A federal prosecutor told a jury Tuesday that Philadelphia's 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.
Defense attorneys for six former Traffic Court judges and a businessman presented a dramatically different view of the much-maligned court, describing the judges as victims of a error-prone system that forced them to downgrade or dismiss most cases that came before them without regard to the offender's political pedigree.
Opening statements from prosecution and defense lawyers consumed the first day of the federal fraud trial of the seven defendants before U.S. District Judge Lawrence F. Stengel.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Denise S. Wolf said the government's case will focus on 50 traffic tickets adjudicated between 2008 and 2011 that she said will show a conspiracy among the six judges to dismiss tickets written to people who were friends of the judges and at the request of politicians and business owners.
"There no money, no gifts and no bribes given," Wolf told the jury in her opening statement. "They knew the judges or somebody they knew the judges."
Nevertheless, Wolf added, the ticket-fixing scheme cost the state and city governments significant revenue because of fines and court costs that were never paid.
Defense attorney Louis R. Busico, representing former Traffic Court President Judge Thomasine Tynes, called the prosecution's case a "fact pattern in search of a crime."
Busico told the jury in his opening that Tynes, 71, was being prosecuted "because she didn't make enough money for the government."
Several of the five defense lawyers who spoke before the lunch recess 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 the tickets are faulty or have missing information, the defense lawyers argued, the judges are obligated to dismiss or downgrade the tickets.
"They [prosecutors] call it consideration," said Busico. "Consideration is their evil way of saying the word discretion. Police do it all the time."
William J. Brennan Jr., the lawyer for former judge Willie Singletary, said his client adjudicated hundreds of thousands of tickets and probably dismissed half and about 80 percent of the cases where the offender showed.
The other former judges on trial are Michael J. Sullivan, Michael Lowry, Robert Mulgrew, Mark A. Bruno. Also on trial is Robert Moy, a businessman from Philadelphia who prosecutors said accepted hundreds of dollars in cash from people on the promise that he knew two judges who would dismiss their tickets.