Traffic Court has become a popular place this summer. Thanks to the city’s Live Stop program, which took effect July 1 and allows police to confiscate cars operated by unlicensed, unregistered drivers, people queue up outside the court as if waiting for concert tickets.
It was no different last Thursday, when the line along Eighth Street stretched half the length of the court building at 800 Spring Garden St. during the peak of the day’s heat.
An industrious individual parked his lunch truck on the street and enticed the crowd with sandwiches and coolers of icy beverages. Closer to Spring Garden, another man sitting on a milk crate distributed small fliers that read, "LICENSES RESTORED IN (2) DAYS!! ASK FOR THE SUPERBOX," followed by the phone number and address of a business two blocks away.
The piece of paper might be a good thing to hold onto if you are at Traffic Court to see Judge Fortunato Perri. A week ago, the administrative judge presided over impoundment court, one of the first places a person goes after police confiscate his car.
The hearings in impoundment court roll at a rapid-fire pace. None last more than a few minutes, but that is plenty of time for Perri to dress down a defendant.
A man with a red face and shirt to match, a shaved head and denim shorts with one leg cuffed approached the bench and is told he has $1,320 in unpaid tickets. The judge set a trial date and sent the man to jail pending him posting the money he owes. When he protested, Perri waved him away. The defendant is told he has until 4 p.m. to pay the money or spend 30 days in jail until his trial date.
"You are in the custody of the sheriff now," Perri said. "I have nothing to do with you."
Those awaiting their own hearings cringed. Perri, sporting slicked-back black and gray hair, tinted glasses and a black judicial robe over a white shirt and yellow tie, did not flinch. Next.
A woman in a flowered sundress took her turn in the front of the room. Perri informed her she had a suspended license and owed $1,229 in overdue traffic fines.
"What makes you think you could drive without a license?" Perri asked. The woman’s response was inaudible to the rest of the courtroom.
"Don’t you know what Live Stop is?" the judge pressed. "You are going to know before the end of the day." She is also told she must post the money or go to jail until her trial.
Thirty minutes later, the woman in the flowered dress was outside the Traffic Court building puffing on a cigarette. Perri said most people pay the collateral, similar to posting a bond, and are released.
"You’d be surprised, if you are headed to jail, how fast you find money," he said.
It is no-holds-barred in Perri’s courtroom, at least when he is speaking. The judge is not even beyond making fun of a defendant’s hairstyle, like he did when a middle-aged man with a closely-cropped coif and single, 3-inch braid poking upwards from his head approached the bench.
The man — one of the few defendants to appear with an attorney — interrupted at one point during his hearing, and Perri laid into him.
"Why don’t you shut up. You have a lawyer," the judge snapped. "Do you know you have something sticking out of the top of your head?"
The courtroom erupted in laughter. Then everyone quickly quieted, almost as if they collectively remembered their turn would come soon. Perri continued.
"Good thing you don’t live in my house," he said. "I would nip that off while you were sleeping."
Live Stop is about more than tough talk and good courtroom theater, according to Perri. The program has confiscated almost 5,000 cars to date and collected nearly $750,000 in fines in July, the judge said. The city keeps 48 percent of that money and the balance goes to the state.
Perri takes pride in these statistics. He boldly proclaimed Live Stop to be perfect a week ago at a City Hall press conference with First District Councilman Frank DiCic-co. The two hoped to spark an outcry over comments made by an attorney for the Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania who said it would take months before Live Stop affected automobile insurance rates in the city — if it had any effect at all.
Said Perri, "I have not found one problem with the program."
One South Philadelphia resident disagrees. Thomas Hart, of the 2400 block of South Watts Street, believes the city unfairly impounded his car, then sold it at auction.
In an attempt to draw attention to what he feels is a gross injustice, Hart, 65, has filed a complaint with the state judiciary board against Perri; he is discussing a civil lawsuit with the American Civil Liberties Union; and in March, interrupted a City Hall press conference with Perri and Mayor Street unveiling Live Stop citywide.
Sixth District police towed Hart’s car in February. At the time, the district was one of three in the city where Live Stop was a pilot program.
Hart was not driving his 1991 Honda Accord. He had loaned it to a friend who — police found when they pulled the man over near Third and Race streets — did not have a valid driver’s license.
Hart has a valid license, and showed proof of valid registration and insurance for the vehicle, but when he showed up for his hearing before Perri, he refused to post collateral to get his car back pending a trial date for the driver.
Instead, he took offense to Perri’s brash court demeanor, comparing him to Atilla the Hun.
"He addresses people like they are hardened criminals," Hart said in an interview. "He talks to people like they are morons. He shouts at them, he screams at them."
Slightly more than a month after his hearing, Hart said he agreed to pay the $893 in fines owed by the person driving his car when it was towed, expecting the city to release his vehicle. However, the city was only responsible to hold his car for 30 days before selling it at auction. (That time frame has been extended to 70 days since Live Stop expanded the program citywide, according to Perri.)
Hart discovered his car had been sold two days earlier.
When questioned about Hart, Perri said his is a very familiar case. He said he recently responded to Hart’s complaint filed with state.
"This guy is 100 percent wrong," Perri said confidently. "I followed the letter of the law. If you don’t like the law, have an attorney challenge it and if it is unconstitutional, we’ll throw it out. But I am going to go by the statute. It states that I am allowed to request collateral if your vehicle is taken."
If Hart had paid the collateral to get his car released — which Perri said he set at $400 — and ensured the man driving the car showed up for trial, Hart would have had his car and been refunded his money, the judge said.
Perri cautioned Hart and other drivers in the city that they are responsible for whomever they let drive their vehicle.
"He should be mad at the son of a b—- who drove his car without a driver’s license," Perri said.