Witness examination restarted in the Philadelphia Traffic Court trial Wednesday after defense attorneys objected to the prosecution’s introduction of last-minute traffic ticket evidence.
The evidence in question was part of a government exhibit consisting of multiple traffic tickets that the first witness in the case, former Bucks County Magisterial District Judge Ruth Dietrich, reviewed as part of the FBI’s investigation into traffic court. Dietrich is not a defendant in the case.
Dietrich, whose questioning began Tuesday, was periodically assigned to Philadelphia’s traffic court as a senior judge by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts from 2006 to 2009 and in 2011.
Defense attorneys told U.S. District Judge Lawrence F. Stengel of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania that they received no advanced warning that several tickets placed in the government’s exhibit would be used.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Denise Wolf said the tickets have been available to defense counsel for over a year, since discovery. Several of the defendants’ attorneys responded that the tickets, introduced Wednesday, were not specifically listed in the charging indictment.
“It’s a little bit trial by ambush,” said defendant Robert Moy’s attorney, Paul Hetznecker, to the court.
Wolf’s co-counsel, Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony Wzorek, said, “The indictment talks about an ongoing scheme,” adding that while the indictment mentions 50 tickets specifically, the recently added tickets and others are covered generally.
Wzorek took strong exception to Hetznecker’s comments.
“I will not stand here and listen to someone say that we are conducting a trial by ambush,” Wzorek said. “I don’t want to hear anything about that.”
Defendant Michael Sullivan’s lawyer, Henry Hockeimer of Ballard Spahr, was the first defense attorney to cross-examine Dietrich on Tuesday. Hockeimer said Wednesday after the new evidence was introduced that the exhibit had changed since his earlier questioning of the witness.
Stengel ordered a recess so that defense counsel could examine the new tickets. Afterward, Stengel told attorneys to reopen direct and cross-examinations anew.
“The fact that you’ve gotten this to them in discovery,” Stengel said to prosecutors, “I think cures a great deal about the concern for prejudice.”
Wzorek asked Dietrich to confirm which tickets she had reviewed as part of the FBI’s investigation. Federal investigators asked Dietrich to look at traffic tickets adjudicated by traffic court judges to see if the fines were improperly dismissed.
Stevens & Lee attorney William DeStefano, representing defendant Michael Lowry, asked Dietrich about the different circumstances in which traffic court tickets can be dismissed.
DeStefano specifically asked Dietrich if it was common to find the ticket holder not guilty if an unclear ticket was brought to a traffic court hearing and neither the ticket holder nor a police officer were present.
Dietrich responded that it was not an everyday occurrence but not uncommon.
Defendant Willie Singletary’s lawyer, William Brennan, asked Dietrich if prejudging a case constituted ticket-fixing, to which she said yes.
“And you have never prejudged a case?” Brennan asked.
“I hope not,” Dietrich answered.
Brennan said the record showed in instances where the police in Bucks County already “gave a person a break,” Dietrich would automatically find them guilty.
“I could say that you were fixing cases, if I wanted to be tricky,” Brennan said.
Dietrich said she could be perceived as doing so.
“But that’s not what you meant, you didn’t think you were fixing cases,” Brennan continued. “We all make mistakes, right, judge?”
After Brennan’s cross-examination, defense attorney Louis Busico, representing Thomasine Tynes, also asked Dietrich about her rulings on ticket penalties that had been reduced by officers.
“It was so commonplace and so routine, that when you approved those kind of resolutions, you weren’t concerned that the borough of Perkasie wasn’t getting money,” Busico said to Dietrich.
“That’s correct,” Dietrich said. She also confirmed that there was a premium placed on the quick disposition of cases.
Busico asked Dietrich, “In exercising that kind of discretion, did anyone say you were cheating the commonwealth or you’re cheating the city?” Dietrich said no.
During opening statements Tuesday, the prosecution told jurors that the defendants were responsible for creating a culture of favoritism that, through fixing tickets, robbed the city and Pennsylvania of funding.
Defendant Mark Bruno’s attorney, Vincent DiFabio of Platt, DiGiorgio & DiFabio, asked Dietrich whether she was a lawyer or if she had gone to college, to which she responded that her highest level of education was high school.
“It was difficult to be thrown into Philadelphia Traffic Court from Bucks County?” DiFabio asked.
“Oh yes,” Dietrich said.
Upon redirect examination, Wzorek asked Dietrich, “How many tickets did you dispose of because of a visitation or phone call to chambers?”
“Zero,” she said.
Wzorek also asked if she had ever received a communication from someone asking for favorable treatment during her tenure as a Bucks County judge.
Dietrich said she had only once, by another magisterial district judge requesting a ticket be fixed for someone he knew. Dietrich said she told the judge to tell the person in question to “take a hearing,” as per proper procedure.
Lastly, Wzorek asked, “Does a person need to be a lawyer or have a college degree to know right from wrong?” Dietrich said no.