2010-03-04 / Local & State

Pa. State Police Secrecy Order Draws Criticism

By Peter Jackson ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) _ A new state police policy requires troopers to withhold names and other information about victims and witnesses when they issue citations for certain minor crimes – drawing criticism from opengovernment advocates and rais- ing concern among judges and defense lawyers.

The change makes extra work for district judges, who now must request victim and witness information from the state police on a case-by-case basis; imposes a level of secrecy for the least serious offenses that far exceeds common practice for more serious crimes; and could impede defendants’ ability to defend themselves in court, according to lawyers and judges.

Melissa Melewsky, a lawyer with the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, said the policy violates the constitutional guarantee of open courts.

“Court records are presumptively public’’ under both the state and U.S. constitutions, she said.

The president of the Pennsylvania Special Court Judges Association, which speaks for the state’s 550 district judges, said she was not aware of any problems resulting from the previously routine disclosure of such information.

She expressed concern that the new policy will further clog already busy district courts if it becomes more difficult for defendants to obtain basic information about the allegations against them.

“I’m surprised that it’s been changed,’’ said Judge Donna Butler, who presides over Emmaus District Court in Lehigh County. She said she learned about the situation only Wednesday, when she discussed it informally with colleagues at an association meeting in Harrisburg.

Less than three months old, the new policy is under review, said state police spokesman Jack Lewis. The Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, the administrative arm of the state court system, is working with the state police to sort out the agency’s concerns, said AOPC spokesman Art Heinz.

At issue are the paper citations that police file in district courts when charging people with summary offenses. Those offenses are the least serious category of crimes and include charges such as disorderly conduct, retail theft, harassment and public drunkenness. They carry fines and a maximum 90 days in jail. Summary traffic citations are filed electronically and not affected by the policy change, officials said.

The new policy applies only to the state police and not local police departments. It stemmed from a review of revisions to the citation form by the AOPC.

Among other things, the new form reflects legislatively approved increases in court filing fees and added a “public access copy’’ to the multi-sheet form. That copy excludes the defendant’s Social Security number but contains other information about the defendant, the victim and witnesses.

During that review, state police decided troopers should withhold information about victims and witnesses under an exception in the state Right-to- Know Law for criminal investigatory records, Lewis said. The lawyers were concerned that publicly identifying alleged victims and witnesses might put them at risk, he said, even though that has been the practice for many years.

“We really had never looked at that issue,’’ Lewis said.

Lewis said state troopers will share the victim and witness information with district judges upon request.

Under the special order that state police brass issued in mid- December, troopers were instructed to fill out the paperwork so that victim and witness information would appear only on the copy that is kept at the police station.

The PNA’s Melewsky said the disclosure of victim-witness information is essential to the criminal justice process and that state police are misusing Right-to- Know Law exceptions to withhold it.

“The police don’t get special treatment,’’ she said.

Philadelphia lawyer Michael Engle, president of the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said he was not familiar with the new policy. But, he said, law-enforcement agencies in general are stepping up efforts to keep information about alleged victims secret, making it more difficult for defense lawyers to conduct criminal background checks and attempt to interview those people.

“This completely undercuts a defendant’s ability to prepare their case,’’ Engle said.

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