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Officers Fail to Appear in Court

WILKES-BARRE — They’re paid to protect and serve, but Newswatch 16 has found that police officers who write traffic tickets often don’t show u...

WILKES-BARRE -- They're paid to protect and serve, but Newswatch 16 has found that police officers who write traffic tickets often don't show up in court, and the tickets that could mean money for the community are tossed.

We found officers not doing part of their jobs: failing to appear in court after issuing traffic citations. And it's a problem some agencies don't even keep track of.

You're on traffic patrol, a vehicle barrels down a road, you flash your lights to stop the driver and, then write up a citation. but if a driver chooses to fight that ticket in Luzerne County, chances could be that 20 percent of the time, the ticket could be thrown away.

"Personally, I think that's a little ridiculous," said Natalie Cugini.

"I think you should fight it, you'd have a good chance in winning," said Georganne Thompson.

On a single day inside Luzerne County Summary Appeals Court, we watched as one of every five traffic citations was thrown out; dismissed because the officer never showed up.

"That sort of does surprise me," said Wilkes-Barre Township Police Captain William Clark.

"It's part of their job, as a police officer, to be in court and testify against the defendant," said criminal defense attorney Jonathan Pietrowski.

Pietrowski is an attorney in Lackawanna and Luzerne Counties. He also sees his share of 'no-show officers.'

"That's to the benefit of the defendant," he said.

But legal experts say it doesn't benefit the public, because if an officer doesn't show up and the defendant wins, that municipality could be losing revenue and the court could be wasting its time, all while the offender is let go without a penalty.

"If the officer brings the underlying charge, he or she is the prosecutor of the case, so it's their case to bring forward," said Luzerne County President Judge Richard Hughes.

Newswatch 16 asked several lenforcement agencies in Luzerne County for records on how often officers don't appear in court, but none of the agencies that got back to us kept those records. And while every agency requires its officers to appear in court, we found different ones have different procedures for making that happen.

"You don't issue tickets for people and not show up for the hearing," said Nanticoke Police Chief William Shultz.

Chief Shultz says his department has a white board that lists all upcoming traffic hearings.

"That board does remind, because they can go out and look at the board in the next room with all the defendants names on and see, 'Oh, I have a hearing today."

Hanover Township sends written reminders to officers, and the Wilkes-Barre Township police department makes court appearances mandatory or officers could face disciplinary actions.

"The officer needs to be there. That's part of their job in order to do the follow through, to make sure the case is proven beyond a reasonable doubt in front of a district judge," said Capt. Clark.

When we asked Wilkes-Barre Township and Nanticoke why their departments do not track the appearances of officers in court, officials told us it's something they will consider.

"It should fall back on the police department to monitor," said Capt. Clark.

"They should be, they should be," added Chief Shultz.

Smaller police departments face a tougher time appearing in court because part-time officers may not be on duty when they're supposed to be in court. If an officer can't make a hearing for a legitimate reason, the courts usually delay it, but as we found, sometimes officers just don't show up.