This article appeared on PA Post.
A former Erie County magisterial district judge ‘s misclassification of civil claims against thousands of individuals that left them with criminal records has sparked a call from the state’s auditor general for closer scrutiny of these local judges as well as giving them more training.
Auditor General Eugene DePasquale on Monday shared recommendations that he wants the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, which oversees all of the state’s courts including the 517 district judges, to consider in the wake of findings that arose from an audit of former district Judge Brenda WIlliams Nichols’ records.
The auditor general’s office is charged with auditing district courts to ensure they are properly remitting all the funds owed to the state.
But in the case of Nichols who served as a district judge for 12 years prior to her defeat in 2017, an audit found she improperly filed criminal charges for theft of services in cases that should have been filed as civil complaints for such offenses as overdue school lunch bills or overdue library fines.
While DePasquale said he didn’t want to assign a motive to the judge’s actions, he was hoping she was doing it to save the defendants nearly $100 in court filing costs, which would have had to be paid upfront in a civil case, instead of intentionally giving them a criminal record.
“As a result of the actions of the previous district magistrate, thousands of defendants wound up with criminal records, they didn’t deserve or in some cases, didn’t even know they had,” he said.
DePasquale recommended the courts’ administrative offices immediately conduct a review of districts courts in every county to detect if this same practice is going on elsewhere; strengthen training for district judges to clarify the correct handling of civil cases; and clarify language on charging documents to make sure defendants understand the difference between a criminal and civil complaint and that pleading guilty to a criminal complaint leaves them with a criminal record.
He also said the court should fully expunge the records at no cost to those individuals involved. He said expungement can ordinarily cost several hundred dollars.
The Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts spokeswoman Stacey Witalec said they have reviewed the data statewide and it suggests this practice was limited to this particular district court. As for the auditor general’s training recommendation, she said the court administrators will ask the Minor Judiciary Education Board to review whether its training should be altered in light of this case.
Regarding the changes to charging documents, she said, “It remains to be seen if the process is as unclear as the auditor general suggests but with regard to the forms, we will ask the Criminal Procedural Rules Committee to review whether changes are needed.”
Attempts to reach Erie County court officials were unsuccessful. DePasquale said the county’s district attorney will be reviewing all such cases handled by district judges to ensure they were correctly handled.
He commended Erie County President Judge John Trucilla for acting quickly to seal nearly 3,000 civil cases that Nichols misclassified as criminal cases.
DePasquale said the problem came to light “after a job applicant was stunned to learn that a background check revealed a criminal record that he didn’t even know existed.” After Nichols’ successor Denise Buell discovered the error, she notified the county and state court administration and the auditor general’s office.
Buell told DePasquale’s auditors that Nichols provided forms with “theft of services” already printed on them, according to the Associated Press. The audit report, which covered a time period that went back to 2014, said Nichols’ court acted as a sort of collection agency by taking restitution payments. The state lost about $33,000 in filing fees as a result, auditors concluded.
“The public should be able to trust the judges and all those acting fairly and within the bounds of the law,” DePasquale said. “No defendant should ever wind up with a criminal record because a judge for whatever reason handed out the wrong complaint form or, which may also have been the case, is thinking you were doing the person a favor by trying to get them out of paying some state fines but in a way backdoor, giving them a criminal record that could impact them for the rest of their life.”
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