New York Times: Ticket-Fixing Case Tests Officers on the Stand

May 25, 2011 in News

By: N.R. Kleinfield

In a thinly populated Bronx courtroom, a plain vanilla drunken driving case was in progress. More than four years ago, a red 1988 Oldsmobile driven by a beer-imbibing man collided with a 2002 Chevrolet Suburban on the Grand Concourse. The arresting officer was on the stand on Wednesday in State Supreme Court for defense cross-examination. But she was being asked about something quite different.

She was being asked about fixing tickets.

Did she feel it was all right that her union delegate told her that a ticket for her boyfriend’s cousin would be destroyed, or another officer perhaps persuaded to falsify testimony, Adam D. Perlmutter, the defense lawyer, asked the police officer, Julissa Goris.

“Yes sir,” she said.

And did she feel it was her right as an officer to get tickets fixed?

“It’s a courtesy that’s given from an officer to another,” she replied.

So it goes as the broad shadow of a police ticket-fixing scandal begins to darken the judicial system in the Bronx.

For weeks, a grand jury has been hearing evidence in a wide-ranging investigation of the age-old practice of ticket-fixing. Though the investigation has not been formally announced and has not resulted in any arrests, its reach has already begun to extend to Bronx trial courtrooms. It rolled into an attempted murder case last week, and now it was touching drunken driving.

Any police officer swept up in the scandal — and the number is thought to be as high as 300 — is susceptible to being asked about the topic when showing up as a witness in unrelated cases. And if jurors cease to believe the words of police officers because they monkeyed with tickets, something Mr. Perlmutter clearly hopes is occurring, then it is in these courtrooms that the most corrosive impact of the scandal may be felt.

No case is straightforward these days when both the arresting officer, Ms. Goris, and the officer who administered the Breathalyzer test have improperly disposed of traffic tickets. And that is the situation in the trial of Stephen Lopresti, a 60-year-old Bronx personal injury lawyer who was driving the red Oldsmobile. Both those officers were on the stand on Wednesday.

The first glimpse of this ticket-fixing infected environment came last week in another Bronx courtroom. Lance Williams was acquitted of attempted murder and gun possession, in a case that turned largely on the credibility of one of the arresting officers. The officer, Salvador Duran, had admitted to fixing a summons he got for an expired car inspection sticker and two summonses for his sister-in-law, something hammered on by the defense as poisoning his believability.

Kyle Watters, the defense lawyer, also seized on inconsistencies in the officer’s testimony and inaccuracies in the complaint, and ticket-fixing was apparently not the chief factor. “If the only problem was the ticket-fixing,” Mr. Watters said in an interview, “I think my client would have been convicted.”

The Lopresti trial, being heard before Justice James M. Kindler, may serve as a cleaner test of how much ticket-fixing matters to jurors. There are additional witnesses, including the minivan driver and technical experts, as well as other issues the defense is raising about divergent statements by Officer Goris, and the adequacy of the blood-alcohol-level test. But the trustworthiness of the two officers is the foundation of the case.

Mr. Lopresti, who had an earlier conviction for driving while intoxicated, was arrested in December 2006 after colliding head-on with the Suburban, which was preparing to make a turn. He had been at a Christmas party at the Yankee Tavern, just down the block from the courthouse, and a place where Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig once drank. He told the police he had had four or five Beck’s beers.

In his opening statement, Mr. Perlmutter advised the jurors that they would hear from “corrupt officers” whose words could not be believed.

During the cross-examination by Mr. Perlmutter on Wednesday, in addition to discussing the defendant’s ability to stand and whether Mr. Lopresti had had a “very strong” or “moderate” smell of alcohol on his breath, Officer Goris testified that she had gone to her union delegate, Jaime Payan, to get the ticket fixed for her boyfriend’s cousin. She said the delegate had said the worst that would happen was that the cousin might have to plead not guilty and the ticket would be taken care of before trial.

On another occasion, when her mother got a ticket, Officer Goris said, she accompanied her to traffic court, and when she spoke to a sergeant there, her mother did not have to pay anything.

Efforts to reach Mr. Payan late Wednesday were unsuccessful.

Harrington Marshall, a highway officer and 19-year police veteran who gave Mr. Lopresti the blood-alcohol test at a Bronx station house, began his testimony. At the end of her questioning, Allyson Kohlmann, an assistant district attorney, asked him about being caught on a wiretap seeking to get a ticket fixed.

He acknowledged that he had reached out to a colleague “for professional courtesy” to erase a summons, for a person he did not identify. Officer Marshall said he did not know whether he would be prosecuted for his conduct but did say he expected to be disciplined by the department at some point.

In his cross-examination, one of the other defense lawyers, Steven Epstein, questioned Officer Marshall at length about the reliability of the alcohol reading he had obtained from Mr. Lopresti, though he did not ask him about ticket-fixing.

That is expected to happen on Thursday, when Officer Marshall returns to the stand.

A law enforcement official said the grand jury looking into ticket-fixing was extended on Monday for another 60 days. More than two dozen police officers could face criminal charges, and hundreds could face administrative charges.

Al Baker contributed reporting.