Peter Hall, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
January 11, 2024
A new law that gives a special prosecutor jurisdiction over crimes committed on Philadelphia’s public transit system is an unenforceable and unconstitutional train wreck, a lawyer who filed a challenge to the measure on behalf of District Attorney Larry Krasner said on Thursday.
Act 40, signed by Gov. Josh Shapiro last month, requires the attorney general’s office to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate and pursue charges for crimes committed within 500 yards of Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) stations and bus stops.
The legislation, introduced by state Sen. Wayne Langerholc (R-Clearfield), passed in the Senate and House amid a yearslong effort by GOP lawmakers to remove Krasner from office over his progressive criminal justice policies that include selective prosecution for offenses such as shoplifting, prostitution and marijuana possession.
Krasner on Thursday said the special prosecutor law is the latest strategy in the national push to remove progressive elected officials by Trump Republicans, who Krasner said would need a GPS to find Philadelphia. It’s also a selective effort to disenfranchise voters in the state’s most diverse city, he added.
“This supposed SEPTA bill is not a SEPTA bill at all,” Krasner said. “This is straight up an effort to erase the votes of 155,102 people who struggled through the inconvenience of voting so they would be heard in an election that was won with a margin of 44%.”
Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman (R-Indiana) said in a statement that the law was passed with bipartisan support and signed by Shapiro, a Democrat, and has the support of SEPTA.
“It is time D.A. Krasner stops playing political games and starts working with Republicans and Democrats alike to make sure America’s 6th largest city is safe,” Pittman said in the statement.
With 8,175 subway, trolley, regional rail and bus stops in the city, about 89% of the city’s land area and 95% of reported incidents would be stripped from Krasner’s jurisdiction, attorney John Summers said.
Such an effort to strip an elected county district attorney of authority is unprecedented in Pennsylvania history, Summers said.
“The principles of democracy in this Commonwealth say that it’s the county district attorney that’s to do the prosecuting and the investigating of crimes in that county. It’s not the business of other district attorneys or other special counsels to do it,” Summers said, adding there are narrow exceptions, such as conflicts of interest.
Krasner’s lawsuit, filed Thursday in Commonwealth Court, raises several challenges to Act 40.
The suit asserts that the special prosecutor law is unconstitutional because the state Constitution does not allow the appointment of a special counsel by the state to usurp the duties of an elected district attorney.
Summers noted that the special prosecutor would supersede the district attorney’s authority in Philadelphia, but not the four suburban counties where SEPTA also operates. That discriminates against the city and its voters in violation of the state Constitution’s Equal Protection clause, Summers said.
The suit also asserts that the special prosecutor lacks accountability where the district attorney is accountable to voters, and that the special prosecutor would have access to information about criminal investigations and accusations in violation of the state criminal history information privacy law.
Summers said the law also contains a provision that prohibits defendants charged by the special prosecutor from challenging the special prosecutor’s authority, likely included because the authors of the legislation recognized that it was unconstitutional. That violates the U.S. Constitution’s due process clause and gives anyone charged by the special prosecutor grounds to challenge their convictions.
“That is no way to promote the efficient and just prosecution of people that is slowing it down. That is preventing what actually this district attorney has been trying to do in charging and prosecuting SEPTA crimes,” Summers said.
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