Spring Garden Street in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – Philadelphia Traffic Court. The first thing the uninitiated notices is how grimy and rundown the facilty is and, now that it has been refashioned with metal detectors, more cashiers, and some new walls and hallways – what an absolute nightmare it is to navigate through. When one actually finds the courtroom they need to be in so they may defend their traffic ticket(s) they will find that the cop that gave him the ticket is nowhere to be found nor is there any kind of prosecutor in sight either. There IS one police “liaison” officer standing at the front of the room armed with all the tickets for everyone in the room. Drag racing tickets, reckless driving tickets, driving while suspended tickets, being the most common. This person calls everyone up one by one and ask you “what do you wanna do?”. They might offer you a plea bargain. They might not. If you can’t “work it out” with the officer, who knows nothing about your case, you will wait for the judge to come out and he will ask the defendant their version of what happened. And then the judge will find them guilty, not guilty, or basically dispose of the case in any other way they please. With no prosecutor there…or a cop to tell the judge what happened…and an ordinary citizen representing themselves – the judge is free to do whatever he or she pleases with no fear of any backlash or repercussions. In short, there is no accountability.
So Traffic Court judges can do anything they want. Actually, for you and me that’s good. They’re not bad people – in fact I think a lot of them are -were-are ? – pretty cool. In this type of judicial setting, the unrepresented people can catch breaks, the people that have lawyers will catch breaks, and the people with better or more connected lawyers will catch better breaks. That’s basically the way it has always worked. As a Philadelphia Traffic Court Lawyer, would I expect one of these judges, who answer to no one, to cut a break for a friend’s niece or maybe his own babysitter? Sure. Because “abuses” like this are inherent in the system that has been in place for years. If you now just plug in a bunch of new judges it’ll just happen again as soon as they get comfortable. Don’t get me wrong – if money changed hands that’s illegal and wrong and should be punished. But to me, punishing these judges for what they did (IF there was no pecuniary benefit) is like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.