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Hammond traffic judge faces misconduct charges

June 30, 2011

Hammond City Judge Jeffrey A. Harkin faces three misconduct charges for operating an illegal traffic school deferral program and dismissing cases without assessing required fees, as well as dissuading one litigant from contesting a seatbelt violation in court.

The Indiana Commission on Judicial Qualifications filed formal charges against the city judge June 30; the charges relating to his conduct stretch back at least five years.

Two of the professional misconduct charges involve Judge Harkin’s operation of a traffic school deferral program that only the prosecutor is allowed by law to operate, and then conditionally dismissing infractions because of attendance. The Hammond City Court Traffic School was usually taught by city police officers Thursday evenings or Saturday mornings at the court.

Judge Harkin would tell the litigants that their case would be dismissed and no points assessed on their driver's licenses if they paid an administrative fee and successfully completed the traffic school class, the complaint says.

That practice was ongoing between 2005 and early 2011, with an administrative fee of $75 charged from 2005 to 2009 and then $100 starting last year. Instead of distributing money to the state, county, and city as required, the judge unlawfully distributed 60 percent of the administrative fee to Hammond for renting the meeting rooms and 40 percent to the Northwest Indiana Traffic School to administer the program.

An estimated $180,000 in fees should have been distributed to the state and county between January 2010 and March 2011, according to the charging document.

Despite annual audit warnings from the State Board of Accounts from 2005 to 2010, Judge Harkin continued operating the school and not assessing the required court costs against those defendants who successfully completed the courses, the complaint says.

A third misconduct charge stems from an August 2010 seatbelt violation case where defendant Matthew Aubrey alleged the judge made inappropriate comments to him and dissuaded him from contesting the ticket in court. When the judge called Aubrey’s name for the hearing to begin, the man said he had paperwork and legal analysis to support his defense against the ticket. Judge Harkin rolled his eyes and asked Aubrey if he was an attorney, the charges say, and then the judge suggested Aubrey should not exercise his right to trial. In part, Judge Harkin said it would cost “10 times more than the original ticket” because of court and legal costs, and that convinced Aubrey to admit the infraction.

The judicial qualifications commission alleges that Judge Harkin routinely acted without appropriate statutory or other legal authority in regard to the traffic school program and in not assessing the required court costs, as well as violating the conduct rules with his statements and conduct during the Aubrey proceedings.

On the bench since April 2001, Judge Harkin has no previous disciplinary history. He has 20 days to file an answer – though it’s not required – and then the Indiana Supreme Court would appoint three masters to hear the evidence and conduct a hearing if no settlement is reached. The state’s justices have final authority on any agreement or disciplinary decision, and if any misconduct is found they’d be responsible for any sanctions that might be necessary.

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