As the Massachusetts State Police corruption scandal arrest count grows, the Boston Globe reports on why we don’t hear more about police corruption. Few people in state government have a problem with it.
This year’s roundup is led by federal prosecutors. When police are accused of theft in state court magistrates make the charges disappear in secret hearings.
One thing you need to know about magistrates in Massachusetts: clerk-magistrate is a patronage job. Some are qualified. Some are not. Some see the job as a stepping-stone to a higher position and work to get promoted. Some see the job as a final resting place and act as petty tyrants. It’s almost impossible to get fired.
These people run traffic courts. For better or worse. In one court the magistrate knows the speed limit is stupidly low and you’ll beat the ticket. In another, the magistrate is a by-the-book former prosecutor who believes the officer is always right. In a third, there’s a conviction quota to meet.
These people also run “show cause” hearings on criminal complaints. When somebody files charges a magistrate decides whether there is reason to suspect a crime was committed. Show cause hearings are not about proof beyond a reasonable doubt. They are meant to screen out obviously meritless cases.
Another thing you need to know about magistrates: although Massachusetts put bail bondsmen out of business a long time ago, magistrates can profit off of arrests. They keep a $40 fee for letting somebody out of jail after hours. Even if there is no bail you still pay $40. Guess who is responsible for bringing in those $40 customers?
It’s a corrupt system. A case that made the front page involved an arrangement between State Police officers and a magistrate. The officers would bring prisoners for bail hearings if the magistrate arranged overtime for them. It must have been a common practice. The whistleblower faced retaliation. Overtime is more important than honesty.
Overtime is behind the cases that proceeded in federal court and some of the cases that were silently spiked in state court. Structural overtime is an old problem. A job as a police officer comes with an expectation that real pay is much higher than advertised pay. Often overtime is understood to be a no-show job. Nobody really cares if a utility crew has a police detail. But it is technically a crime to collect pay without showing up. And Turnpike officials actually wanted officers to show up and write tickets. They invested a million in police overtime to generate five million in revenue.
Losing ticket revenue crossed the line. At first nothing happened. Corrupt officers had the support of magistrates, county prosecutors, and a powerful union. The Attorney General hesitated. It was federal prosecutors who pulled the trigger first. It’s a federal crime to steal from an agency that receives money from the federal government. After the die was cast, the Massachusetts Attorney General decided to join the action.
The Globe article on police immunity came out of a report on show cause hearings in general. It was based on the little information that was allowed to leak out of a secret court system. This officer beat the charges for no apparent reason. That officer beat the charges because he hired a retired politician as his lawyer. (Remember magistrates owe their jobs to political connections.) Most cases we never heard about.
The first lesson of the Globe article is, what I’ve written about before about overtime fraud is really the tip of the iceberg.
The second lesson is, if you can’t be a VIP you should hire one to go to court with you. It’s illegal to pay off a judge. It’s unethical for a lawyer to advertise “I’m friends with the magistrate in Dorchester and I’ll get you off.” But ask around. It’s not illegal to hire a lawyer who happens to be owed a favor.
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