Prosecutor: Traffic Court catered to the well-connected

Former traffic court judge Mark Bruno (left) with defense lawyer William McSwain as they leave the U.S. Federal Courthouse at Sixth and Market Streets in Philadelphia. ( ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER )

When she retired in 2005 as a district justice in Perkasie in central Bucks County, Ruth C. Dietrich was not ready to hang up her black robe.

So she applied to state court officials to substitute as needed in the state's minor judiciary.

Dietrich's first assignment the next year was Philadelphia's Traffic Court and, as she told a federal jury Tuesday, it was quickly clear she was not in Perkasie anymore.

Testifying at the ticket-fixing trial of six former Traffic Court judges and a Center City businessman, Dietrich, 79, told the jury how Traffic Court Judge Willie Singletary introduced her to the concept of "consideration."

"He brought me a paper citation and asked me for a favorable decision," Dietrich testified. "I rolled it up and gave it to the court administrator and told him, '[the offender] can taking a hearing like everybody else.' "

Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony Wzorek asked Dietrich if she had considered honoring Singletary's request.

"No, because it's not legal," Dietrich replied.

"Is it acceptable?" asked the prosecutor.

"No," said Dietrich.

"Does it make any difference if money doesn't change hands?" Wzorek asked.

"No," Dietrich said.

Dietrich was the prosecution's first witness as the trial of the seven opened before a jury of 12 and U.S. District Judge Lawrence F. Stengel.

Dietrich returns to the witness stand Wednesday, when she will be questioned by Singletary's lawyer, William J. Brennan Jr., and others.

In addition to Singletary, 33, on trial are former Traffic Court President Judge Thomasine Tynes, 70, and Judges Michael J. Sullivan, 50; Michael Lowry, 58; and Robert Mulgrew, 57.

Also on trial are Mark A. Bruno, 50, a district justice from West Chester who subbed in Traffic Court, and Robert Moy, 56, a businessman in Philadelphia who had a translation service for Asian immigrants. Prosecutors say Moy accepted hundreds of dollars in cash, promising he knew two judges who would dismiss traffic tickets.

Most of Tuesday's session was consumed by prosecution and defense opening statements.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Denise S. Wolf told the jury that Traffic Court was steeped in a "culture of ticket-fixing," a place where friends of judges, ward politicians, and savvy business owners got "special treatment, VIP red-carpet treatment," and their tickets erased.

Wolf said the government's case would focus on 50 tickets from 2008 to 2011 that she said would show a conspiracy among judges to dismiss tickets written to their friends, or at the request of politicians and business owners.

"There was no money, no gifts, and no bribes given," Wolf said. "They knew the judges, or somebody they knew knew the judges."

Still, Wolf said, the alleged ticket-fixing scheme cost the state and city significant revenue because of fines that were never paid.

Defense lawyers presented a dramatically different view of the much-maligned court, calling the judges victims of an error-prone system that forced them to downgrade or dismiss most cases without regard to the offenders' political pedigree.

Louis R. Busico, Tynes' attorney, called the prosecution's case a "fact pattern in search of a crime."

Several defense lawyers said Traffic Court judges must use discretion in deciding cases because Philadelphia police are not required to appear in court to testify about the tickets they write. If tickets are faulty or have missing information, judges are obligated to dismiss or downgrade them.

"[Prosecutors] call it consideration," Busico said. "Consideration is their evil way of saying the word discretion. Police do it all the time."



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