Ex-Altoona cop didn’t deserve ‘Starr’ treatment
Former Altoona police Sgt. Matthew S. Starr should consider himself extremely lucky.
The sentence meted out in Blair County Court on Tuesday to Starr, who was employed by the Altoona department for 17 years, can only be judged as anemic, considering the charges prompting his arrest.
The sentence also is weak from the standpoint of most people’s opinion that when police officers do wrong, they should face a tougher standard of justice.
Starr’s sentence is in fact a mockery on the landscape of the criminal justice system.
Some of the reasoning of Senior Judge Stewart Kurtz of Huntingdon County as to why he imposed a sentence of only five years’ probation is open to question, considering how many others end up spending time behind bars for less serious offenses.
The state’s sentencing guidelines list nine to 18 months of jail time as the standard-range penalty for a conviction of dealing in proceeds from an illegal act, commonly referred to as money laundering — one of six felony offenses on which Starr was convicted.
The law for that offense carries a minimum mandatory $100,000 fine — $99,500 more than the $500 that Starr was ordered to pay.
“I’m not going to impose a $100,000 fine; he has no ability to pay $100,000,” Kurtz said in court.
Yet many other individuals sentenced for their crimes are handed financial penalties in excess of their immediate ability to pay. Rather than being left off the proverbial financial hook, arrangements are made for periodic payments toward court costs and fines that stretch over years and decades.
In addition to the $500 fine, Kurtz ordered Starr to pay $300 fines each on his other five felony convictions — a total of $1,500.
The surprising leniency shown in Starr’s case raises questions as to whether Starr, despite being sentenced by an out-of-county judge, was treated with kid gloves due to relationships within the Blair County court system.
Kurtz, in explaining his decision, referenced Starr’s lack of prior record, his 17 years in law enforcement and that Starr’s offenses generated a single restitution request of $3,000 from the City of Altoona. The judge also recognized Starr’s admission to a problem with gambling and alcohol and his acceptance of responsibility for wrongful conduct.
In making those recognitions, the judge displayed a different demeanor than shown during Starr’s trial in February. That’s where Kurtz, as the judge presiding over the trial, interjected questions that Starr had difficulty answering while trying to testify in his own defense.
Kurtz, during Tuesday’s sentencing hearing, also acknowledged that Starr is a father of four children who will be affected by the pending order.
“They need not only his financial support, but his support, period,” the judge said.
That may be so, but there are other parents who would like to be released from jail for the same reason. What bothers us most about the sentence is that its seems to do little to address Starr’s behavior during a two-year period while employed as a Altoona police officer and wearing a shield on behalf of city taxpayers.
Through a police investigation and jury trial, it was revealed that Starr manipulated the sale of a firearms training system to the city and pocketed the proceeds. He set up a GoFundMe account for someone who was ill and lied about the availability of those proceeds. He solicited and pocketed donations for equipment for police to use in fire investigations.
During that time frame, investigators learned that Starr was gambling regularly and spending thousands at the Rocky Gap Casino in Maryland. Records indicate that this gambling occurred at all hours, including ones where he should have been on the job as a police officer.
Starr’s behavior is an embarrassment to Altoona, the city police department and all other honest law enforcement officers in Blair County.
Deputy Pennsylvania Attorney General Megan Madaffari, who was in court for the sentencing hearing and recommended incarceration, expressed disappointment. In a pre-sentencing document, she argued against a lenient sentence.
Besides the first-degree felony of dealing in proceeds of an unlawful act, the jury hearing Starr’s case also convicted him of five third-degree felonies: deceptive business practices, theft by unlawful taking, theft by deception, criminal attempt at theft by deception and theft by failing to deposit funds — all charges that could have sent many people to jail for years.
Starr should be grateful for the generosity he was shown during his sentencing. It spares him of any chance of meeting individuals, behind bars, for whom his police work might have helped convict.