Indiana County district judge gets 1 year in ARD program in hit-run case
An Indiana County district judge on paid leave was admitted into a probation program Monday for alleged involvement in a hit-and-run crash.
Judge Jennifer J. Rega, 41, will spend one year in the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program and perform 24 hours of community service, according to an order signed by President Judge William Martin. Entry into the program is not an admission of guilt.
Rega and her attorney, Robert Muir, declined to comment after a private session was held on the case in the county Probation Office. There was no hearing in open court that members of the public could attend.
No information has been released as to whether Rega will resume the duties of her Blairsville office.
Rega was ordered to undergo a drug and alcohol evaluation and pay $900 in court costs. She has continued to draw her $86,899 annual salary while on administrative leave.
A senior district judge is handling cases in her Blairsville office.
Rega took office in 2002. She was elected to her third six-year term last year.
Indiana County Chief Probation Officer Michael Hodak said meetings for defendants entering the ARD program occur in a room in the probation office in the courthouse. He called the gathering an informal “intake session” that is not open to the public.
He said Rega did not receive preferential treatment because of her position in the courts.
“This case isn’t being handled any differently than any others” in the ARD program, Hodak said.
The ARD program allows first-time, nonviolent offenders to have their records expunged if they meet requirements set by a judge.
Rega is accused of driving a GMC sport utility vehicle that left the scene of a collision with another vehicle about midnight Sept. 13 on a rural stretch of Route 286 in Cherryhill. She was placed on leave by Martin about a week after the alleged incident.
Counsel for the state Judicial Conduct Board could not be reached Monday to learn whether Rega will be permitted to return to office while serving in the ARD program.
Police said Rega’s SUV crossed the center line and struck the driver’s side mirror of a 2005 Chevrolet SUV driven by a Homer City woman, who had two 17-year-old passengers. No one was injured.
The Homer City woman pursued the other vehicle, and both drivers stopped a few miles from the crash scene, police said.
Witnesses told police that the woman driving the damaged GMC appeared to be disoriented and smelled of alcohol, according to a criminal complaint.
Rega was not charged with alcohol-related offenses.
The other motorist wrote down the license number, and Rega drove away, police said. Investigators traced the vehicle to Rega’s residence outside Blairsville and found damage consistent with the accident description, police said.
State police charged Rega on Oct. 8 with failure to give information and render aid, and failure to notify police of an accident, along with summary vehicle code violations.
On Nov. 19, Deputy Attorney General William Caye II moved to admit Rega into the ARD program, according to online court records. On the same day, Martin ordered that Rega appear “for a hearing before the court” Monday, according to those records.
Martin was not working Monday and could not be reached.
Spokesman Art Heinz of the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts said president judges have “general supervisory and administrative authority” in their respective counties.
ARD hearings typically are held in open court before Common Pleas judges in Allegheny, Armstrong, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland counties.
President judges in their respective counties are permitted to “formulate local procedures” to ensure uniformity, according to the Pennsylvania Code. Officials said a copy of those local court rules in Indiana County was not available for review Monday.
Indiana County District Attorney Patrick Dougherty said admissions into the ARD program generally occur in the probation department, not in a courtroom. Dougherty’s office was not involved in the Rega investigation, referring prosecution of the case to the state attorney general’s office.
The Pennsylvania Code stipulates that a ”hearing on a motion for accelerated rehabilitative disposition shall be in open court.”
St. Vincent College law professor Bruce Antkowiak said ARD court can be held “in various ways in different counties because of the volume of cases,” but he was unfamiliar with an offender’s admission into the program in the probation office.
Antkowiak said he has never represented an offender entering the ARD program in Indiana County.
Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association Media Law Counsel Melissa Melewsky said the constitutional presumption of access would apply for members of the public to attend an ARD hearing. She wasn’t aware of a state rule that would override that presumption.
“I think it’s incumbent on the court to explain why,” Melewsky said.
Renatta Signorini is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-837-5374 or [email protected].