Abolishing Traffic Court Will Be Your Most Satisfying Vote Ever
Editor’s Note: This is an opinion column from Philadelphia magazine reporter Dan McQuade.
There is much on the line in today’s Pennsylvania primary. Voters head to the polls with multiple choices for president, senator and attorney general. Nominations in Congress and in the state legislature are up for grabs. Many of these races have been contentious, with supporters of candidates staunch in their support of a certain candidate.
But there is one thing voters across the state can agree on today, and that’s a ballot question asking this: Should Philadelphia Traffic Court be abolished? Everyone should know you simply must vote YES on this one.
Part of this is pure semantics — everyone has to agree to abolish Traffic Court because it’s already been eliminated. After a wide-ranging federal indictment alleging corruption in the court in 2013, Act 17 got rid of Traffic Court and moved it under the jurisdiction of the Philadelphia Municipal Court. Traffic Court as it existed for decades no longer exists. But because the court is written into the Pennsylvania constitution, the entire state gets to vote to amend it to officially kill off Traffic Court for good.
“Look, Traffic Court was a disgrace, and it’s dead now,” David Gambacorta wrote in Philadelphia magazine earlier this week. “Do you want to bury the remains and plop a tiny headstone on top of the grave for good measure, or what?”
Yes, we definitely do. Philadelphia Traffic Court was long a hotbed for corruption. In the 1970s, President Traffic Court Judge Louis Vignola was known for cracking down on scofflaws — until he was convicted of taking $32,000 in bribes from court writ servers in exchange for channeling work to them. In 1984, a widespread ticket-fixing probe of Traffic Court led to the conviction of 15 people. A 1986 Inquirer story has the headline, “Ex-court Employee Alleges Judges Had Tickets Fixed.”
It goes on like this. A 1987 Daily News story is headlined, “Ticket-fixing Probe Eyes Pa. Lawmaker.” A 1991 Daily News story: “Ticket Fixing Probed.” This last story details allegations of the theft of hundreds of tickets. “The allegations focus on tickets that turned up missing between the time police wrote up the violations and the time they were supposed to be entered into court records,” the DN wrote. “Court sources say motorists who received the citations were visited by someone holding the stolen tickets. The motorists were told that for a fee, the tickets would be destroyed.”
In the mid-2000s, Judge Joseph F. Hoffman Jr. was convicted of reducing $47,000 worth of tickets in exchange for $5,000. Just months after Hoffman was indicted in that case, a grand jury said a city hearing officer fixed traffic tickets in exchange for two tickets to a Prince concert. That official, Molden David Faison, was later convicted of one count of extortion and attempted extortion.
“Judges routinely made, accepted and granted third-party requests for preferential treatment for politically connected individuals with cases in Traffic Court,” a 2012 report found. “In some cases, judges granted preferential treatment to violators whose identities or connections they knew even if no express request was made.”
Traffic Court judges did not need law degrees; they did not need to be members of the bar. They just had to be connected to the Democratic Party machine. (And, less frequently, the Republican Party machine.) Often, the ticket-fixing was made explicit by judges. Traffic Court Judge Willie Singletary asked for donations while first running for the position with the pitch: “Now, you all want me to get there [Traffic Court] — you’re all going to need my hook-up, right?” It later emerged he owed $11,500 in unpaid traffic tickets, as well as $19,000 in unpaid child support. He only lost his job when he allegedly showed a photo of his genitals to a court employee. Singletary was later convicted of lying to authorities and was sentenced to 20 months in prison last year.
In 2013, nine elected Traffic Court judges were indicted by the United States Attorney and charged with participating “in a widespread culture of giving breaks on traffic citations to friends, family, the politically connected and business associates.” A local businessman was accused of giving a judge free seafood in exchange for fixing traffic tickets. “When you call, I move, brother, believe me. I move everybody,” Judge Fortunato N. Perri Sr. allegedly told strip club landlord and auto kingpin Henry “Eddie” Alfano. Perri got two years probation; he had been charged with fixing tickets in exchange for, among other things, “bribes of shrimp, crab cakes and pornographic videos.” One recording found Perri asking Alfano to leave porn in the trunk of a car for him: “Pack ’em real nice… tape ’em and all.” (The porn, a Venus Video employee told the Inquirer, was “normal boy-girl stuff. Nothing weird.”)
“The judges in this case allegedly routinely fixed traffic tickets by giving preferential treatment to people with whom they were politically and socially connected,” U.S. Attorney Zane Memeger said at the time of the indictments. “In addition to depriving the city of Philadelphia and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania of funds rightfully owed by traffic violators, their allegedly corrupt conduct also undermined the confidence that law-abiding citizens have in the Philadelphia Court System.” That 2013 FBI probe was what resulted in multiple convictions and the eventual abolishment of Traffic Court.
Even in cases when judges weren’t convicted, punishments were still doled out. Six judges were cleared of ticket fixing, because a jury found it was not a federal crime. But four were convicted of lying to authorities. Judge Michael J. Sullivan escaped any criminal conviction, but the state’s Court of Judicial Discipline still found he fixed tickets.
Some of the rich and powerful in Philadelphia are lamenting the end of Traffic Court. “People who would run for Traffic Court would get the feel of the people by going out and trying to get elected,” Congressman Bob Brady told KYW 1060. “People that get elected by the people have to get the feel of the people other than just young district attorneys down there making decisions.”
Sure. A clerk for Singletary testified in 2014 that Brady’s office routinely requested tickets be fixed. (Brady denied the allegation to the Inquirer.) You can almost feel the frustration: The end of traffic court means Philadelphia’s powerful and elite can’t get their tickets fixed — a system they’d had in place for an incredibly long time.
But guess what? Too fucking bad. Letting people out of traffic tickets because they know the right person is hilariously corrupt, even for Philadelphia. Fixing tickets not only cost the city millions in revenue, it also allowed connected drivers in the city to drive dangerously without fear of repercussions. It made our roads less safe.
Traffic Court is already gone. The ballot question asking voters to eliminate it from the constitution is nothing more than a symbolic one. The rich and powerful in Philadelphia — and all cities — will always have advantages due to their connections. But, after today’s vote, they’ll officially be out this one.
Follow @dhm on Twitter.