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In Phila., lax traffic warrant enforcement can kill

Cornell Edens was the proverbial innocent. On a Sunday evening in December 2011, he was walking down the sidewalk in Germantown, on his way to visit his elderly mother.

Philadelphia police are making fewer traffic stops and fewer impoundments and executing fewer arrest warrants. More than 818,000 warrants for moving violations were outstanding in Philadelphia as of September.
Philadelphia police are making fewer traffic stops and fewer impoundments and executing fewer arrest warrants. More than 818,000 warrants for moving violations were outstanding in Philadelphia as of September.Read moreJOSEPH KACZMAREK / For The Inquirer

Cornell Edens was the proverbial innocent. On a Sunday evening in December 2011, he was walking down the sidewalk in Germantown, on his way to visit his elderly mother.

Edens worked occasionally, but mainly lived on disability checks. As his sister put it, he had been "always behind in school." He was 59 years old and mentally challenged.

Archie McLean was anything but innocent. He had served time for robbery and gun convictions. That night, Dec. 18, McLean was driving drunk on Price Street when his Toyota minivan jumped the sidewalk and rolled onto Edens, crushing him to death.

This was a killing that could have - and should have - been avoided. Just two months before the accident, police pulled McLean over in North Philadelphia for running a red light.

Traffic Court had issued three warrants for the 22-year-old's arrest. All were outstanding.

And he was driving on a suspended license.

Under police rules, the patrolman should have arrested McLean on the spot.

Instead, the officer wrote him two more tickets.

An anomaly? Hardly. In Philadelphia, dangerous drivers too often stay on the road until they hurt someone.

Gregory Alston, 49, a convicted drug dealer, had racked up 21 arrest warrants for wild driving by the time he killed Danny Irizarry Roman and critically injured Roman's girlfriend in a 2012 Franklinville crash. But police repeatedly ignored opportunities to protect others from him.

And by the time George O. Humphrey killed Cheltenham Walmart supervisor Michelle Powell in 2011, he had eight convictions for moving violations, including driving on a suspended license.

Because he paid 5 percent of his fines - $160 of $3,055 - the court issued no warrants until after the hit-and-run that killed Powell, 53, as she was crossing Cheltenham Avenue to catch the bus after work.

"In this city they just don't care," said her widower, Frankie Powell of West Oak Lane. "They got all these people running around with no licenses, no insurance. Sooner or later, they kill or maim someone."

No big city has a higher rate of accident claims than Philadelphia, the latest Allstate Insurance study shows. It has been that way every year for the last 10 years.

Here, it's not just the drivers who have lost control. Police and the courts have a hand in what Common Pleas Court Judge Gary S. Glazer called the "chaos on the street."

"I want to drive and not be afraid of going through a green light and being T-boned," said Glazer, a former federal prosecutor named in December 2012 to overhaul the scandal-ridden Traffic Court. "And I'm speaking for everybody."

Enforcement and crime

For decades, criminologists have stressed that good traffic enforcement not only helps reduce accidents, it also can help lower crime.

The late Harvard political scientist James Q. Wilson helped develop the "broken windows" theory, which argued that a neighborhood that showed it did not care about vandalism invited more serious offense.

He had a corollary for policing traffic: High-visibility enforcement of basic moving violations tends to curb more dangerous ones. Call it "the busted taillight theory."

Yet now in Philadelphia, police are issuing only a quarter the number of tickets for moving violations that they did 16 years ago.

And when police do write tickets, they often give breaks to some of the city's most reckless drivers. Officers usually don't make arrests for outstanding traffic warrants. And often they don't bother to properly cite motorists like McLean and Alston who drive on suspended licenses.

How many warrants remain outstanding for moving violations in Philadelphia?

At last count, in September: 818,936.

How much in fines is uncollected? To date, $187 million.

The courts issue an arrest warrant for each moving-violation ticket ignored by a driver. Nearly a third of the tickets are for serious offenses - the ones that result in three or more points on a driving record.

Those warrants have been issued for 187,293 drivers, two-thirds of whom were stopped in the city while driving on a suspended license or for not being licensed at all.

And unlicensed drivers, according to the American Automobile Association, are the ones most likely to be involved in fatal accidents.

Each year, police bring in just a tiny fraction of motorists facing charges on their warrants. In 2014, they have arrested about 500.

They also frequently fail to seize the cars of unlicensed drivers they stop, ignoring their own regulations. In October, the most recent month for which figures are available, they let 266 of those motorists keep driving.

For years, Philadelphia's dysfunctional Traffic Court judges routinely allowed many of the worst drivers to stay behind the wheel as long as they pledged to reform and make regular payments to the court - promises broken with few repercussions.

Many were career criminals, with rap sheets Traffic Court judges never reviewed, according to interviews and court records.

The result has been costly, from notoriously high insurance rates to serious injuries and deaths.

The lax enforcement dates from before the meltdown of Traffic Court, which the state officially abolished last year and folded into Municipal Court. And it continues to this day, as the courts attempt to put in place reforms.

In 2010, Traffic Court officials complained to Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey that the number of citations issued by police had reached a "historic low" and that some officers were failing to make arrests for outstanding traffic warrants.

Police privately acknowledge that despite long-standing rules that require them to arrest drivers they find with open traffic warrants, enforcement is a low priority.

That, they say, is because Philadelphia has such a high rate of major crimes, and police say the 6,400-member force must be free to respond quickly to more serious incidents.

Fraternal Order of Police president John McNesby said ticketing has fallen because there are fewer officers to deal with violent criminals.

"We're down about 300 cops right now," McNesby said. "You've got to pick your priorities. We're running from radio call to radio call."

Lt. John Stanford, the police spokesman, said a key reason police do not make warrant arrests is that traffic court judges typically hear cases from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. weekdays.

If the court is not in session, he said, it is impractical to hold scofflaws in the city prison system.

"Can you imagine if someone was hurt [while locked up] over the weekend, and he was being held for a traffic ticket?" Stanford asked. "You'd write about that."

Glazer doesn't buy the police's explanation.

When traffic judges are not holding court, he noted, scofflaws can always be taken before the city's arraignment judges, who work 24/7.

Police "have to find another excuse, because that one isn't working," the judge said.

Still, Glazer said, he was not defending the work of the old Traffic Court with its history of ticket-fixing for the favored.

"If people want to say that Traffic Court had been a dysfunctional institution, I will accept that criticism," he said.

Ramsey said his focus has been on reducing violent crime, and "I have not spent a lot of time on traffic."

He promised to look at how his officers were enforcing the law, but said there was no question that police must arrest drivers with outstanding warrants: "They should be taken into custody, period."

Fewer die in crashes

Fewer people are dying in car crashes in Philadelphia and across the nation than decades ago. Much of the reduction is attributed to safer cars, increased seat-belt use, and improved highways.

But the system's weaknesses have left tragedies in their wake.

Archie McLean, now 25, is serving a six-year sentence at the Waymart state prison in northeastern Pennsylvania for killing Cornell Edens.

McLean's traffic warrants are still outstanding.

"Nobody told us about his warrants," said Edens' sister, Carrie. "He should have got more time in prison."

To make Philadelphia streets safer, police must make two major changes, says Judge Glazer:

Enforce outstanding arrest warrants and write more tickets.

Data support his arguments.

Weekly computer printouts document the traffic stops during which officers ticketed motorists but failed to enforce his court's arrest warrants. That happens 40 times per week on average.

This problem goes back years. The 2010 annual report for the city judicial system stated that court officials "provided the Commissioner with information that at some car stops, the Philadelphia Police are not always arresting Traffic Court scofflaws who have current warrants."

An Inquirer review of court data from 2006 to 2013 turned up some motorists with more than 100 convictions for traffic violations who have been allowed to stay behind the wheel. Most of those drivers had outstanding warrants for their arrests.

The numbers chart a plunge in tickets being issued over the last 16 years - down three-quarters since 1998, the historic high.

The drop in citations has resulted in a similar drop in the number of cars seized through the much-heralded Live Stop program carried out by the Philadelphia Parking Authority. That program requires Philadelphia police to order cars seized when a motorist is caught driving dangerously or without a license or registration.

Since 2008, the number of impounded vehicles has dropped by half, from 33,680 to 16,505 this year.

For nearly five years, said Vincent J. Fenerty Jr., the parking authority's executive director, his agency submitted documents to top police officials that showed the failure of street cops to initiate Live Stop. But the number of seizures still declined.

So Fenerty sent parking authority representatives to meet with district commanders, asking them to stress the importance of traffic enforcement. Those visits didn't remedy the problem either, Fenerty said, and he has reduced the number of tow truck drivers who work with the program.

Glazer said the reforms he is trying to implement will have limited impact until police pay more attention to traffic stops.

"I can't go out and arrest people," he said. "It ultimately is a police responsibility. To say that it is 'just a traffic case' ignores the fact that these can turn into homicides."

One of Glazer's fixes was to persuade the District Attorney's Office to staff Municipal Court's new Traffic Division.

Deputy District Attorney Laurie Malone said the presence of prosecutors and paralegals had made the Traffic Division operate better since their arrival in May.

But the system is still beatable.

"There's a lot of loopholes that now we're realizing and we're trying to fix," Malone said. "And these loopholes allow people to keep driving around. There are people out there who are thumbing their nose at the system. Maybe jail is the only recourse for some of these individuals."

Little risk of jail

For years, Philadelphia struggled under federal court supervision to ease the overcrowding of its prisons. As a result, it is unusual for someone to be jailed just for driving dangerously.

"We do not have any inmates being held only for traffic violations," prison spokeswoman Shawn Hawes said.

Pennsylvania's 66 other counties operate differently.

"We have room in the county jail," said Thomas Impink, a Berks County constable and president of the state constables association.

Compare the way Philadelphia handles scofflaws with what happens in Lower Merion.

In the Main Line township that borders the city, traffic citations have increased over the last decade while accidents have fallen.

Police Superintendent Michael J. McGrath says there is a correlation. His department's traffic efforts help in other ways.

"Having visible traffic enforcement has a collateral benefit," he said. "It deters crime."

In a rare case a driver might go to jail in Philadelphia, but typically only for violations that carry mandatory time.

Jerell G. Williams was one of those unlucky few.

This spring, he was sent to prison for drug dealing. At the end of his seven-month sentence, the prison returned him to court because he had 73 outstanding warrants - including 14 for driving on a suspended license. Under state law, six or more convictions requires jail.

In a quick hearing last month, Williams was sentenced to 90 days.

As he was leaving the court, Williams turned to a friend and said he could handle the additional time: "I just did seven months. I can carry it."

But most people slip through the net.

Gregory Alston killed Danny Roman in 2012 while trying to outrun police who had pulled him over. He crashed into Roman's Honda Accord, killing the man and injuring his girlfriend and her 4-year-old son.

Alston, 41, is serving a three-year prison sentence for vehicular homicide and related charges.

There had been plenty of opportunities to arrest him on traffic warrants long before he killed.

Police had stopped him repeatedly before the accident and written tickets for not carrying a driver's license - although he was actually driving on a suspended license.

Had police ticketed Alston properly, courts could have jailed him. The more serious offense carries a penalty of up to six months behind bars.

An analysis of court data shows at least 100 times a year police ticket motorists for not carrying licenses when their licenses were actually suspended - sparing the drivers from jail.

Alston is a good example of that. Starting in late 2004 police stopped him several times while driving on a suspended license, but never charged him for that. Traffic Court issued warrants for Alston's arrest in April 2009. That July, three years before the accident, police arrested him on charges of dealing drugs.

But neither the police department nor the District Attorney's Office took any action on his outstanding traffic warrants. Eventually, the prosecutors dismissed the drug case, yet the traffic warrants were still outstanding.

In March 2011, police arrested Alston on new drug charges. This time he pleaded guilty and got probation. But again, there was no action - by either prosecutors or probation officers - on the traffic warrants.

Because Traffic Court operated separately from the criminal courts, the two court systems rarely compared notes.

Lucky to be alive

Maurice Boyle was driving his pickup on Lincoln Drive in September 2012 when Anthony Consalvo's minivan crossed into his lane and hit him head on.

"It was like a rocket coming at me," recalled Boyle, of Bucks County, who suffered multiple injuries in the wreck, including permanent memory loss. "I'm lucky to be alive."

After the crash, Traffic Court finally issued 17 arrest warrants against Consalvo for tickets that dated to 1992.

Consalvo's warrant is one of about 81,000 for traffic tickets that date to the mid-1990s and earlier.

Court officials acknowledge that warrants can linger for years because of a penalty-free cycle: Drivers are put on installment plans for their fines, they fail to pay, then have their warrants reinstated.

Dangerous drivers have learned how to game the system. Word circulates quickly on the street when there is lax enforcement, says Carl McDonald, law enforcement liaison officer for Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

"If warrants aren't enforced, people learn they don't mean anything, and they keep driving," he said. "That puts law-abiding citizens at risk."

David D. Richardson, 42, who lives in the city's Tacony section, says he knows all about Philadelphia's traffic enforcement system.

"Basically it's a waste of time," Richardson said. He has 84 outstanding warrants.

Richardson has spent long stints in prison for forgery, drug dealing, firearms violations, and repeated drunken-driving convictions - including a case in which he injured a person while intoxicated.

His last ticket was for driving June 1 with a license that was suspended because of a previous DUI conviction. A warrant is out for police to bring him to court in connection with the June offense, as well as nine other warrants for his arrest on that same charge dating to 2002.

Each of those 10 traffic stops carried a mandatory minimum sentence of 60 days in jail upon conviction. But Richardson has stayed on the lam.

Richardson understands the system. He said police would just issue tickets and let him go "if it falls on a Friday or it was after hours."

Even when police have hauled him to court to face charges on his open warrants, he has found little cause for worry.

Judges simply put him on a payment plan if he paid something and promised to make good on his debt to the court, he said. So he made those promises.

A break - 29 times

Since 2005, traffic court officials have decided that Ruben Mora deserved a break - 29 times.

Most recently, in August, the court gave him yet another chance to pay his fines, although he had already been convicted of 134 traffic offenses.

In each of Mora's previous encounters with traffic court judges, he was warned: Pay up or go to jail.

Each time, he paid a little, promising to nibble away more than $19,000 in fines.

Each time, he stopped paying.

And each time, he was put on a new payment plan.

Hundreds of drivers like Mora owe $5,000 or more on stacks of unresolved citations.

Many heavily cited drivers also have criminal backgrounds similar to that of Mora, who spent nine months in prison in 2007 for drug possession and was convicted in 2010 of dealing.

Deputy District Attorney Malone said her office's next step is making the payment plans effective. "That's a problem," she acknowledged.

During Mora's August traffic hearing, the court put him on his 29th payment plan. And he did pay - $25 on one of his multiple tickets.

In September, Mora finally went to jail - but not for traffic violations.

He is being held in the Curran-Fromhold prison without bail on charges that he murdered Miguel Gonzalez, who was shot 13 times.

Unaware Mora was in prison, traffic court swung into action in October. It issued six fresh warrants for his arrest.