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Judge vows quick action in improperly filed criminal cases

Erie County’s top judge said Friday he is working to unwind hundreds of improperly filed criminal cases, a day after the release of a report highlighting a former district judge’s practice of handling civil debt collection as theft.

The auditor general’s report said a former district judge misclassified more than 800 civil claims as theft of services violations while serving in office from 2014 through 2017, when she was defeated in seeking a third six-year term.

Auditors said people convicted of theft for minor issues such as overdue library books or plumbing bills may not realize they have a record.

President Judge John Trucilla said he was staggered by the scope of the problem documented.

Trucilla said he wants to act quickly but is not yet sure how the problem will be fixed.

He said it may be handled through an administrative order, so defendants will not have to hire lawyers to file expungement requests.

“I think in this particular situation we have an obligation to come up with a just result,” Trucilla said.

Trucilla said he had been waiting for the report to set out the facts before figuring out how to respond.

“When we got the conclusions, the numbers were somewhat staggering,” Trucilla said. “I don’t think we knew the depths of it.”

The practice may have begun as early as 2001, 13 years before the audit period began.

Trucilla said it has not been determined if people will be able to recover payments they may have made as a result of improper criminal charges.

“I’m not ready to go there yet,” the judge said. “I don’t know what recourse they may have.”

The six-page report released by Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said people seeking to collect debts avoided filing fees because the former judge misclassified cases as summary offenses.

It said Nichols’ court acted as a sort of collection agency and that state lost about $33,000 in filing fees as a result of the erroneous practice.

Corry is about 30 miles (50 kilometers) southeast of Erie.