Commonwealth Court upholds law giving prosecutors special jurisdiction over SEPTA crimes

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner on Friday lost his legal challenge under a state law that limits his jurisdiction over crimes committed on public transportation in the city.

Divided The ruling in the Commonwealth Court took place on Friday that “Act 40 does not clearly, tangibly, and openly violate the Pennsylvania Constitution,” which was Krasner’s argument in challenge he made in January.

Act 40, passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Josh Shapiro in December, requires the Pennsylvania Attorney General to appoint a special prosecutor with jurisdiction over crimes committed “on the premises” of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA).

Krasner argued that the state constitution does not allow the appointment of a special prosecutor to usurp a special prosecutor’s authority and noted that the provision barring defendants brought by a special prosecutor from challenging the special prosecutor’s authority violates the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution. So the law would give anyone charged by a special prosecutor a basis to challenge their convictions.

Justice Anne Covey, writing for the majority, said Krasner’s claim that the novel law would “likely result in dismissal of charges or convictions” was “entirely speculative.”

Justice Christine Fizzano Cannon focused on the word “inside” in a separate opinion in which she agreed with the majority but disagreed with its outright rejection of Krasner’s constitutional challenges.

“SEPTA is an agency. It is an entity. It is not a specific place or concrete thing. The meaning of “inside” as it relates to SEPTA does not create a specific impression on the average person; This is simply incomprehensible,” Cannon wrote. She added that “depriving the defendant of the opportunity to challenge the Special Prosecutor’s jurisdiction is a violation of due process.”

At a news conference Friday, an irate Krasner rejected the notion that the novel law would support improve public safety in Philadelphia.

“If they cared about public safety, they would let us address gun laws. If they cared about public safety here, they would fund our public schools. If they cared about public safety, we wouldn’t have to beg them to adequately fund SEPTA,” Krasner said.

Philadelphia, Krasner added, “does an extremely good job improving public safety, and this office is part of that. It was about politics. They talked about the politics of fear. It was about racist politics and that’s what’s really happening.”

Pennsylvania Attorney General Michelle Henry on Friday afternoon announced the nomination Michael Untermeyer as special prosecutor.

“We worked diligently to fill this position as required by Act 40, first posting an opening and then interviewing candidates to ensure they met the specific criteria set forth by the law,” Henry said. “We selected a candidate who has demonstrated a commitment to public safety while also possessing the qualifications required by Act 40.”

More Republicans than Democrats supported the passage of Act 40, but it was still passed on a bipartisan basis. Krasner accused supporters of this policy of not wanting the voices of minority voters to be heard in the electoral process. He was easily re-elected in 2021.

“Make no mistake, the Republican Legislature does not want one Democrat, Black, brown or lame-duck vote from Philadelphia to be counted,” Krasner said. “That’s actually what it’s all about. That’s what’s happening here.”

He added that “the people who passed this law are authoritarians who strongly support the disenfranchisement of black and brown and poor people in Philadelphia.” he added.

Krasner and Shapiro have been at odds over the bill since its passage.

During an interview with NBC10 in February, Shapiro said he believed the appointment of a special prosecutor would have a positive impact on safety at SEPTA, and disagreed with the idea of ​​taking power away from Krasner’s office.

“I am the former attorney general of Pennsylvania. We have concurrent jurisdiction among district attorneys in many cases, that’s nothing new,” Shapiro said. “Having this parallel jurisdiction and increasing law enforcement resources in the city of Philadelphia is a good thing.”

Krasner said there’s nothing wrong with using a special prosecutor in appropriate circumstances, but he doesn’t believe this is one of those cases.

“It’s a statement from the Legislature that Philadelphians don’t know what they’re doing, that they’re not allowed to make decisions and that they have no wisdom,” Krasner said.

GOP lawmakers tried to remove Krasner from office over his progressive criminal justice policies, which included selective prosecutions for crimes such as shoplifting, prostitution and marijuana possession.

“With today’s Commonwealth Court ruling upholding Act 40, seven months after the law went into effect, this collaborative effort will finally begin to come to fruition with a special prosecutor overseeing crimes committed on SEPTA in the City of Philadelphia,” the Majority Leader said State Senate President Joe Pittman (R-Indiana) said in a statement Friday. “I appreciate Attorney General Michelle Henry’s continued work to keep Pennsylvanians safe and look forward to the swift appointment of a SEPTA special prosecutor.”

The state House, then controlled by Republicans, voted 107-86 to impeach Krasner at the end of the 2021-2022 legislative session. But the session ended, Democrats took control of the House in 2023, and an impeachment trial was never held.

State The Supreme Court heard arguments on November 2023, whether articles of impeachment will expire at the end of the legislative session, as is the case with unapproved legislation, or whether impeachment proceedings can continue.

Act 40 in the attorney general race

Issue Act 40 became a topic of discussion in the race for Pennsylvania attorney general.

Former Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, the Democratic candidate for attorney general, said during an April candidate forum that he was “not happy with the way Act 40 is going,” but added that he has “also made clear that public safety on SEPTA is critical.” “.

“I will work with the district attorney and the resources the law provides to ensure people have better protections under SEPTA,” DePasquale said during the April forum. “I think there is a way to leverage these resources and partner with the district attorney to make sure people are better protected in the SEPTA system.”

On Friday, in a statement emailed to the Capital-Star, DePasquale said that “people should feel safe on public transportation and I look forward to working with law enforcement and district attorneys in southeastern Pennsylvania to prosecute crimes and ensure safety.” SEPTA for visitors and commuters as possible.”

York County District Attorney Dave Sunday, the Republican Party’s candidate for attorney general, approved Act 40.

“When I am elected attorney general, I will do everything in my power to quickly appoint someone to that position as special prosecutor,” Sunday said during the hearing. debate in March.

Sunday added that he thinks there are legal challenges, given that “it’s only for three years” and that the end is coming, as well as identifying someone willing to do the job based on the criteria.

“But with all that said, anything we can do to make Philadelphians safer, I will absolutely do on day one,” Sunday said in March.

Sunday did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday’s Commonwealth Court decision.

According to a release from Henry’s office, Untermeyer has 15 years of experience as a prosecutor and has served as special counsel in the Office of Inspector General, deputy and senior deputy attorney general, and as an assistant district attorney. Most recently he worked as an attorney in private practice.

Untermeyer ran for elected office in Philadelphia, once running in the same open race as Krasner. In 2023 Untermeyer She narrowly lost to incumbent Philadelphia sheriff Rochelle Bilal in the Democratic primary. In 2017, Untermeyer was one of seven Democrats running for Philadelphia’s open district attorney race, which Krasner ultimately won.

Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office – wrote in a statement on Friday that it plans to appeal against this decision.

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