Judge, senator explain their roles
The role of the state and judiciary in neighborhood issues was a theme of the October 24 meeting of the Upper Knoxville Block Watch.
The guest speakers were state Sen. Wayne Fontana and District Judge Gene Ricciardi.
Mr. Fontana, who represents the 42nd Senatorial District, which includes Knoxville, is running unopposed for reelection in November.
He said he was on the Senate floor in Harrisburg until 3 a.m. the previous evening to vote on bills revising the 2004 slot machine gambling law, and regulating lobbyists.
A slots amendment makes the use of middlemen to sell slots equipment to casinos optional. “Now it's the same as every other state,” he said.
The new lobbyist law requires lobbyists to register with the state and report their spending.
The “hot issue” coming up is mass transit. “We need a viable mass transit system,” he said. He has talked with the head of Port Authority Transit about cutting expenses and other strategies.
Mr. Fontana said he has legislation pending on child abuse; will keep soliciting funding for Weed and Seed programs in which bad elements, like drug dealers, are “weeded” out of neighborhoods and money is “seeded” for economic development; and wants a new arena deal which will keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh.
“It's all about working together,” he said, pledging to work with the Allegheny County delegation — including Democrats and Republicans — to get things done for the public.
“Let me know what you need,” he told attendees.
In his presentation, Mr. Ricciardi discussed the role of district justices.
“Although I don't represent you directly I don't want to lose your friendship,” he said of why he stopped by the meeting.
Among his responsibilities are handling traffic and non-traffic summary offenses.
The punishment for those can be up to $300 fine, court costs, and up to 90 days in jail.
For a public urination case he handled recently he sentenced the offender to 21 days in jail. “It sends out a strong message,” he said of his no-nonsense approach.
He sentenced a 52-year-old man who made sexual comments while following a female student to seven days in county jail.
“We should respect women and stand by them,” he said.
District judges also sign arrest and search warrants, officiate at marriage ceremonies, and conduct arraignments and preliminary hearings.
If a resident chooses to sue another individual up to $8,000, the resident files a civil suit. An attorney is not required as Mr. Ricciardi said he will help the plaintiff through the process.
A case he handled a week earlier began with shots fired from a vehicle at the intersection of Zara St. and Amanda Ave. Police who searched the car discovered a gun, large amounts of crack cocaine and marijuana.
The driver and passenger, who are from West Mifflin, were charged with carrying a firearm without a license, criminal conspiracy, possession of a controlled substance and possession with intent to deliver.
While the county bail bondsman's guidelines recommended bond at $1,000 cash or $500—$800 from a bondsman, and then release, he gave each $1 million straight bond.
“To me they're peddling death,” he quoted himself as saying often in court. “They're murdering folks.”
The preliminary hearing in the case was scheduled for October 26.
He also said that being a district judge has given him a greater realization of the danger police officers face every day on the job.
Of the criminals who come before him in the courtroom, he remarked, “Some of them I believe are from Hell.”
To an attendee's question about absentee landlords, Mr. Ricciardi told Mr. Fontana they need his help with state legislation that would permit the city to file liens on a landlord's primary residence.
Mr. Fontana said he would look into it.
To a question about the Property Owner Responsibility Act, which was passed by the city in 2005, Mr. Ricciardi said Mayor Luke Ravenstahl must implement it.
Under the law, a house becomes a nuisance property after police are dispatched to it a third time. Landlords are then fined.
The mayor voted for passage of the law when he was a councilman, Mr. Ricciardi said.
To the question of whether there is a limit on the number of Section 8 houses in a neighborhood, Mr. Fontana said “no,” as it is a federal program without restrictions as to saturation level.
There are rules regarding violations by landlords, but no one enforces them, he said.
In neighborhood news, block watch president Mary Ann Bennett read a list of 115 reported crimes in Knoxville from September 1 to October 20.
Of the 32 in Upper Knoxville, the breakdown by blocks/streets is:
Accident (1): 200 block of Jucunda St.;
Aggravated Assault (2): 300 block of Orchard Place, 300 block of Charles St.;
Burglary (4): 400 block of Jucunda St., 200 block of Rochelle St., and (2) 400 block of Rochelle St;
Criminal Mischief (4): 200 block of Jucunda St., 400 block of Jucunda St., 100 block of Rochelle St. @ 80 Amanda Ave., and 200 block of Rochelle St.;
Drugs (3): 100 block of Rochelle St. @ Ibis Way, 200 block of Orchard Place, and Knox Ave. @ 200 block of Zara St.;
Firearms Violations (2): 100 block of Charles St., Ibis Way @ Dove Way;
Fraud (1): 100 block of Orchard Place;
Harassment (2): 100 block of Rochelle St., Knox Ave. @ 200 block of Zara St.;
Hit-and-Run (4): 100 block of Orchard Place, 100 block of Charles St., Sylvania Way @ Ibis Way, and Grimes Ave. @ Rentz Way;
Incident (1): Ibis Way @ Rentz Way;
Simple Assault (1): 100 block of Knox Ave.;
Stolen Vehicle (1): 100 block of Knox Ave .;
Tampering with Vehicle (1): 200 block of Rochelle St.;
Theft from Person (2): 100 block of Jucunda St., Knox Ave. @ 100 block of Zara St .;
The block watch's next meeting will be held in 2007.