District Attorneys Praise PA Legislature for End of Session Criminal Justice Focus

October 19, 2012

HARRISBURG, PA – The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association (PDAA) praised the Pennsylvania State Senate and House of Representatives for using their final session days to focus on criminal justice and public safety matters that will help law enforcement catch up with technology and criminals. The new laws provide appropriate sentences for juveniles convicted of murder, restore tough sentences against straw purchasers of illegal guns, update the Wiretap Law, provide a more rational teen sexting law, and reinvest savings from the Department of Corrections and Board of Probation and Parole.

“District Attorneys throughout Pennsylvania are grateful that the House and Senate shared our priorities to enable police and prosecutors to catch up with new technology, effectively punish criminals and continue to support victims of crime,” said PDAA President and Adams County District Attorney Shawn Wagner. “We look forward to Governor Tom Corbett’s final approval of these bills which will comprehensively improve Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system.”

The newly-passed bills PDAA considered among its priorities were: updating the state’s wiretap laws to reflect new technologies being used by criminals (H.B. 2400); downgrading the offense of teenage sexting from a felony to a misdemeanor or summary (H.B. 815); restoring a 5-year minimum mandatory sentence for straw purchasers of illegal handguns (H.B. 898); providing tough yet appropriate sentences for those juveniles convicted of murder in response to the decision of the United States Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama (S.B. 850), and using some of the cost savings from prior prison reform legislation to prevent recidivism and be smarter on crime (H.B. 135).

“The Legislature deserves enormous credit for its comprehensive, bipartisan work to protect victims and support law enforcement,” said Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams who chairs the PDAA Legislative Committee. “In particular, the bills improving our Wiretap Act, providing tough and appropriate sentences for juveniles convicted of murder, and restoring a 5 year mandatory minimum sentence for straw purchasers of illegal handguns, will very quickly help to protect Pennsylvanians.”

“I want to particularly thank all four Judiciary Chairmen, House Chairman Ron Marsico, House Democratic Chair Tom Caltagirone, Senate Judiciary Chair Stewart Greenleaf and Senate Democratic chair Daylin Leach, and their committees’ members and staff, who spent countless hours working through tough and complicated issues in order to ensure we not only addressed the issues, but got them right.”

Earlier this legislative session, Governor Corbett signed several other important bills considered priorities by PDAA, police and victims, including: a ban on dangerous synthetic drugs; closing loopholes in Megan’s Law which registers sex offenders; controlling corrections costs in a manner that is consistent with reducing recidivism; holding drug dealers accountable when they sell lethal doses of illegal drugs; restoring funds to the Victims of Juvenile Offenders program; allowing experts to testify in rape and other sexual assault cases to explain victim behavior; and closing loopholes that had incentivized drunk drivers to leave the scene of an accident.

(Editor’s Note: A bill summary is attached.)

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Bill Summaries:

H.B. 2400/Pennsylvania’s Wiretap Act: Prior to passage of H.B. 2400, Pennsylvania’s Wiretap Act had not been updated for fourteen years and has permitted violent criminals to stay several steps ahead of law enforcement. H.B. 2400 provides the technical changes necessary to update the law to reflect the new technology that exists and to promote conviction integrity. Specifically, H.B. 2400 will permit the use by law enforcement of recordings of evidence of violent crimes. Current law precludes the use of such reliable recordings and actually makes it a crime for a victim of a violent crime to record a crime being committed against him or her, including a sexual assault. H.B. 2400 also permits target-specific wiretaps to reflect the fact that criminals often use multiple disposable cell phones in committing their crimes, allows out-of-state and federal wiretaps supported by probable cause to be used in Pennsylvania, and restores law enforcement’s ability to use recordings that an individual has transmitted to a device legally obtained by police under certain circumstances.

S.B. 850/Sentencing for Juvenile Murderers: Pennsylvania law had previously required that any juvenil convicted of first or second degree murder be sentenced to mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. But in June 2012, the United States Supreme Court, in Miller v. Alabama, ruled that such laws mandating life sentences without parole for juveniles are unconstitutional. S.B. 850 responds to the Miller decision and ensures that any juvenile convicted of murder will serve a sufficient and mandatory period of time in prison, including the option of life without parole under certain circumstances.

H.B. 898/Straw Purchasers: H.B. 898 restores a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for those convicted of making repeat straw purchases of firearms. This legislation was a much-needed response to a 2009 Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision that, based solely on statutory construction grounds, eliminated these mandatory sentences. Straw purchasers significantly contribute to much of the gun violence in Pennsylvania. Perhaps no other tragedy could aptly demonstrate the need for this legislation more than the recent murder of Plymouth Township (Montgomery County) Police Officer Brad Fox, who was shot and killed by a man who was sold numerous illegal guns by a straw purchaser and used one of those illegal guns to kill Officer Fox.

H.B. 815/Sexting: A priority for the PDAA since 2009, this bill reduces the penalties for teen sexting. Currently, sexting by teens is a felony. Under this legislation, the penalties would be either a summary offense or third degree misdemeanor, depending on the circumstances of the case. H.B. 815 provides a far more rational approach to addressing teen sexting, and will allow prosecutors and others to better discourage its use, underscore the lifelong and often unintended consequences that can result from sexting, and provide flexibility in handling these cases.

H.B.135/Justice Reinvestment: This bill will reinvest some of the cost savings derived from the changes put into place by S.B. 100, which became law earlier this year, into the criminal justice system, including county probation services.