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Politics and Police Work


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  • Politics and Police Work

    For those of you who think politics are a problem in your jurisdiction:


    It started with a parking ticket
    Thursday, February 02, 2006

    By Bill Heltzel, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

    Sometimes it's the small stuff that reveals the deep divides in local politics.

    Like the $15 parking ticket in Wilkins.

    A police officer issued a parking ticket. A civilian official ordered the police chief to withdraw the ticket. The chief refused. The township manager suspended the chief for 10 days.

    The Treelady incident, as it has been called, has roiled township politics ever since.

    Residents who support the chief have demanded answers from the commissioners, only to get vague explanations about why the chief was disciplined.

    The incident also raised ethical questions. May a civilian official order police to void a ticket? If the civilian has no such authority, can the chief be charged with insubordination for refusing to carry out the order?

    The Treelady incident takes its name from the recording studio on Brown Avenue where the parking ticket was issued. On Sept. 15, Treelady manager Cheryl Buzzell called police about an unauthorized car parked on her property. Officer Ed Krancic issued a citation for an abandoned vehicle, a charge that carries a $500 fine.

    Paul Burbine, 53, of Homewood, had parked there while working on an eight-man Goodwill Industries crew that was cleaning streambeds.

    Public Works Superintendent Paul Vargo was supervising the crew. He also is assistant township manager.

    Within hours of the ticket being issued, he ordered Police Chief Keith Guthrie to withdraw it. He said the Goodwill crew had permission to park on the Treelady lot.

    "These people are doing volunteer work for the township and are even using their own cars to do so," he wrote in a memo.

    Actually, the workers were not volunteers. Goodwill paid them under a federal grant. And Goodwill bused those who wanted the ride to the work sites in a van. The workers were allowed to drive there, but Goodwill, according to spokeswoman Sheilla Holt, made no parking arrangements for them.

    A few weeks after the incident, Chief Guthrie verified that Ms. Buzzell had not given permission. Had the township asked, he recalled her saying, she would have done so.

    Nonetheless, Mr. Vargo said in his Sept. 15 memo that police should have given Mr. Burbine the courtesy of correcting the problem. This week, he compared the Goodwill job to road paving, and said public works crews are not subject to parking tickets.

    Chief Guthrie said public works crews are not exempt from parking regulations.

    Mr. Vargo and the chief agree on one point: The abandoned vehicle citation was issued in error, because the car had not been left for more than 48 hours.

    But the crux of the dispute is the last line of Mr. Vargo's memo:

    "You are to withdraw this ticket immediately, and inform the recipient that it has been voided."

    Once a state ticket is issued, even if the citation is wrong, the chief contends, it may only be voided by a judge. Allowing someone to circumvent the court amounts to ticket-fixing.

    He said he advised Mr. Burbine to plead not guilty and explain the circumstances to the judge, who, he believed, would probably give him a break.

    A police officer may withdraw a state traffic citation before the charge goes to trial, according to a state rule of criminal procedure, but the action must be taken through the court and in writing.

    "You can't just rip it up," said Kelley Streib, an adjunct professor of law at Duquesne University and a district judge of 12 years.

    Once the citation is handed to the defendant or placed on the car windshield, "You have to keep things on the up and up. ... The only way to make it go away is to formally withdraw it or appear before the judge for a hearing."

    Withdrawn tickets, she said, are "very, very rare."

    She knows of no law that governs whether a civilian official may order police to withdraw a ticket. But if it's done, there ought to be a written policy.

    Wilkins has no such policy. Chief Guthrie said the township's standard practice is to not withdraw state citations and to let the judge decide the outcome.

    Major John Gallaher, head of the state agency that trains and certifies police officers, said all citations should be accounted for.

    "Your discretion is over once a ticket is issued. Then it's something to work out with the courts."

    Pennsylvania State Police spokesman Jack Lewis said it is possible to withdraw a ticket but there better be a good explanation and lots of backup documentation.

    "It doesn't happen very often."

    Wilkins commissioners ratified manager Rebecca Bradley's decision to suspend Chief Guthrie, by a 4-1 vote. The charges have not been disclosed but reportedly include insubordination and conduct unbecoming an officer.

    By then, Mr. Burbine had appeared before District Magistrate Susan Evashavik and pled guilty to a reduced charge. He paid a $15 fine.

    The suspension cost the chief about $2,844 in pay.

    After the Treelady dustup, Mrs. Bradley suspended the chief for another five days for refusing to give her a letter from a resident. He said the letter was confidential. The commissioners ratified the suspension, 4-1.

    This week Mrs. Bradley was preparing a letter notifying the chief that he would not be disciplined in a workers compensation dispute. Township officials had held a pre-termination hearing and then considered a 30-day suspension. But Mrs. Bradley said the dispute is over.

    Chief Guthrie has hired an attorney.

    (Bill Heltzel can be reached at [email protected] or 412-263-1719.)
    Going too far is half the pleasure of not getting anywhere

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