Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Prominent Pittsburgh Cases Generate Curious Connections Of Geography To Magisterial Justice

It is becoming difficult to determine which is stranger -- the decisions of some magistrates concerning high-profile criminal charges, or the associated geography.

When a city firefighter from a politically connected family was arrested, after storming into a South Side home to assault an elderly resident who had objected to the drunken firefighter's unlawful use of his hose, the defendant received kid-glove treatment from magistrate Ronald Costa. That's Upper Lawrenceville-Highland Park-Stanton Heights (wards 8, 10 and 11) magistrate Ronald Costa, whose jurisdiction is about as far from the South Side Flats as one could get without departing city limits (but exceptionally handy for residents of Upper Lawrenceville and Stanton Heights, such as the defendants).

Magistrate Kevin Cooper raised severe doubts about his judgment by swallowing laughably incredible police accounts of G20-related arrests with gusto -- then,more recently, dispelled all doubts by sending a prisoner back to the county jail after failing to observe, during the court proceeding, that the inmate's face (right) had been pummmeled to a bloody pulp at the jail. The G20 injustice occurred in Oakland (ward 4), the beaten inmate had been arrested in Polish Hill (ward 6), the jail is located in ward 1 -- and Cooper's jurisdiction is wards 12 and 13.

After ferocious defensive lineman Jabaal Sheard responded to police commands to stop beating a man by hurling that man through a glass door, then continuing the assault as police officers struggled to restrain him, felony charges against the Pitt football star were dismissed by magistrate Robert Ravenstahl, who ordered the defendant to a write an apology. That's north-of-North Side (wards 26 and 27) magistrate Robert Ravenstahl, handling yet another case from the South Side Intoxication District (ward 17).

Yesterday, a magistrate dismissed a felony charge against a police officer who drunkenly smashed a pedestrian with a vehicle. The incident occurred on the South Side (the driver was departing the Intoxication District, along Carson Street), the officer is employed by Kennedy Township, the victim was from the West End, so the case was adjudicated, naturally, by magistrate Robert P. Dzvonick -- of Etna.

Who is arranging these geographically curious matches of high-profile cases and low-quality judging -- and why?


Anonymous said...

wow. this is sick. i heard cooper was horrible outside of the g-20 stuff.

NorthPGH Progressive said...

The magistrate judges are assigned to the Arraignment Court so many hours per month. My guess is that is why these cases don't match up to the magistrate's individual jurisdictions.

In order to comply with the Supreme Court’s requirements governing the continuous availability of judicial services, Magisterial District Judges are assigned to preside in Arraignment Court. This court is located in the Municipal Courts Building, 600 First Avenue, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and operates 24-hours a day, 7-days a week including weekends and holidays. This assignment, scheduled on a rotational basis among forty-nine Magisterial District Judges, assures that the Fifth Judicial District has services available during non-regular business hours. While at Arraignment Court, Magisterial District Judges have jurisdiction to conduct the following duties:

• Issue warrants of arrest and search warrants
• Conduct preliminary arraignments
• Establish bail
• Issue emergency Protection From Abuse orders
• Conduct marriage ceremonies

Court jester said...

none of these cases look like they were emergencies, some of them actually had postponements according to the newapaper so, special after hours schedules don't seem to explain much at least not the way I see it

but good info on the details, sounds like you know your stuff

Rex said...

Infy -

Costa's Magisterial District includes Bloomfield, Garfield and Friendship as well.

Just making sure we covered the entire Magisterial District

Rex said...

East Liberty and the western edge of Larimer. Can't forget those.

NorthPGH Progressive said...

I don't know if I'm correct about the terminology. I know that magistrates serve so many hours per month or week 'downtown.' I'm not sure what all takes place during their time 'downtown.'

I know someone who is planning to run for magistrate up in my area who has been talking to me about what magistrates do and I know he mentioned that if he wins he would have to go downtown every once in a while.

Infinonymous said...


The complete ward map, and the roster of magisterial districts, are linked.

Since when are defendants taken to the magistrate where they (and, more important, their families)live, rather than to the court where the incident occurred?

Does this occur regularly, or just when a big-time Pitt football player, a politically connected firefighter, an inmate brutally beaten by jail guards, or a police officer defendant is involved?

Just asking.

what's really important said...

"unlawful use of his hose"...good one!

Patrick said...

Preliminary Hearings on police arrests in the City of Pgh are heard at the Municipal Courts bldg by elected magistrates who have districts that cover parts of the city - there is a schedule, and each of them must preside over several sessions per week/month.
There are some sessions when no city magistrates are available (vacations, illnesses, etc), and magistrates from other parts of the county can be assigned to preside.

If the Kennedy officer ran over someone in McKees Rocks, it would be heard by Mary Ann Cercone (that's in her district).
Because he ran someone over in Pittsburgh, it's heard at City Court, and whichever judge is assigned to preside at that session hears the case.

For City arrests, there is no attempt to put crimes that occur in a particualar magisterial district before that magistrate alone - it could end up in front of any City magistrate. In any given court session, there are cases from all over the city in front of that magistrate.

This is done for reasons of efficiency - some districts (Cooper's in the 12th&13th Wards, Rushing's which covers the lower North Side) may have lots of arrests, while others may be significantly less busy in terms of a criminal docket (Firestone, Hanley in Sq Hill and Greenfield/Lincoln Place, respectively). Instead of paying constables or Sheriff deputies to transport prisoners from the ACJ to 13 different MDJ offices, and to have police personel shuffling back-and-forth between all of those offices, the city prefers to centralize. It's easier to keep track of which cops are showing up for court (or not), and the Municipal Courts bldg is attached to the ACJ, so costs are held down.

My solution? Instead of breaking down the city into 13 magisterial districts, have 13 judges (or so) run city-wide. Any potential gripes about jurisdiction are erased.

Infinonymous said...

That appears to be an informed, reasoned analysis.

Not enough to entirely dismiss speculation that certain cases are being steered (perhaps by postponements or other timing methods) to particular magistrates -- the Lawrenceville firefighters deal seems especially fishy -- but enough to slow the speculation.

Thank you, Patrick.

MH said...

Maybe they should try to even out the crime by moving potential flash points like Mallorca or Nakama to Squirrel Hill?