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Rehearing: Traffic judge denies misconduct

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Indiana Lawyer Rehearing

Hammond City Judge Jeffrey A. Harkin denies that he did anything wrong in operating what may be a long-established but illegal traffic school deferral program and dismissing cases without assessing required fees. He also contends that he did not try to dissuade one litigant from contesting a seatbelt violation in court.

On Aug. 12, Hammond attorney David Weigle filed a permissive answer in response to charges filed in June against Judge Harkin, accusing the jurist who’s been on the bench for a decade of violating three professional conduct rules.

Two of the professional misconduct charges involve Judge Harkin’s operation of a traffic school deferral program, which only the prosecutor is legally allowed to operate, and then conditionally dismissing infractions because of that attendance. Hammond City Court traffic school was usually taught by city police officers, and the complaint says the judge would tell litigants their case would be dismissed without any points being assessed on their driver’s licenses if they paid an administrative fee and completed traffic school.

An estimated $180,000 in fees should have been distributed to the state and county between January 2010 and March 2011, based on hundreds of litigants, according to the charging document. The complaint says that Judge Harkin continued operating the program despite annual warnings from the State Board of Accounts from 2005 to 2010.

The third misconduct charge involves 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.

In his answer, Judge Harkin denies making any statements or acting the way Aubrey described, though he cannot recall the litigant’s specific demeanor at the time and can’t speak to what the man might have “felt” about the judge’s attitude. He recalls giving Aubrey a chance to make his defense after stating the trial date.

As to the traffic school allegations, Judge Harkin said he believes that he acted appropriately given his judicial authority to dismiss a case using the program, and that although it may not be specifically listed in state statute, nothing specifically prohibits judges from using these types of deferral programs. The traffic school has existed for decades and prior judges and prosecutors have known about and used it in the same way over time without anyone raising concern, according to the answer.

Although the judge concedes that the traffic court’s stamp on cases might be misleading and lead litigants to think a “judgment” had been issued, his answer says entering a judgment has never been his intention and he’s treated the program as a way to defer punishment and dismiss the case.

“Judge Harkin does not claim infallibility in interpreting the law,” the answer states. “But he believed that he acted in accordance with his authority, the long tradition of the program, and the laws of the State of Indiana. The Commission obviously feels otherwise.”

With that answer filed, the Supreme Court can now appoint three masters by mid-September 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.

Rehearing: "Hammond traffic judge faces misconduct charges" IL July 6-19, 2011
 

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