People convicted of theft for such minor issues as overdue library books or plumbing bills may not realize they have a record because a district judge in northwestern Pennsylvania misclassified civil claims against them, a state official said Thursday.
Former District Judge Brenda Williams Nichols misclassified more than 800 civil claims as theft of services violations while serving in office from 2014 through 2017, Democratic Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said.
He said a review of Nichols' former district judge office in Corry, Pennsylvania, found people had been charged with theft of services for YMCA fees, credit union debts and repair services. He said the improper records should be expunged.
Nichols, a Democrat, was in office for 12 years before being defeated for reelection in November 2017 by Denise Buell, a Republican and lawyer. Like many district judges in Pennsylvania, Nichols is not a lawyer.
No phone listing could be found for Nichols, and a message left at a relative's home seeking her comment was not returned. A worker in Buell's office said she would not comment on what they described as an ongoing investigation.
Buell's office referred questions to Erie County District Court Administrator Robert J. Catalde, who did not return a phone message. Erie County President Judge John J. Trucilla also did not return a message.
Stacey Witalec, spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, said Catalde and Trucilla acted quickly when told about the problem.
Witalec said the two county judicial officials "are working cooperatively and as transparently as possible" with the county prosecutor, the state court system and DePasquale "for the purpose of bringing this to a just resolution."
The six-page report released by DePasquale said people seeking to collect debts avoided filing fees because Nichols misfiled their cases as summary offenses.
DePasquale's office said Buell learned about the practice when someone discovered they had a theft charge on their record during an employment background check. Catalde's office told auditors that Buell reported the practice to him last fall.
"Imagine the absolute shock of being asked to explain why you have a criminal record that you didn't even know existed," DePasquale said in a news release.
Buell told DePasquale's auditors that Nichols provided forms with "theft of services" already printed on them. The report said auditors are unsure why Nichols filed the cases incorrectly.
"It appears, however, that this practice was instituted as a means to reduce the financial burden on the complainant at the time of filing by eliminating the necessity of collecting advance costs on civil actions," the audit report said.
The report said Nichols' court acted as a sort of collection agency by taking restitution payments. The state lost about $33,000 in filing fees as a result, auditors concluded.
The true number of misclassified cases could be much higher, going back before the 2014 start of the audit period, DePasquale said.
District judges set bail and hold preliminary hearings for criminal defendants, and preside over civil cases up to $12,000. Many are former police officers.
Corry is about 30 miles (48 kilometers) southeast of Erie.