Coraopolis man ignored $2 parking tickets, jailed 15 days

Did the district judge go too far?

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Patrick LaRocca had every chance to get it right. He could have simply put some quarters in the meter in front of his house on Fifth Avenue in Coraopolis and avoided the tickets entirely.

Or he could have bought a $20 parking permit each month to avoid the meters.

Or when he received the $2 tickets from the borough police department, he could have paid them.

But, the 22-year-old did none of those things.

And ultimately he spent 15 days in jail because of it.

"I take personal responsibility, to an extent. I understand I should be punished for my crimes, but I see that as extreme punishment," he said.

The problem started when Mr. LaRocca got his own car. He also started getting tickets. At his parents' home, there were four vehicles, but space for only one in a garage, so he had to park on the street.

Mr. LaRocca never got a parking permit, and often forgot to feed the meters.

The tickets piled up until he had 10 that were unpaid. He received a notice, dated April 15, from District Judge Mary Murray setting a summary trial for him June 6. The judge could not be reached for comment.

Mr. LaRocca entered a plea of not guilty April 24, paid $150 cash in collateral and filled out a financial statement noting he earned $120 per week on the Gateway Clipper as a steward.

But, Mr. LaRocca forgot to attend the hearing, and he was found guilty on all the tickets in absentia. He was sent a notice "of impending" warrant July 15, and the actual arrest warrant was issued Aug. 6 for failure to pay.

He learned about the bench warrant for his arrest in late August or early September and said he went to the district judge's office to try to address it, but he said, "They wanted the full amount."

That day, they let him go.

"The plan was to try and get the money together," he said. But he didn't, and on Sept. 25, he woke up with a constable outside his door.

Mr. LaRocca was arrested wearing a T-shirt, shorts and shoes with no socks and taken to Judge Murray's office.

"The constable asked me repeatedly if I had the money to pay the fines or if I had anyone I could call to borrow the money."

The tickets had ballooned to between $111 to $144 each.

At her office, Judge Murray handed Mr. LaRocca a sticky note that said, "15 days in jail or $1,346."

"I said, 'Well, I don't have that kind of money. I guess I'll take jail.' "

He said the judge never offered to set up a payment plan.

Mr. LaRocca, who has no previous criminal record, was taken to the Allegheny County Jail, where he was held for the first five days in the intake unit -- where there was no mattress or blanket on the metal bunk, and he guessed the room temperature to be a constant 60 degrees.

"Initially, it was borderline torture," he said. "My shoes had become so rank I couldn't even stand myself."

There also were no showers. He was finally moved to a regular cell pod and was released Oct. 9.

A note in his court record shows that the tickets were wiped off his file that day.

But Sara Rose, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, is concerned that Mr. LaRocca's due process rights were violated by the judge.

She contended Judge Murray did not follow procedure -- including holding a legitimate ability-to-pay hearing for Mr. LaRocca -- before sending him off to jail. Ms. Rose sent a letter to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts outlining her concerns in November.

In its response, court administration defended Judge Murray and said she did follow the appropriate steps.

"The judge determined that Mr. LaRocca had the ability to pay the amounts owed," wrote attorney A. Taylor Williams.

A review of Mr. LaRocca's court records show that an ability-to-pay hearing was held June 6 -- the same day as the trial date that he missed.

At that time, the judge issued an order requiring him to render "payment to this court based on the payment schedule on the following pages."

Except that schedule said "single payment," due July 8.

The court records also show another ability-to-pay hearing the day of Mr. LaRocca's arrest.

As a follow-up to Ms. Rose's letter, state court administration also sent a memo to all district judges reminding them of the rules in summary cases, and asking that they review them.

Art Heinz, a spokesman for the AOPC, said Mr. LaRocca received ample notice of his need to make payment.

Mr. LaRocca admits being stubborn about not paying the tickets.

"I don't know what, exactly, I was waiting for," Mr. LaRocca said. "My whole family kind of feels it's ridiculous to have to pay to park in front of our own house."

"It just seemed like the fine and punishment were so outrageous," said his mother, Miranda Killen. "He's [22] years old. He doesn't make that much money."

The idea that the tickets went from $2 to $144, she continued, "is pretty excessive.

"It's not like he was refusing to pay. It's that he couldn't afford to pay it right then. It's like debtor's prison."

David A. Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, said that the idea of debtor's prison went out of vogue long ago.

"We don't do that anymore," he said. "We just have an innate sense that's not the right thing to do -- to take someone's freedom away for an inability to pay a fine. You can't lock people up because they're poor."

Mr. Harris characterized Mr. LaRocca's actions throughout the ordeal as "stupid and neglectful."

"He let it go to a ridiculously large sum, and that's nobody's fault but his."

But, he continued, "if it's simply a matter of his resources, and he wants to pay but can't, you can't lock him up for that."

Paula Reed Ward:, 412-263-2620 or on Twitter @PaulaReedWard.

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