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Restitution — Ensuring Economic Justice for ALL Crime Victims

Restitution is a critical tool for prosecutors to achieve economic justice for crime victims, as well as economic accountability for offenders.  But what happens when the courts decide that a victim is NOT a victim?  That is the legal issue created by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision in Commonwealth v. Veon, 150 A.3d 425 (Pa. 2016).  This issue demands legislative action to ensure mandatory restitution for ALL crime victims.

Last week, the state House took a positive step to provide a legislative fix when its Judiciary Committee approved H.B. 1806 (Delozier, R-Cumberland) to accomplish this goal.  A companion bill, S.B. 897 (Stefano, R- Fayette, Somerset and Westmoreland and Boscola D-Lehigh), has been introduced in the state Senate and is awaiting committee action.

So how did we get here? What happened? In November 2016, the Court examined whether a defendant could be ordered to pay restitution for money stolen from a government agency under the Crimes Codes’ mandatory restitution provision (18 Pa.C.S. § 1106).  The Court ruled that a government agency does not constitute a “victim” for purposes of section 1106.  This ruling means that large categories of other victims (not just government agencies, but corporate entities, fire companies, social clubs, service organizations, etc.) could be left holding the bag without the restitution they deserve.

The Veon decision altered how the definition of a victim in the Crime Victims Act (“CVA”) is incorporated into the Crimes Code.  The CVA’s definition reads, in part, as follows:  “An [individual] against whom a crime has been committed or attempted and who as a direct result of the criminal act or attempt suffers physical or mental injury, death or the loss of earnings under this act.”  18 P.S. § 11.103.

Herein lies the problem identified by Veon: The purpose and language of the CVA clearly focus on individuals.  And by adopting its definition of victim, the Crimes Code’s mandatory restitution statute only provides economic justice to a limited category of victims that includes people but excludes groups/organizations.

The Superior Court has already begun applying Veon to vacate restitution orders for other defendants convicted of victimizing the government.  See Com. v . Berry, 2017 PA Super 214 (Pa. Super. July 10, 2017); Com. v. DeWeese (Pa. Super. May 8, 2017) (unpublished); & Com. v. Perzel (Pa. Super.  April 5, 2017) (unpublished)).  A defendant convicted of theft of $832,000 from Northampton County township is challenging his restitution order based on Veon.  It’s only a matter of time before Veon challenges come against restitution for groups/organizations that have been victimized.

Clearly, the “one-size-fits-all” approach of incorporating the CVA definition of a victim into other statutory realms is having adverse consequences in the restitution context.  We need legislative action to clarify the statutory definition of a “victim” in order to ensure economic justice for ALL victims of crime and are pleased at the bipartisan efforts by our Legislature to remedy this problem.

Michael Piecuch serves as District Attorney of Snyder County. He is a member of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association’s executive committee and serves as the Education and Training Chair of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Institute. He can be reached at mpiecuch@snydercounty.org.