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Phila. Traffic Court rolls along as investigation into any 'favorable treatment' continues

The presiding judge of Philadelphia Traffic Court was letting the taxi driver know how it worked. The short, slight defendant was also short of English, so the judge told him three times that he had two choices.

The presiding judge of Philadelphia Traffic Court was letting the taxi driver know how it worked.

The short, slight defendant was also short of English, so the judge told him three times that he had two choices.

Plead guilty to running a stop sign and avoid points on your insurance, or take the financial hit and hope for success on appeal.

Such is life in Traffic Court, where plea bargaining for reduced charges is key to moving 170,000 cases through the court each year.

Legal plea bargaining, that is. Federal agents and a grand jury are now investigating whether some judicial decisions have been less than honest.

That wasn't an issue Tuesday before Judge Thomasine Tynes. You drive for a living, Tynes told the man, and then offered the vacillating defendant some advice.

"You should be interested in not accumulating points," she said.

He agreed, and while continuing to insist he was innocent, went off to pay a $127.50 fine.

Hundreds of defendants moved through four working courtrooms Tuesday, a day after the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, Ronald D. Castille, decried the 800 Spring Garden St. court as home to a culture of "accepting external requests for favorable treatment" from what he described as "political sources."

The court's administrative judge, Michael J. Sullivan, was removed from that post, and a Court of Common Pleas judge, Gary S. Glazer, is now in charge.

By putting Glazer in that job, Castille empowered him to make extensive administrative and personnel changes in the court, as well as assist an inquiry being conducted for the state Supreme Court by an outside firm, Chadwick Associates. Tynes' title of presiding judge is largely ceremonial.

The court adjudicates moving violations - driving without a license, without insurance, without registration, and similar charges.

Castille's move came after Sullivan's home and office were among at least six court or court-related locations searched by the FBI in September. At least four Traffic Court judges have been called before a federal grand jury in recent weeks, according to sources familiar with the investigation. The U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment.

In an interview after the court session, Tynes said she had appeared and afterward was assured by prosecutors, "I'm not a target."

"They came to my office to give me a subpoena," Tynes recalled. "I said, 'Come in, sit down, what do you want to know?' "

"We talked," she said of her conversation with two FBI agents, "and I went to the grand jury and told them, too."

Tynes said she had nothing illegal to tell - no one has ever offered her money to fix a ticket, she said.

"It would be insulting," she said.

Tynes spoke as Glazer spent his second day at the court. He will conduct what is expected to be a lengthy review of court operations.

Some judges were antsy after Castille's tough critique received wide coverage on radio and television and in newspapers.

Judge Bernice A. DeAngelis did a verbal leap from the bench after learning that a lawyer reportedly told her staff he had spoken to her before the hearing. Such ex parte communications on behalf of a client violate court rules, because they can present the appearance of special treatment.

"I want it crystal clear" she never spoke to the lawyer, DeAngelis told the crowded courtroom, and the attorney profusely apologized for the misunderstanding moments later.

Another judge, Michael Lowry, had a court officer tell a reporter that Lowry does not allow note-taking in his courtroom.

Two defense lawyers, who asked for their names not to be used, said they were not aware of political influence on judicial decisions. Castille did not suggest judges were taking money in exchange for a favorable decision.

One lawyer described the elected judges' decisions as "capricious" and subjective.

"They are not lawyers, and some come up from the wards," said another lawyer. "It's all political connections." But he added that he had no personal knowledge of a judge's bending the result of a case as a political favor: "I've never seen a judge engage in that kid of conduct."

While Traffic Court cases are the lowest rung of violations, they can be expensive.

At the opening of one hearing, a city police officer - in Traffic Court they essentially serve as prosecutors - announced to about 60 defendants that many could either plead guilty or take a plea. If possible, the officer said, a plea would eliminate the insurance points, which he said can cost $800 each.

Federal agents are reportedly not interested in whether tickets were fixed for the politically connected as a favor, but whether money has been changing hands, a variety of sources said.

Has Tynes - a 22-year veteran from Germantown - ever gotten a call from a ward leader?

Yes, she said.

"Most of the time it's after the fact," she said.

"They don't call about getting tickets fixed. They basically want information for their constituents," she said.