Judge sees benefits of hearing quality of life issues in local courts
District Judge Richard King looked over the pile of citations from city building inspectors he had scheduled hearings for in the coming week.
Of the ten citations inspectors filed with the judge, six were for overgrown weeds. The citations were written from initial visits in August, but by the time the inspectors gave the owners time to remedy the original complaint and went through the process of filing the citations, it was now January.
Judge King said now that the building inspectors are having the citations heard on the local level, cases should be heard in a timelier manner and with a better resolution. He pointed out given the time of year, it could be difficult for the owners of the properties for abatement and he would rather see the problem fixed than the owners fined in most situations.
"I always think, ‘what would I want if I lived next door,"" he said.
Beginning this year, District Magisterial Judges such as Mr. King in Carrick and Gene Ricciardi on the South Side are hearing cases from city building inspectors that previously had been sent downtown to Pittsburgh Police Magistrates Court. For years the court was presided over by magistrates who were appointed by the mayor of Pittsburgh and later assisted by district judges.
Judge King said that he along with other district judges met with Mayor Tom Murphy to ask that the "quality of life" issues could be brought back into the neighborhood courts. He said that Mayor Murphy resisted the change suggesting that large contributors "would have the local district judges in their pockets." The only change was that one judge was assigned to hear all the cases.
He said that it wasn't until Bob O'Connor, an advocate for local judges, was elected mayor that things began to change. After Mr. O'Connor's unexpected death in office, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl continued to advocate for having the quality of life cases heard in local offices and a change came about this year.
"I've been working on this for eight years and in a short while I think there are going to be people who say we should have done this 20 years ago," Judge King said.
He explained that area district magisterial judges will now hear cases involving excessive rubbish on properties, rubbish placed out too early, issues with vacant properties, fencing, and occupancy issues such as exceeding the occupancy limit in commercial establishments or not having an occupancy permit.
"One of the biggest things with this is quicker response time and that cases will be resolved, for the good or bad," the judge said.
To help the transition, initially a city attorney will be at all the hearings brought in by the building inspectors. Mr. King plans to hold all the building inspection cases on the same day every week so that people know when the building inspectors will be in the office. He also plans to provide the times of the cases to The South Pittsburgh Reporter for publication so that interested residents are aware of when the cases will be heard.
The district judges still won't be hearing cases involving refuse and animal control, those cases will still be heard in Pittsburgh Municipal Court along with other summary cases. "They're not quality of life issues, more booking [issues]. There's only one [court] doing it and it makes sense," he said.
And focusing on those quality of life issues is where Mr. King thinks the local district judges can make a difference. "When it was downtown, they didn't have the time or the staff to catch things," he said pointing to two citations written on the same day for the same offense. "Downtown they may not have noticed that."
As another example he talked about a case where a property was cited repeatedly for high weeds. As it turned out, the property had been repossessed with the former owners living in Elwood City. Mr. King said he was able to meet with a city attorney and straighten out the problem and who was responsible for the property otherwise, he said, it could have been another three months or more before resulting in the same resolution had the case went to a downtown court.
He noted that many of the property cases aren't absentee owners, but elderly owners who can't maintain their properties anymore on their own or that have died and their children didn't know the parents owned the property. In those cases he feels a local judge can assure a better resolution for everyone involved.
Mr. King sees a quicker resolution to cases as a benefit to the neighborhood, "I'm trying to get [things] fixed. I'm not just trying to put money in the city's coffers."
Another benefit he sees is the local knowledge by the constables who work out of his office.
"The sheriff could have 1000 warrants and if they got to serve 10 that might be a lot. Where we can send out the constable who knows the area and is able to track the person down," he said.
If a defendant doesn't show up after being sent a certified letter, Mr. King said that he'll send the constable out and "put money on it" and they'll either pay or sit in jail. He said it was "surprising" how many people pay their fines immediately when the constable shows up at their home or place of employment.