Eugene DePasquale

Eugene DePasquale, state auditor general. Thursday, April 7, 2016. John Rucosky/The Tribune-Democrat, Johnstown, Pa.

HARRISBURG – The state needs to boost training for district judges to limit the likelihood of a repeat of an Erie County case in which thousands of people pleaded guilty to criminal charges in cases that should have been handled as civil matters, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said Monday.

DePasquale announced last month that his audit of a district judge’s office in Corry revealed 880 cases in which people pleaded guilty to criminal theft of services charges for transgressions such as failing to pay school lunch bills or not returning library books.

DePasquale said former District Judge Brenda Nichols apparently told the defendants that they would avoid paying certain court fees by pleading guilty to a criminal charge instead of seeking to resolve the complaint through a civil court proceeding. Residents have to pay $100 in civil court costs that aren’t levied in criminal cases, he said.

There was no evidence that anyone was ever advised that by doing so, they’d be getting a criminal record, he said.

The situation came to light after a resident complained that a background check had revealed a criminal conviction that the resident didn’t know about, the auditor general said.

Nichols was voted out of office in 2017, Erie County election records show.

Last week, Erie County President Judge John J. Trucilla sealed the criminal records of 3,000 people whose cases were handled as criminal proceedings by Nichols instead of as minor civil matters, DePasquale said.

“I applaud the court system for its quick response to the miscarriage of justice in Erie County,” DePasquale said. But further action is needed, he added.

“I want to ensure that similar problems aren’t taking place in the more than 500 other district justice offices in Pennsylvania," he said.

In Pennsylvania’s court system, the district judge typically hears traffic cases, minor criminal and civil cases, and serves as the first step before more serious cases are referred to county courts. District judges in Pennsylvania are elected and don’t need law degrees. The Erie Times-News reported Nichols was an assistant manager at a Walmart before being elected district judge.

The auditor general said this is the second time his office has discovered a district judge was using impermissible practices in handling routine matters. In 2015, his office found that a district judge in Wyoming County was having people accused of speeding plead guilty to illegally parking in a handicapped spot. With an illegal handicapped parking conviction, all of the revenue stays in the community, instead of having some of the revenue going to the state, DePasquale said.

DePasquale said demanding that district judges have law degrees might be a “bridge too far,” and would require action by the state Legislature. There are other steps the court system could take without legislation, he said.

To avoid a repeat of the situation in other counties, DePasquale offered the following recommendations:

• The Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts should immediately conduct a review of district courts in every county to determine if this problem has occurred elsewhere;

• The AOPC should strengthen training required for magisterial district judges to clarify procedures around the correct handling of civil cases;

• And the AOPC should strengthen and clarify the language appearing on charging documents to ensure defendants understand the difference between a criminal and civil complaint, and that pleading guilty to a criminal complaint will result in having a criminal record.

Based on the Erie County case, court officials have reviewed statewide data and don’t believe there’s any evidence that similar problems are happening in other district courts, said Stacey Witalec, a spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts. The auditor general’s suggestion about boosting training has been forwarded to the Minor Judiciary Education Board, which oversees training for district judges, she said.

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.

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