- Associated Press - Saturday, February 11, 2017

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Ask any district judge to describe his weirdest case to date and he’ll stare at the air awhile, considering the treasures to choose from.

Magisterial District Judge Richard King, whose court is in Carrick, has worn the robe for 24 years. He chose this one: “A guy is driving erratically and gets pulled over. He has grandma’s (cremated remains) in a bag. A grinder like you use for marijuana had fallen under his gas pedal. He’s trying to fish it out when the police stop him. He was going to grind the remains down to make them fine enough” for a shadowbox cross.

Unlike many stories in court, that one held together. It also was true.

If there is anything like the principal’s office in the grown-up world, it is District Court, where the poignant, the hilarious and the weird mix with the same old stories about traffic and parking tickets, nuisance animals, rubbish, rotted porches, overdue rent and add-ons without building permits.

Allegheny County has 146 magisterial district courts, 13 in Pittsburgh neighborhoods. District judges don’t have to be lawyers, but if they are not, they are required to take four weeks of training. They take turns in Municipal Court Downtown, too, dealing with arraignments, warrants, domestic violence, child abuse and other crimes.

District Judge King’s area includes Mount Oliver. He keeps a bright orange parking ticket on his desk, holding it in the air to elicit recognition from people who get cited there.

“I didn’t know it was a ticket,” said one young man.

District Judge King winced. “How old are you?”

“Twenty-four.”

“There was a big orange thing on your windshield that says Mount Oliver Police on it,” the district judge said. “You threw it on the ground.”

“Was it orange?” the man said in wonder, as if he had stumbled onto a defense. “I thought it was yellow.”

District Judge King and parking enforcement officer Leah Miller exchanged looks. The morning promised more looks like that.

A defendant cited for dumping construction materials had taken a side job while the company’s owner was vacationing in Las Vegas, said Mount Oliver Police Chief Matthew Juzwick. When District Judge King asked the man why he would dump stuff over a hillside, the man shrugged and said, “Bad choice.”

The district judge asked the question again, and the man said, “There was other stuff dumped there.”

Looking as if he was counting to 10, the district judge slowly shook his head.

“Bad choice,” he said. “You got caught. One hundred plus costs.”

Next was a man in a camouflage hoodie. He explained why his parking fine had grown from $15 to $98.50, some weeks later - a fine of $50 plus court costs: “My car got repossessed and I had knee surgery.”

He got the ticket early one morning for obstructing a sidewalk.

“I moved a refrigerator for a lady,” he told the judge. “She told me I could park there.”

District Judge King tilted his head, rubbed his chin and said, “Who installs a refrigerator at 3 in the morning?” The man considered this question. “You got the ticket at 3 a.m.,” the district judge said.

“I picked her up at work at 11,” the man said. “In Wexford.”

“What were you doing for four hours,” District Judge King asked, to which the man said maybe he picked her up closer to 1 a.m.

“You let people tell their story,” District Judge King said later, “but sometimes” it makes no sense. “You have to remember people have a lot of issues. Maybe they’re doing the best they can.”

Truancy issues

In his Squirrel Hill courtroom, District Judge Dan Butler sees many truant youth. One day, he met with a mother, her 16-year-old son and Debby Genter, a social worker at Pittsburgh Allderdice High School. The mother said the boy has autism and that fear of high school explained his truancy earlier in the school year. He wanted to stay in middle school.

“But we’ve made a huge change,” Genter said. “He’s been pretty regular” this term.

The boy began to speak and point at the district judge’s grandfather clock. The district judge, the boy’s mother and Genter all tried to guess what he was saying.

“Show me,” his mother said. He got up, touched the 12 and drew his finger counterclockwise.

“He wants to go back,” she said softly.

In an interview, District Judge Butler talked about the underlying issues of most truancy.

“One kid missed 26 days last term. His mother’s in the women’s shelter with five kids. One kid was brought here for threatening to beat up a teacher. The mother is addicted to something, the father is never on the scene. He gets breakfast and lunch at school, which is why a lot of kids go to school.”

District Judge Butler said he does not fine for truancy “because fines are on their record. We’ve got to save these kids.

Dispute over a dog

In Deutschtown one morning, District Judge Derwin Rushing heard cases of building code violations throughout the North Side. They had nothing on his weirdest case.

That one pitted two elderly sisters over ownership of a dog. One took care of it as a favor but eventually the other sister wanted it back. The de facto owner said her sister could have it back as soon as she reimbursed her for two years of care and feeding. The original owner sued, the other countersued and they kept arguing.

“The dog had been dead for three years and the sisters were still arguing,” District Judge Rushing said. “One day, the (original) owner found the dog’s body in a bag on her porch. Her sister had dug it up.”

Violations of the building code don’t make for weird stories, but a case born of weird construction has been recurring in District Judge Rushing’s court for months.

The defendant’s home in Deutschtown was built so that an upstairs room in back sits over top of a downstairs room in an adjacent house. This kind of construction is known in England as a flying freehold. When the neighbor did a renovation, a building inspector discovered the need for a fire wall to separate their houses.

Each neighbor thinks it is the other’s responsibility.

“Can you guys work this out?” District Judge Rushing asked the defendant. “If you can’t, our only option is to fine you both and have you go downtown, and that’s not going to help anyone.”

When no one was left in the waiting room, the district judge and building inspector Cori Merkle waded through files on properties whose owners did not appear.

“We’ve been out eight times on this, inspections and reinspections,” Merkle said. “A certified letter came back in August.”

She opened another file: “Overgrowth, abandoned vehicle. We’ve been there eight times as well. Butting our heads against the wall.”

District Judge Randy Martini and three inspectors - all in navy fleece and khaki pants - sat in his courtroom in the West End one afternoon working through files a foot tall on properties whose owners did not respond to first class or certified mailings.

District Judge Martini asked about an address on Justine Street, a blighted property on an otherwise dignified street in Crafton Heights.

“Your honor, it’s horrible” said inspector Robert Lomax. He carried a photo of proof to the judge, who drew back as one would from an odor. With no respondents, the properties in those files keep showing up in 311 complaints, inspectors’ reports and court until they fall down, are torn down or go to treasurer’s sale.

Judges say the Legislature could help matters by requiring banks that foreclose on properties to put them in their names. Banks often leave deeds in the names of people they evict, which wastes court time if properties keep getting cited.

“One guy came in saying the bank told him to get out five years ago but he really loves his house,” District Judge Martini said. “We went over the case, and I said, ‘If it’s still in your name, move back in.’ “

Many people who show up for court are low-income, elderly or both and cannot afford upkeep. District judges give them 30, 60 or 90 days to make progress and often refer them to social service agencies for help.

District judges say they would rather resolve issues than continue to fine people, which drags on and costs the city more.

“I’d rather they put the cost of a fine into repairs,” said District Judge Martini, acknowledging frustration that people often don’t do that. “They have a certain amount of time to fix things before they come to court. You get excuses, like ‘It’s cold.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, but you were supposed to do this last summer.’ “

Asked how he keeps from being cynical about his fellow man, District Judge Martini said, “These are my people, my neighbors, and I feel like I make a difference in their lives.”

District court is the ER of the judicial world,” District Judge Rushing said. “You have to remind yourself that the whole world is not sick and you’re just trying to make your little part of it better.”

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Online:

https://bit.ly/2jRKlAR

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Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, https://www.post-gazette.com


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