There’s a common misconception that judges are the most powerful members of law enforcement in a given community. The reality is that prosecutors run the show.
Judges exercise authority only over the cases that are brought to them. Prosecutors decide who does and doesn’t end up before judges.
In Pittsburgh, for example, Allegheny County district attorney Stephen A. Zappala, Jr. decided to dramatically reduce criminal charges filed against Steelers linebackers coach Joey Porter, only days after the team had placed Porter on leave due to a collection of allegations that included aggravated assault. After the reduction in charges, the Steelers promptly reinstated Porter, who resumed his duties during playoff games at Kansas City and New England.
It’s fair to ask whether Zappala properly exercised discretion regarding the decision to reduce Porter’s charges because, via the Associated Press, the Pittsburgh Police Citizens Review Board has concluded that video of Porter’s arrest supports the conclusion that Porter grabbed a police officer by the wrists, rendering him defenseless. That’s a critical finding because Title 18, Chapter 27, Section 2702 of the Pennsylvania Code provides that aggravated assault occurs if a person “attempts to cause of intentionally or knowingly causes bodily injury” to a police officer” or “attempts by physical menace to put [a police officer] while in the performance of duty, in fear of imminent serious bodily injury.”
Zappala nevertheless decided that Porter didn’t engage in aggravated assault, concluding that the video didn’t support the charge. A spokesman for the D.A. said that the D.A. is “sticking by that assessment.”
It’s easy for Zappala to do that, because there’s typically no mechanism for challenging, scrutinizing, or reversing the decision of a prosecutor to exercise discretion in a way that results in charges not being pursued. And while there’s a broader political device for dealing with an elected prosecutor whose decisions don’t reflect the will of the people, most of the people who will be casting ballots in the next election are Pittsburgh Steelers fans.