My wife—better known to Philadelphia as wildly popular former Fox 29 anchor Dawn Stensland-Mendte, and now even more popular in my home in her current position as Mommy—recently was privy to a frustrating, firsthand look at the ineffectiveness of the Philadelphia court system.
It was almost a year to the date that thieves broke into our garage (which I wrote about here) and took off with Dawn’s minivan, with two car seats in the back and new shoes, an array of toys and videos proudly owned by my sons, Michael (then age six) and David (age three). Philadelphia police did a fast and wonderful job of collecting evidence in the van and tracking down the owner of a partial fingerprint they found. His name is Carlos Caez, and he lives in Hunting Park, where Dawn and I found the stolen vehicle. He reportedly told detectives that he didn’t steal the van, that a friend picked him up for a ride—a friend whose name he could not recall. Caez was arrested and charged and scheduled to appear in court for trial.
That’s when the case grinded to a slow crawl. Dawn has been to court three times in the past nine months to be a witness in the case. Three times Carlos Caez has not shown. Three times the judge has issued a bench warrant for his arrest. The last time was this past Monday. I was working in New York. Dawn couldn’t find child care so she brought our son David, now four-and-a-half, to court. It seemed right; after all, two of his Transformer action figures are still missing.
Dawn, David and the two police officers involved with the case sat in the front row of the courtroom waiting for Caez to show up. When Court of Common Pleas judge Roxanne Covington entered the courtroom, my son David said loud enough for everyone to hear, “Pretty lady!” That was at 9 a.m. Three hours later, it became clear that Caez was not going to show up again. Another bench warrant was issued; the judge broke for lunch, and Dawn and David were told they could go home.
Dawn stood in the hallway holding David and talked with about a dozen police officers who filled her in on the way Philadelphia justice works, or I should say, doesn’t work. All of the officers were there on overtime. The two officers on Dawn’s minivan case work a four-to-midnight shift and had to be in court at 9 in the morning. “Those accused often don’t show, but if we are five minutes late the judges will throw out the case,” one officer complained.
Dawn told them that this was her third time in court waiting for Caez to show. “Typical,” another officer mumbled. “Those bench warrants mean nothing,” one added. “They pile up like unpaid parking tickets. We can’t run on every bench warrant because we are stretched too thin.” The cops all agreed this is where justice stops in the city because most accused criminals know this Philadelphia loophole. “If this were any of the suburbs,” one cop added, “it would be a different story. They have the time to act on every bench warrant. We don’t.”
Dawn was stunned. All of these police officers were on overtime. So Philadelphia taxpayers are paying for them to sit in a courtroom waiting for accused criminals who rarely show. And then bench warrants are issued that are not acted upon. “It’s screwed up I know, but what are you going to do?” a veteran cop lamented. “It’s the system. Welcome to Philadelphia.”
As Dawn and David said their goodbyes, an officer spoke up. “Hey, do you have a picture of this guy? He’s in my district. I could pick him up.” Dawn was stunned again. “Yes, I do. But I got the picture from detectives. Can’t you get it from them?” The officer smiled and said, “It would be easier if you just gave it to me.” Another problem in the system exposed.
Dawn has faxed the picture to the officer. With any luck, the next time she is called to court, Caez will be there too. And if he is guilty, maybe Dawn can help prevent someone else from going through what she went through. It’s called being a good citizen. Now if only the Philadelphia justice system was as diligent.