PDAA-Backed, Victim-Focused Criminal Justice Improvements Head To The Governor

June 19, 2019

HARRISBURG, PA – Pennsylvania’s prosecutors praised the legislature today for making victims of crime a priority. Several bills aimed at elevating victims’ rights and helping the most vulnerable victims of crime passed today and will proceed to the governor’s desk for signature to become law.

“We can never lose sight of the fact that for every crime that is committed there is a victim of that crime,” said PDAA LogoPennsylvania District Attorneys Association (PDAA) President and Butler County District Attorney Richard A. Goldinger. “These bills will help our most vulnerable victims testify in court and confront their accusers. They will help ensure that reliable evidence from these vulnerable victims can be introduced at trial and victims can remain present in most circumstances during trial.”

Two of the bills passed today will permit certain reliable statements from victims with intellectual disabilities and autism to be introduced at trial.   Another bill remedies the shortcoming in current law, which allows an attorney to attack the credibility of a victim of a sexual assault by asking about any prior incidents when the victim was sexually victimized. And still another provides victims with the right to be present during trial, a right that exists under federal law, but not under Pennsylvania law. Another bill is a constitutional amendment to ensure that Pennsylvania’s Crime Victims Act is adhered to throughout the entire criminal justice process.

“These bills recognize both the challenges and the rights of victims,” Goldinger said. “Prosecutors never lose sight of the fact that for every crime, there is a victim. The criminal justice system needs to work for everyone.”

PDAA’s priority bills that passed today include:

  • HB 504 expands the rape shield law to cover prior sexual victimizations. While current law prevents evidence of a victim’s prior sexual history from being introduced in court when that evidence is intended to be used to undermine his or her credibility, it does not cover instances when the victim has been sexually victimized in the past. There is no credible reason why the rape shield law should protect against questions regarding prior consensual sex but not protect against questions regarding prior nonconsensual sex. HB 504 also expands the number of crimes to which the rape shield law would apply to cover additional sexual crimes, such as human trafficking.
  • SB 469 and 479 expand the “tender years” exception. The tender years exception presently allows certain out-of-court statements, or hearsay, to be introduced into evidence at trial if a child sexual abuse victim, under reliable circumstances, made the statement. But, the exception is too narrow and does not cover victims with intellectual disabilities or autism. Additionally, the exception fails to apply to a significant number of sex crimes, including human trafficking. Collectively, SB 469 and 479 remedy these shortcomings.
  • HB 502 provides victims with the right to be present during trial, a right which exists under federal law, but not under Pennsylvania law. This is an important and necessary right: the crime victim has a salient interest in the outcome of the case. The victim should be at the center of the process, not on the outside looking in. This right would not be absolute, however. HB 502 provides the judge the discretion to remove the victim if his or her presence at trial would materially alter his or her testimony.
  • HB 276, known as Marsy’s Law, which would create a Constitutional amendment to ensure the rights of crime victims. The PDAA has said that the rights of crime victims need to be protected by our Constitution, not just by statue.

“Pennsylvania prosecutors are focused on making the criminal justice system work for everyone,” said Goldinger. “We would like to thank the Senate and the House for working together to pass these bills and urge the Governor to sign them into law.”

Throughout its history, PDAA has been a leader in matters of public safety. Most recently, the Association successfully worked to pass Clean Slate legislation and new laws related to credit card skimming and elder abuse. The Association has also worked to reform civil forfeiture, update DUI laws, make strangulation a stand-alone crime to better protect victims of domestic abuse, fix Megan’s Law and pass legislation governing the use of body cameras for police officers.

# # #

June 19, 2019

Contact: Lindsay Vaughan, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association lvaughan@pdaa.org or (717) 238-5416.