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Petty crimes, big hassles

An offense that draws a citation elsewhere involves arrest in Philadelphia.

Police Officer Edward McLaughlin suggested scrapping the rule banning written citations. The city's new commissioner agreed.
Police Officer Edward McLaughlin suggested scrapping the rule banning written citations. The city's new commissioner agreed.Read moreMICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Inquirer Staff Photographer

At midday Friday, the Olney Transportation Center was swarming with potential criminal activity. Officer Edward McLaughlin was on high alert.

Schools had early dismissals and hundreds of swaggering youths from rival schools milled about this busy SEPTA terminal on Broad Street, waiting for buses. Three young women, emerging from the subway, were engaged in a rapidly escalating disagreement.

McLaughlin and SEPTA Officer Max Frei intervened, with McLaughlin telling the loudest combatant to go away or risk arrest.

"I could take her in for a disorderly conduct, or run her away from here," said McLaughlin, 42, a patrolman whose assignment is to manage the multitudes who pass through this lively commercial intersection.

Realistically, McLaughlin doesn't have many options. Anywhere else in Pennsylvania, a police officer can write up a violator of a minor crime with a simple citation. Known as summary offenses, the violations include disorderly conduct, loitering, littering and public urination.

But in Philadelphia, the state's rules of criminal procedure require that officers transport summary offenders to a police station.

For McLaughlin, that means handcuffing a violator, then leaving his beat for an hour or more to process a citation that an officer in Bensalem or Upper Darby could write on the spot in minutes.

In the two years he has been assigned to foot patrol, McLaughlin says, he has suggested the procedure be changed. Now somebody in power has finally heard his call: Philadelphia's new police commissioner, Charles H. Ramsey.

Ramsey, in his crime-fighting strategy released Jan. 30, endorsed the call to give Philadelphia police the option of issuing handwritten citations for "quality-of-life" violations. The current rule, he said, is a hindrance.

"This unnecessarily removes uniformed officers from the street and reduces police visibility," wrote Ramsey, who believes that strict enforcement of nuisance laws results in reclaimed neighborhoods.

Lt. Francis Healy, a lawyer who is a special adviser to the commissioner, is more blunt about the restriction.

"It makes no sense at all," he said.

Out of service

Not only are one or more officers taken out of service when they have to process a relatively minor offender, Healy said, but the officers are exposed to more potential harm and liability every time they handcuff and transport a civilian.

Some people charged with summary offenses have never been detained before, Healy said, and they can panic when handcuffed; they can strike an officer. And just like that, a minor offense becomes a felony.

"It just spirals out of control," he said.

The investment of time and the potential liability are powerful incentives for officers simply to look the other way.

"I'm not saying I let things go, but there's a fine line separating which people you go after," said McLaughlin.

The regulation has been in force since 1974, said Anne T. Panfil, staff counsel to the Criminal Procedural Rules Committee, which advises the state Supreme Court, the final arbiter of the procedures. She said there was no record on file about who wrote the procedure, or why.

"I was in high school then - it wasn't me," joked Deputy District Attorney John P. Delaney Jr., who heads the trial division. As a prosecutor, he said, he sees no problem with making the rule more permissive. "I think it would ease the burden on police," he said.

Changing the restriction

Louis J. Presenza, president judge of Philadelphia Municipal Court, said he was unaware of the origins of the restriction and saw no reason it could not be modified. "It could be that conditions that existed in 1974 no longer apply," he said.

To get the rule changed, the city would have to petition the Criminal Procedural Committee, which makes recommendations to the Supreme Court after seeking public input. The process would take at least six months before the Supreme Court could make a decision, Panfil said.

Authorities say not every summary offender can be handled with a handwritten ticket. Officers have to be sure the violator has given them a valid identification and mailing address. And some violators are scofflaws or have outstanding warrants, and should be formally processed, police say.

Still, many officers said lifting the restriction would make it much easier to crack down on the nuisance violations that contribute to the deterioration of neighborhoods and an escalation of more serious crime.

"We could do a lot more of this quality-of-life enforcement if they changed the rules," said Inspector Joseph Sullivan, commander of the Northwest Division.

Sullivan said he passed along Officer McLaughlin's suggestions about the rule to Ramsey when the new commissioner was collecting comments about his crime plan, and was delighted that Ramsey included it in the final strategy.

"The plan literally has been drafted with input from officers," Sullivan said.

But the department still has a way to go. No discussions have taken place about which nuisance offenses might be handled with citations - leash-law violations, jaywalking, adults' riding bikes on sidewalks.

"That's a violation right there," McLaughlin said on Friday, pointing to the pedestrians encroaching eight feet into Broad Street, anticipating a light change.

McLaughlin said the difference between writing a summary violation and taking a violator into custody was huge.

Once the violator is in custody, an officer has to write a report known as a "48" describing the stop - in addition to writing the citation itself. The officer has to take a medical questionnaire in case the offender is ill or later alleges police misconduct.

"They say, 'I don't feel good.' Now what? I've got to take them to a hospital," said McLaughlin. That's more time out of service.

And while McLaughlin processes the paperwork, another officer has to watch the handcuffed violator.

Technically, the summary offenders are not under arrest - they are released once the citation is written.

In the case of juveniles, however, the officers can release them only to their parents. McLaughlin said he once had to wait five hours for a boy's parent to show up.

Not every law enforcement officer working in Philadelphia has to adhere to the restriction, however.

SEPTA Police Chief Richard J. Evans said the 248 transit officers in his command are exempt from the prohibition on issuing written summary violations. One reason is that the transit agency does not have its own detention facilities.

Presenza, the chief Municipal Court judge, said streamlining the process might not be as simple as changing a rule. The Municipal Court system is computerized, he said, and if Philadelphia police suddenly begin to issue hundreds more summary violations, there is a risk of "an administrative nightmare."

He said new technology might be required to allow the police to issue the citations electronically. "I think it is very doable, but it may come down to whatever money is needed for the technology," he said.

But the judge said he was eager to sit down with the police and work out a way to improve the system.

"Let's talk," he said. "Let's implement a plan."