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Hammond traffic judge faces misconduct charges

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Indiana Lawyer Disciplinary Actions

Hammond City Judge Jeffrey A. Harkin faces three misconduct charges for operating an illegal traffic school deferral program and dismissing cases without collecting 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, accusing him of going above state law in creating a deferral program that only a prosecutor is legally allowed to operate and not following the statutory framework for how courts assess and collect costs.

Judge Harkin has been on the bench since April 2001, and these allegations relate to his conduct beginning in 2005.

Two of the professional misconduct charges involve the judge referring hundreds of litigants to the traffic classes and then later dismissing their infractions on the condition that they complete those classes.

Hammond City Court Traffic School was usually taught by city police officers at the court. Judge Harkin would tell the litigants that their cases 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 in place from 2005 to early 2011. An administrative fee of $75 per litigant was charged from 2005 to 2009, and it increased to $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 rental of 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. 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.

This isn’t the first court-administered driving school that’s been questioned in Lake County.

Five years ago, Lake Superior Judge Julie Cantrell drew the attention of state judicial officials after concerns arose about the legality of her dismissing tickets of defendants who paid for traffic classes. Allegations surfaced that she was not reporting proceeds from that deferral program to the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles and instead was funneling that money to other locations. Judge Cantrell denied any wrongdoing, but she eventually shut the program down after the judicial qualifications commission publicly cautioned her for improperly using those fees to give her staff $20,700 in salary bonuses.

In 2004, former Schererville Town Judge Deborah Riga was indicted for extortion and fraud based on kickbacks received from more than 1,000 defendants she’d sentenced to driving school and counseling classes through a program she secretly owned and from which she personally profited. She received a 15-month federal prison sentence in 2008 and was ordered to pay $12,120 in restitution to the town and state.

Judge Harkin has 20 days from June 30 to file an answer, though it’s not required. The Indiana Supreme Court can then 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 the Supreme Court would be responsible for imposing sanctions. Judge Harkin has no previous disciplinary history, according to the Indiana Supreme Court Roll of Attorneys.•

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  1. CCHP's real accomplishment is the 2015 law signed by Gov Pence that basically outlaws any annexation that is forced where a 65% majority of landowners in the affected area disagree. Regardless of whether HP wins or loses, the citizens of Indiana will not have another fiasco like this. The law Gov Pence signed is a direct result of this malgovernance.

  2. I gave tempparry guardship to a friend of my granddaughter in 2012. I went to prison. I had custody. My daughter went to prison to. We are out. My daughter gave me custody but can get her back. She was not order to give me custody . but now we want granddaughter back from friend. She's 14 now. What rights do we have

  3. This sure is not what most who value good governance consider the Rule of Law to entail: "In a letter dated March 2, which Brizzi forwarded to IBJ, the commission dismissed the grievance “on grounds that there is not reasonable cause to believe that you are guilty of misconduct.”" Yet two month later reasonable cause does exist? (Or is the commission forging ahead, the need for reasonable belief be damned? -- A seeming violation of the Rules of Profession Ethics on the part of the commission) Could the rule of law theory cause one to believe that an explanation is in order? Could it be that Hoosier attorneys live under Imperial Law (which is also a t-word that rhymes with infamy) in which the Platonic guardians can do no wrong and never owe the plebeian class any explanation for their powerful actions. (Might makes it right?) Could this be a case of politics directing the commission, as celebrated IU Mauer Professor (the late) Patrick Baude warned was happening 20 years ago in his controversial (whisteblowing) ethics lecture on a quite similar topic: http://www.repository.law.indiana.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1498&context=ilj

  4. I have a case presently pending cert review before the SCOTUS that reveals just how Indiana regulates the bar. I have been denied licensure for life for holding the wrong views and questioning the grand inquisitors as to their duties as to state and federal constitutional due process. True story: https://www.scribd.com/doc/299040839/2016Petitionforcert-to-SCOTUS Shorter, Amici brief serving to frame issue as misuse of govt licensure: https://www.scribd.com/doc/312841269/Thomas-More-Society-Amicus-Brown-v-Ind-Bd-of-Law-Examiners

  5. Here's an idea...how about we MORE heavily regulate the law schools to reduce the surplus of graduates, driving starting salaries up for those new grads, so that we can all pay our insane amount of student loans off in a reasonable amount of time and then be able to afford to do pro bono & low-fee work? I've got friends in other industries, radiology for example, and their schools accept a very limited number of students so there will never be a glut of new grads and everyone's pay stays high. For example, my radiologist friend's school accepted just six new students per year.

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