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Ticket-Fixing: It Isn't "Professional Courtesy," It's Racketeering

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Last Friday, sixteen New York City police officers were arraigned in Bronx Criminal Court on 21 indictments charging in over 1,600 counts a massive conspiracy to fix traffic tickets of friends, relatives and assorted big shots. The scene in the courthouse was raucous and ugly. Hundreds of off-duty police officers filled the corridor outside the courtroom to support their indicted colleagues, chanting "Down with the DA," barring the media from getting near the courtroom, and pummeling news photographers; in short, they were behaving like an angry mob. The protesting police were members of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, the largest police union in the city, which organized the demonstration and which, not surprisingly, was the hub of the ticket-fixing conspiracy. Indeed, the PBA's moniker "benevolent" is apt, at least for the favored few who benefited from the union's corrupt benevolence.

Here's how the ticket-fixing scheme worked. A police officer would get a call from someone who received a ticket and wanted the ticket to disappear. The officer would then contact an official of the union who would try to track down the location of the ticket - a locked box in a police precinct, the office of the borough command, a drawer in the city's Finance Department or in the State's Department of Motor Vehicles -- and have the ticket destroyed. Sometimes it took a day or two; sometimes nearly two weeks. The three-year investigation, conducted through thousands of court-ordered wiretaps, witness interrogations, and examination of thousands of documents, alleged the "disappearance" of nearly 1,000 summonses totaling nearly $2 million in lost revenue. The ticket-fixing crimes included conspiracy, grand larceny, official misconduct, obstruction of governmental administration, and criminal solicitation.

The police union was the center of the conspiracy, with its tentacles spread throughout the city's precincts, with union delegates and trustees in each precinct actively promoting the corrupt scheme. As one reads through the thousand pages of the indictments, it appears that ticket-fixing has been entrenched in the police department's culture for decades, and the evidence showed that hundreds of other police officers were caught on tape soliciting the ticket fix. Indeed, the fact that ticket-fixing has been entrenched for so long has blinded some people, most prominently the police, to its seriousness, and to how toxic a message it can send to every person who is not among the favored few, who have to go through the ordeal of traffic court, with the inconvenience, time lost from work, fines, insurance points, and so on.
Does anybody doubt that ticket-fixing by police is corruption? The president of the police union, Patrick Lynch, doesn't think it is. He claims it is conduct that has been "accepted at all ranks for decades" and should be viewed as "professional courtesy." Indeed, the police protesters held up signs and chanted "It's a Courtesy Not a Crime." The lawyer for the union also belittled the charges, which includes felonies, calling them "relatively minor administrative misconduct at best." To characterize such official misconduct as "professional courtesy" or "minor administrative misconduct" is mindboggling. It should also be noted that scores of other police officers caught up in the investigation face administrative charges; those indicted were the worst offenders, and charged with serious felonies.

In a breathtakingly ironic moment, the union's lawyer complained that the Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson was guilty of "overcharging" the police. If anything, the District Attorney was guilty of undercharging them. The sixteen officers and the police union most appropriately should have been charged under the RICO statute with a racketeering conspiracy. The RICO law -- an acronym for Racketeer and Corrupt Organizations Act -- covers criminal acts performed as part of an ongoing criminal enterprise in which the participants engage in a pattern of racketeering activity. In organizing, directing, and participating in the ticket-fixing conspiracy -- during which the crimes of larceny, obstruction of justice, criminal solicitation, and fraud were committed -- the union, its leaders and other high-ranking officers should have been charged with racketeering. The fact that the union is not the "Mafia" or an organized-crime family -- organizations that RICO historically has been aimed at -- is irrelevant. Indeed, RICO has been used recently and often to prosecute a variety of criminal conspiracies having nothing to do with organized crime, including insider trading, major league baseball, pro-life activists, corporations hiring illegal immigrants, and Catholic sex abuse cases. From the facts in the ticket-fixing cases, a RICO conspiracy plausibly could have and arguably should have been charged against the police union and its officers. The District Attorney most likely deliberated very carefully before deciding against bringing a RICO charge. But as one examines the allegations of the widespread pattern of the ticket-fixing conspiracy alleged in the indictments, the conduct most assuredly is not "professional courtesy" -- it is a flagrant misuse of power by law enforcement and it involves blatant corruption. Given the length of time it allegedly has lasted, and its reliance on the union for its success, it is also racketeering.