A special Washington police computer study shows that thousands of traffic tickets issued to a number of lawyers, police officers, city government and court employes, local businesses and private citizens were routinely thrown out by police and prosecutors during a recent 26-month period.
Many of the people whose tickets were dismissed apparently were more familiar than the average citizen with the ticket-handling process, often because they were involved in or linked to law enforcement. They were able to use the system regularly to avoid paying penalties normally imposed for traffic and parking violations.
The previously undisclosed traffic ticket study began during an investigation of a police officer who allegedly was fixing tickets. That probe had led, in turn, to the firing of two city prosecutors who processed traffic tickets and to an FBI and federal grand jury investigation of D.C. Superior Court Judge Robert H. Campbell's lenient handling of large numbers of tickets for overweight truck violations issued to one of the area's largest construction firms.
The study's findings also have raised serious concerns for the city's two top law enforcement officers about abuses in the system for handling traffic tickets.
In a December 1977 letter to then D.C. Corporation Counsel John R. Risher Jr., U.S. Attorney Earl J. Silbert said that certain prosecutors in Risher's office regularly authorized the dismissal of tickets for parking and moving violations brought to them by District police officers, Silbert said that, in many instances, the police officers were not even asked by the prosecutors why the cases should be dropped.
" . . . Our investigation has not disclosed any readily apparent basis for those dismissals other than friendship between the police officer and the concerned personnel," Silbert told Risher.
The traffic ticket investigation began more than a year ago when a police informer told authorities that a local gambling figure wa paying off a police officer to fix his parking tickets. No charges have been filed against the police officer.
However, in the course of that probe, internal police investigators compiled a list of every individual and firm that had 25 or more traffic violations dismissed betweem June 1975 and August 1977. Later, Silbert passed the list on to Risher.
The list, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post, shows that 148 individuals and firms benefited from the ticket adjustments.
A total of 6,988 tickets were dismissed, according to the list. A recent city study showed that the average fine paid on a parking ticket was $11.32 - which would make the total potential fines of these dismissed tickets a minimum of $79,104.16.
Authorities familiar with the traffic ticket study said the actual number of tickets dismissed could be significantly higher because the high volume of tickets handled each year makes it difficult to account precisely for the number that are dropped.
The city's overburdened and understaffed traffic court, which handles hundreds of traffic cases a day - from parking violations to drunk driving, has traditionally been the focus of complaints about inefficiency, favoritism and, in some cases, rude treatment of citizens.
In an effort to answer such complaints and improve procedures for handling the huge volume of traffic tickets, the D.C. City Council recently approved legislation that will transfer parking ticket cases from the court to a board of civilian hearing examiners. Jurisdiction over more serious traffic cases will remain in the D.C. Superior Court after the changeover occurs sometime this fall.
Since the traffic ticket study, the corporation counsel's office has tightened procedures for ticket adjustments to protect against future abuses.
Limited information about the computer list of dismissed tickets was provided to The Washington Post by the corporation counsel's office following a request filed under the city's Freedom of Information Act.
That information disclosed that nearly one-third of the beneficiaries of these special ticket adjustments were District employes, including police officers and employes of the corporation counsel's office whose privately owned vehicles had been ticketed.
In addition, city administrator Julian R. Dugas disclosed last March that city employes had accumulated as many as 1,000 unpaid tickets while driving around the area in city owned vehicles. Dugas said at the time that the ticket problem "indicates a mistaken belief on the part of some District employes that they are exempt from parking regulation while on official business."
City employes who are ticketed while on city business often appeal to the corporation counsel's office or to the court to have those tickets dismissed.
For example, Charles E. Morgan, whose name appeared on the computer ticket list, said he had received tickets while employed by the city's Department of Transportation, using his car for "official duties." Morgan said he had some tickets adjusted through the normal appeal process by the corporation counsel's office or a judge. Although the computer list showed he had 55 tickets adjusted, Morgan said he may have received only about 20 tickets and paid fines for some of those violations.
Two assistant corporation counsels, Victor O. Frazer and C. B. Jones, were fired from their jobs in March for alleged misconduct in connection with adjustment of traffic tickets. According to the list, Frazer had 152 tickets adjusted and Jones had 66.
Both lawyers have contended that it was standard procedure in their office to cancel tickets for fellow employes. Frazer said that "since time immemorial" attorneys in the corporation counsel's law enforcement division had been "allowed, and indeed urged" to adjust tickets for fellow employes.
According to the list, eight lawyers or law firms, many of them well known to court personnel because of their regular practice in the Superior Court, had about 400 tickets adjusted.
One local law firm, for example, had 88 tickets adjusted during the 26-month period. Charles H. Schulze, who was associated with the firm and is a former assistant corporation counsel, said he was not sure why the ticket were dismissed. He said he assumed they were parking violations around the city courthouse and police headquarters, where he described parking as extremely tight.
Among the local business that had tickets adjusted were firms with large fleets of vehicles, including Avis Rent A Car (115 tickets), C & P Telephone Co. (114 tickets), and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (108 tickets), according to the list.
Cabs Inc., located at 642 H St. NE, had a total of 190 tickets adjusted, the highest number on the list. Maurice Schaeffer, who said he was an officer of the cab company - which trades as Liberty Cabs - said "we've paid for every ticket." Schaeffer acknowledged that the cabdrivers acquire large numbers of traffic tickets - sometimes for violations as minor as failure to keep a proper passenger manifest. While the company may get the total fine reduced in court, Schaeffer said, some fine was paid.
According to the list, 66 private citizens had some 2,600 tickets dismissed.
According to the list, 57 tickets issued to Leonard and Jeffrey Weinstein, who operate a bail and bond service near the Superior Court, were dismissed. James J. Muscatello, who owns a downtown store that sells military and police uniforms, had 44 tickets dismissed.
Architect Adolpho Racho, who had 87 tickets adjusted, said he received tickets issued for parking daily in a construction site area where, he said in court and the corporation counsel's office, there was no sign to indicate the parking was illegal.
For the past year and a half, Racho said, he has been taking the subway to work "to avoid this kind of hassle."
Normally, anyone who receives a traffic ticket can appeal his case to the police department, the corporation counsel's office or a Judge. It is not unusual for persons to convince law enforcement authorities that there are legitimate grounds for cancellation of the charge.
However, law enforcement authorities became concerned when the list disclosed that a relatively small group of persons and firms had large numbers of tickets dismissed, a trend that might indicate an ability to manipulate the system.