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Police at odds with progressive district judges

Police at odds with progressive district judges
Police at odds with progressive district judges 03:54

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) - For years, police and district justices have worked in tandem, but more recently they've been at war. A group of progressive district justices is making waves and the police are crying foul.

The progressive district justices champion criminal justice reform, taking aim at things like cash bail and incarceration before conviction. They ran on platforms of making the system fairer to poor people but police say they're actually putting the public at risk by not signing warrants, dropping charges and letting dangerous criminals back on the street, never to be seen again. 

The most notable of the group is District Justice Mik Pappas, who recently came under fire for failing to sign a warrant for Calvin Crew, now accused of killing of Uber driver and mother of four Christi Spicuzza. Detectives about to arrest Crew had to wait for hours for the next judge to sign the warrant.

"Everybody in public life, you have your personal beliefs but you have to follow the law," said Bethel Park Police Chief Tim O'Connor. "You have to follow the law.

Police in Bethel Park say Pappas' reluctance to set cash bail allowed Chinese national Yan Mo to flee back to back to China rather than face sex assault charges. More recently, Pappas set an unsecured bond on this defendant from Arizona who stole a car in Ohio. He didn't show up for his hearing and police are looking for him again.

"I don't know what this gentleman's reasons are for letting felons out on non-monetary bond who have no ties to this area," O'Connor said. "It's very disconcerting and a potential threat to public safety when you do this."

"It's what some judges have ran on," District Justice Rick King said. "And they are well within their bounds. But it's not normally what has happened in the past or continues to happen among judges."

Along with Pappas, progressive District Justices Xander Orenstein in Lawrenceville and Jehosha Wright on the Noth Side declined to be interviewed, but St. Vincent College law professor Bruce Antkowiak says they represent a growing number of left-leaning judges who believe the jails are overcrowded with poor people who can't afford cash bail.

"Criticisms of the traditional cash bail system are long-standing," said Antkowiak. "It is a system that can incarcerate poor people when it is not necessary."

But Pappas recently rankled McKees Rocks police when he exed out drug and firearms charges against a defendant before his preliminary hearing. The charges were later reinstated by the district attorney's office, which has also been highly critical of Pappas' actions. But Antkowiak says as elected jurists, they are free to make these calls.

"If they have promised that cash bail will not be considered as a meaningful option, if they want to take a hardened look at warrants, and they fulfill those promises, that's what the electorate in their district was looking or that's exactly what they're going to get," Antkowiak said. 

But Pappas' decisions have been under review by the Allegheny Court administration. The court administrator won't say whether that review has been completed or whether complaints have been filed with the judicial inquiry review board. 

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