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Drug convicts, unreported by Phila., have kept driving

For at least a decade, the Philadelphia courts ignored a state law aimed at curbing dangerous drivers convicted of drug offenses.

For at least a decade, the Philadelphia courts ignored a state law aimed at curbing dangerous drivers convicted of drug offenses.
For at least a decade, the Philadelphia courts ignored a state law aimed at curbing dangerous drivers convicted of drug offenses.Read more

For at least a decade, the Philadelphia courts ignored a state law aimed at curbing dangerous drivers convicted of drug offenses.

Because the courts failed to notify the state of the cases, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation didn't know to suspend the licenses of tens of thousands of people found to have possessed or dealt illegal drugs.

"It kind of fell through the cracks," said Deborah E. Daley, chief deputy of the Philadelphia courts' Office of Judicial Records. "Believe it or not, until you came asking for that information, we weren't sending them."

Administrative Judge John W. Herron, head of the Common Pleas Court's trial division, said the failure to report the drivers reflected "ineptitude at every level of the system."

"This is a court," he added. "We should have complied with the law. The fact that we didn't is troubling."

There is no way to determine just how many people the court neglected to report over the decade, and how many of those convicted of drug offenses actually hold driver's licenses.

In 2012, at least 11,499 people should have been reported, according to court records. Only four were. Last year, at least 11,246 people should have been reported. And 342 were.

After The Inquirer raised the reporting failure earlier this year, the Philadelphia courts began complying with the law. Officials say they are limiting the fix to those convicted for drugs in the city since the beginning of 2013.

One driver who caught a break was Leroy C. Johnson of North Philadelphia. After he was arrested with crack cocaine and PCP in his car, he quickly pleaded guilty to minor drug charges. But Philadelphia courts failed to notify state license officials about the case.

Eight weeks later, on Feb. 26, 2011, Johnson was driving on North Broad Street, drunk. He struck a car, which then hit pedestrians Kevin Whye, killing him, and Whye's fiancee, shattering both of her legs.

Johnson, 56, now is serving a 5-to-10-year prison sentence for vehicular homicide and related charges.

Daley said the failure to report such cases began some time during the reign of the Philadelphia Clerk of Quarter Sessions.

Vivian T. Miller headed that office from 1991 until 2010, when it was abolished after auditors criticized its handling of millions of dollars in public funds. Miller said she knew nothing about the requirement that forms be sent to Harrisburg after drug convictions.

"I'm not familiar with that," said Miller, 78, the Democrats' 51st Ward leader in Southwest Philadelphia. "I'm sorry, but I can't help you."

Daley said some clerks from the Quarter Sessions office used to notify the state, but that was a decade ago.

"It's probably been 10 years since they were coding them," she said. "They were told not to do them anymore. They were told to stop at some point."

She said she didn't know why the paperwork stopped flowing.

Suburban counties have complied with the law, according to records from the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.

In 2012, when Philadelphia filed only four reports, the four surrounding Pennsylvania counties submitted 9,246.

Despite that disparity, PennDot spokesman Richard Kirkpatrick said his agency had no idea that Philadelphia stopped reporting drug convictions.

PennDot has "no way of knowing" if a county is not reporting, he said, adding that that was the courts' job. "We are the managers of the driver's license system and are not an enforcement or auditing agency."

Joseph H. Evers, who as administrator of the Philadelphia courts has responsibility for reporting the convictions, said PennDot shared some blame. Evers took over management of court clerical functions after the city abolished the Clerk of Quarter Sessions.

"That's really sad that a number would drop off that precipitously and they wouldn't notice."

After questions from The Inquirer, the Philadelphia courts directed employees by memo earlier this year to submit forms, known as DL-21D, after each drug conviction.

"Since the department hasn't sent these forms since anyone can remember, we started looking into the DL-21D requirements," the memo said. "DL-21D is required."

The memo noted that court clerks had complied with other reporting demands by the state, including notifying PennDot of cases of drunken driving, underage drinking, and truancy, each requiring separate filings.

As part of the review, the Philadelphia courts have notified the state of 19,065 drug convictions going back to January 2013.

Drug addicts can be just as dangerous as drunken drivers.

In November 2011, a Bucks County heroin user named Brett E. Truskin ran down bicyclist Gregory Loper with a Toyota RAV4 near Lehigh Avenue and Jasper Street, in Philadelphia's Kensington section. Loper died.

Witnesses said Truskin still had a hypodermic needle stuck in his arm as he tried to escape from his vehicle. Neighbors held him until police arrived.

Sixteen days before the accident, Truskin had been convicted of possession of a controlled substance. But since the city courts didn't report the case to PennDot, his license was not suspended.

Now serving a 5-to-10-year prison term, Truskin did not respond to a request for comment. But his father said his son had reformed and is "not the same man he was."

Johnson, the driver in the accident that killed pedestrian Whye and injured Whye's fiancee, has consistently blamed others for the crash.

In his vehicular-homicide case, part of his defense was that he could not get proper treatment for his drug addiction before the accident.

Of course, there is no telling whether pulling the licenses of Truskin, Johnson, or other drug users involved in deadly crashes would have stopped them from driving before they killed.

But Whye's former fiancee, Inia Withers, was stunned when told that Johnson was not supposed to be driving at the time of the accident.

"Wow! I was left with two broken legs," Withers said. "It still affects me mentally. We were going to be married."

What the Law Mandates

The 1994 state law requires courts in each county to notify the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation when people are convicted of possessing, selling, or trying to buy controlled substances.

PennDot must suspend the drivers' licenses of first-time offenders for six months. The suspension for second convictions is one year,

two years for the third.