A federal judge presiding over the criminal case in which Philadelphia judges have been charged with conspiring to fix traffic citations rejected the argument that their charges should be dismissed.
The crux of the conspiracy charge is that the defendants were in the unique position to give preferential treatment to ticketholders with whom they had political and social connections, said U.S. District Senior Judge Robert F. Kelly of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in an opinion released Monday.
Federal prosecutors do not need to prove that the city of Philadelphia and the state of Pennsylvania were actually deprived of money or property, only what the defendants intended, Kelly said.
"In this case, defendants are in the unique position of being Traffic Court judges who have the power and, according to the indictment, used such power to not permit the adjudication of specific traffic citations as guilty with fees and costs," Kelly said. "Finding in favor of defendants' argument that the commonwealth and the city have not suffered economic harm because the right to fees and costs here is only triggered by guilty adjudication, an assessment or deficiency being imposed, is circular in the context of this case."
While the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has not yet considered the theory in the indictment, "this court is confident that if the issue was before it, it would reject the narrow and circular approach taken by defendants in favor of an approach examining the indictment as a whole, and affirm the validity of the indictment due to the legitimate interests clearly at stake," Kelly said.
The judges' counsel argued that they should not face prosecution because the possibility that the city might have received money from those traffic offenses is too attenuated to support the criminal cases.
Defense counsel argued that the crimes of mail and wire fraud require schemes to deprive victims of legally recognized, vested property rights, and that no property interest is implicated until guilty adjudications are reached.
The success of the scheme is not relevant, federal prosecutor Anthony Wzorek argued in front of Kelly, stressing instead that the judges allegedly engaged in a scheme to help ticketholders keep money in their pockets and avoid paying fines and costs that might have been rightfully due to the city.
What the government must show is that they used the mail and the wires of commerce in the furtherance of their scheme to defraud, not that the defendants obtained any money or that the government suffered any loss, Wzorek said last week.
The judge said in his opinion that "the interest of the commonwealth and the city in statutorily required fees and costs concerning traffic citations in this case implicated their role as property holders, not sovereigns. The fact that the commonwealth and the city were prevented from receiving those fees and costs due to the alleged conspiracy does not result in a finding that they, therefore, were not property in the hands of the commonwealth and the city."
The indictment advances theories of mail and wire fraud that comport with the U.S. Supreme Court case law, Kelly said.
Defense attorney Henry Hockeimer of Ballard Spahr, who represents defendant Michael J. Sullivan, declined comment.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office did not respond to a request for comment before deadline.
Sullivan took the bench in January 2006 and was appointed administrative judge of the court April 27, 2011. Sullivan has been charged with conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud, 18 counts of wire fraud and three counts of mail fraud.
Federal prosecutors allege that Sullivan fixed tickets on behalf of family, friends, customers of his tavern, a former politician and a Philadelphia ward leader, according to court papers.
Other judicial defendants joined with Sullivan's motion to dismiss.
One part of the indictment cites an alleged text message between Sullivan and "M.S." about the traffic case of M.S.'s brother "K.S." of disregarding two consecutive red signals and driving his car with fraudulent inspection and emissions certificates, the defense papers said. Sullivan allegedly said in his text that "'it's all good he have to show.'" K.S. was adjudicated guilty of two of three violations, court papers said.
The Traffic Court is being merged into Municipal Court after Governor Tom Corbett signed legislation stripping the minor court of its duties earlier this year.