In an article published Thursday, LNP’s Carter Walker reported on an interaction April 26 between Lancaster County President Judge Dennis E. Reinaker and Officer Chad Snader of the East Lampeter Township Police Department. Snader had pulled Reinaker over for tailgating the officer’s police car, police said.
In his statement to LNP, Judge Reinaker said he respects and “greatly” appreciates “the hard work of our law enforcement officers in Lancaster County. Any parking or traffic citations I have ever received were paid without objection. I neither expect nor deserve any special treatment and made no such request on this occasion.”
He chalked his behavior up to “mild frustration” — an excuse, we’re guessing, that wouldn’t fly in his courtroom.
Judge for yourself. Watch the police dashcam video obtained by LNP.
The anger is what you first see. Then the entitlement.
Reinaker is seen steering his vehicle off Pitney Road into a lot, after being signaled to do so by a police car’s flashing lights.
A tall and imposing man, Reinaker emerges from his vehicle and furiously strides toward the police officer.
Reinaker thunders: “What do you think you’re doing pulling me over? For blowing my horn?”
Calmly, Officer Snader responds, “Sir, go back into your car. I’ll be with you in a second.”
Then Reinaker points toward the license plate on his vehicle and warns, “You better check the registration on this plate soon, mister.”
Reinaker emphasizes the word “soon,” rendering it a command.
Translation: Do you know who I am? Or more specifically, do you know how important I am?
And the “mister,” not “officer” — uttered with the smugness of someone who’s certain he’s above the law. Or maybe thinks he is the law. (The nerve of a patrol officer, to stop someone as important as that.)
Merely by getting out of his vehicle, Reinaker demonstrated the privilege he enjoys. We imagine that every African American reading this is wondering what might happen if he or she attempted a similar move.
The safe thing, the smart thing, the expected thing is to remain seated in the vehicle unless otherwise directed.
Reinaker not only got out of his vehicle but gestured and yelled angrily at Snader, who handled this surreal situation with admirable composure.
What happened next, we believe, is more Reinaker’s fault than Snader’s. Having checked Reinaker’s registration, the officer said, “Have a good day, Judge,” and let him go without a ticket or even a warning. And Reinaker, having gotten the due he clearly believed was his, responded with a terse “you bet.”
Do you think Judge Dennis Reinaker's statement regarding the traffic stop incident is sufficient?
Not even a “you, too, officer”? Or better, a “You, too, officer. I know you have a tough job, and I appreciate your doing it.” That’s the essence of what Reinaker said in his statement to LNP.
But in that moment, when it was just him and an East Lampeter Township police officer, the judge said, “You bet.”
Code of conduct
It was a vivid display of the mindset of someone who confuses the importance of his job with his own importance. It was an ethical breach. And that’s not just our view.
As Walker reported, the Pennsylvania Judicial Code of Conduct prohibits judges from seeking any benefit from their office.
Sam Stretton, a Chester County attorney who practices judicial ethics law, told LNP that in Reinaker’s interaction with Snader, the judge seemed to imply he should receive special treatment because of his position.
As East Lampeter Township Police Chief Stephen Zerbe noted, “(The driver) wanted to bring to the officer’s attention who he had stopped.”
However much Reinaker tries to spin it, that’s evident when one watches the video.
As LNP’s Walker noted, a comment explaining the rule on judicial conduct states: “It is improper for a judge to use or attempt to use his or her position to gain personal advantage or preferential treatment of any kind. For example, it would be improper for a judge to allude to his or her judicial status to gain favorable treatment in encounters with traffic officials.”
Stretton said such incidents can engender distrust in the judiciary if the public perceives a judge sought to benefit from his or her position.
And that’s a shame. Members of the judiciary now, more than ever, must demonstrate how power is properly wielded. They need to show, inside the courtroom and in the conduct of their personal business, that no one is above the law.
This was an incredibly disappointing incident.
Question of respect
Judge Reinaker has endeavored to improve the efficiency of the Lancaster County courts and reduce the county’s prison population.
When, in 2018, Reinaker met with hostility from a Bainbridge crowd over his proposal to streamline the county’s magisterial district court system, we praised his willingness to venture out into the community to make his pitch. And we thought Reinaker should have gotten more respect for his effort at transparency.
But respect is best practiced in a reciprocal way. Officer Snader deserved as much respect from Reinaker as the judge demands from others in his courtroom.
As the saying (often wrongly attributed to C.S. Lewis) tells us, the measure of a person’s character is what he does when no one is watching.
Perhaps Reinaker didn’t think anyone was watching when he essentially berated a local cop for not knowing who he was.
But we saw his behavior on this video. And we found it wanting, to say the least.
It is to the credit of Chief Zerbe and East Lampeter Township Manager Ralph Hutchison that they promptly released the video when LNP made a public records request for it. They must have known that the video would raise questions not just about Reinaker’s conduct, but about the unequal treatment of ordinary citizens — especially citizens of color — during traffic stops. Zerbe clearly feels confident that his police officers can meet the test of that public discussion.
We think the transparency the police chief demonstrated in readily releasing the video goes some way toward reinforcing public trust.
As for trust in Judge Reinaker, that’s a question without an answer at this point. At the very least, he owes Officer Snader — and the public — a genuine apology.
And that’s at the very least.