“A democratic society starts to lose its moorings when police can kill in secret”

By Andy Hoover, Communications Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Vote “NO” on House Bill 27. Photo from flickr.

Baseball fans are familiar with the phrase, “It’s just Manny being Manny.” It was the thing to say about the often eccentric behavior of Red Sox and Indians slugger Manny Ramirez. Manny disappears into the Green Monster — Fenway Park’s famous left field wall — to drink Gatorade and talk on the phone. Manny high fives a fan while making a catch against the fence and then throws back to the infield for a double play. Manny refuses to talk with reporters all through spring training but breaks his silence to talk about the grill he sold on Ebay.

In Pennsylvania government, we have our own version of “Manny being Manny,” but it isn’t nearly as amusing. It’s the House being the House. The Pennsylvania House of Representatives is the place where ways to compound mass incarceration and police brutality go to live.

This week alone, the House passed legislation to forfeit bail money to cover fines and restitution, even if the depositor is not the defendant. Your mom or your buddy bails you out, and now they’re paying your fines, too, if this bill becomes law.

The House Judiciary Committee passed a bill to reinstate mandatory minimum sentencing, which has been on ice for two years thanks to federal and state court rulings, despite growing evidence that mandatories have no impact on public safety and are discriminatory.

And on Monday, the House passed a bill to make it a crime for public officials to identify cops who kill, a bill we’ve told you about before.

It’s the House being the House.

And lest anyone thinks in these hyper partisan times that this is a product of a Republican majority, Democrats vote for this stuff, too. Like this one and this one and this one.

We are in a fierce struggle now to stop House Bill 27, the police secrecy bill, in order to protect transparency and accountability in policing. Governor Wolf agrees with us that hiding the identity of public employees who seriously injure or kill someone is no way to run a transparent government. He vetoed this bill last year. A handful of state senators agreed with us last session, but we need more this time.

The best thing you can do right now to stop the police secrecy bill is call your state senator and tell them to vote “no” on HB 27. You can find your state senator’s contact information with our “find your legislator” tool. And you can find more information about HB 27 on our website.

The message here is simple: Police officers are public employees to whom we give a great deal of power. With that power comes the responsibility to be transparent and accountable to the public.

A democratic society starts to lose its moorings when police can kill in secret.

And frankly, local officials already have the power to hide an officer’s identity if they think it’s necessary for safety reasons. This is a decision to be made at the local level, based on circumstances in the community, not by politicians in Harrisburg.

Your state senator needs to get the message: Vote “NO” on House Bill 27.

IN OTHER NEWS

Philadelphia DA Seth Williams was indicted Tuesday on 23 counts of corruption and bribery-related charges. Photo from The Inquirer.

  • From Philadelphia Magazine: “Here’s What’s Behind the Sharp Left Turn in Philly’s District Attorney Race”

“Unlike most local elections, the Democratic primary for district attorney is a real, honest-to-goodness fight. There is no clear front-runner in the seven-person race. Some candidates have more advantages than others, though. Untermeyer is a self-funded millionaire. Krasner might have that super PAC waiting in the wings. Because so few Philadelphians typically vote in off-year elections — only 105,000 of the city’s 1.2 million voting-age citizens turned out in the last competitive Democratic primary for DA — factors like race and party endorsements could also make a difference. According to an analysis of local elections, whites and blacks usually cast ballots for candidates of their own race. El-Shabazz is the only black candidate in a city that’s 44 percent black in a year in which many African-Americans are worried about President Trump’s law-and-order agenda. Negrin is the only Latino at a time when many Hispanics have those same fears. Khan’s father is Pakistani, but the South Asian-American community here is comparatively small; the rest of the Democrats are white. Will the vote split along racial lines, or will a broad coalition usher someone into office, à la the 2007 and 2015 mayoral elections?”

“The indictment recaps multiple text-message exchanges between [Mohammad N.] Ali and Williams in the days and weeks that followed; Williams expresses appreciation for the multiple gifts Ali bestowed upon him, and ultimately offers to get personally involved with Ali’s friend’s case. The conversations begin Feb. 8, 2012: Ali: “the guy pleaded guilty, he will take any punishment but he just doesn’t wanna do jail! . . . If you can do anything for him it would be very appreciative (as long as you have no problem with it).” Williams: “I will look into it.” Shortly thereafter, the indictment shows that Williams texted one word to Ali: “April?” Authorities allege that was in reference to another trip to Punta Cana that Ali was expected to pay for.Williams: “I am merely a thankful beggar and don’t want to overstep my bounds in asking … but we will gladly go.” On Feb. 24, Williams and Ali had another text conversation — this one about a $3,212 couch that Ali planned to buy for the district attorney. Ali attached a photo of the couch to the text thread. Ali:“Is that it?” Williams: “That is the exact one … but the special order color Chocolate.”

“The Department of Homeland Security Monday issued its first ‘Declined Detainer Requests’ list of jurisdictions where local law enforcement officials allegedly have refused to adequately help with federal detention and deportation operations. The public notice was ordered by President Trump in January. The feds made 3,083 requests between January 28-February 3 and were ‘declined’ help in 216 incidents, most of which occurred in Travis County, Texas. HUFFINGTON POST Related: Here’s the official notice. DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY More: Hey, LA, you made the list. LOS ANGELES TIMES Still more: So did you, Hennepin County, Minnesota. MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE

THE APPEAL — The Appeal is a weekly newsletter helping to keep you informed about criminal justice news in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and beyond. If you’d like to receive this weekly newsletter, you can subscribe here.

JOIN— The ACLU of Pennsylvania’s mailing list to stay up to date with our work and events happening in your area.

DONATE — The ACLU is comprised of the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU Foundation. The ACLU Foundation is the arm of the ACLU that conducts our litigation and education efforts. Gifts to the ACLU Foundation are tax-deductible to the donor to the extent permissible by law. Learn more about supporting the work of the ACLU of Pennsylvania here.

Seth Williams will not seek reelection as Philadelphia’s District Attorney, citing “regrettable mistakes” in personal life

By Matt Stroud, Criminal Justice Researcher/Writer, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Seth Williams is out.

Seth Williams will not run for reelection as Philadelphia’s District Attorney. Today, from a press conference report in The Inquirer, some remarkable statements: “‘I have made regrettable mistakes in my personal life and personal financial life that cast an unnecessary shadow’ over the work of the District Attorney’s Office, Williams said Friday. He said his decisions to accept gift and not report them brought ‘shame’ and ‘embarrassment’ to the office. ‘For this, I will always hold deep regret in my heart,’ Williams said. He has previously said that friends helped him during a rough financial period during and after his divorce, and has stressed that he took no official action in return for the gifts.”

R. Seth Williams was sworn in as Philly’s DA in January 2010, and was re-elected in 2014. Williams has been in hot water since at least August, when he admitted in financial disclosures that he’d taken $160,500 in undisclosed gifts — some of which came from defense attorneys in cases he was prosecuting. The gifts included $45,000 in home repairs, as well as sideline passes to Eagles games, vacation gifts, cash, and gift cards. The FBI probed the gifts, and continues to probe similar financial questions surrounding his nonprofit organization. Williams settled with the Ethics Board to pay a $62,000 fine, but the gifts have continued to plague him.

So has his record. While Philly media have understandably focused on Williams’ ethical violations in recent months, his term as DA has incited derision, particularly from those who expected Williams to bring progressive reforms to a DA’s office that has historically and notoriously been “tough on crime” — and even deadly.

After running on a platform of eliminating the death penalty in Philadelphia, for instance, Williams changed course and sued Governor Tom Wolf after the commonwealth’s chief executive initiated a death penalty moratorium. That’s just one example of Williams’ questionable actions. His office also offered a boilerplate re-sentencing option for men and women serving juvenile life without parole sentences that inspired a federal judge to lash out and accuse Williams of bringing “a lack of due diligence” to an important issue that affected hundreds of prisoners. Williams also refused, for three years, to drop the murder case of a man who had been exonerated by DNA evidence, and it took a jury to eventually set that man free. Williams has overseen headline-making and blatantly unfair civil forfeiturepractices; failed to take potential wrongful conviction cases seriously; and even failed to dismiss prosecutors wrapped up in the so-called “porngate” scandal.

Williams may, in the future, argue that his financial dealings brought about the end of his run as DA. But finances weren’t the only aspect of his tenure that was disconcerting. His judgement was, too.

ALSO MAKING HEADLINES

This week, HB 27, passed out of the House Judiciary Committee. This bill prohibits public agencies from identifying a police officer who has discharged his firearm or used force for 30 days after the incident. It also threatens criminal charges for any official who violates this gag order. There was no press about the bill this week, and ACLU-PA did not issue a public statement. But we did issue a memo to the House Judiciary Committee. It reads, in part: “Unfortunately, the supporters of HB 27 fail to recognize or to respect the very real concerns raised by communities concerned about unfairness in policing. Our police officers are public employees with a great deal of power, including the power to use force. This power must be coupled with the responsibility to be transparent and accountable to the public.”

Read the entire memo here.

And one more thing before we get to this week’s links…

The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held yesterday that those whose death sentences are overturned can no longer be held in solitary. The case was argued by Harrisburg and Pittsburgh-based attorneys, involves Pa. Department of Corrections practices, and involves two Pennsylvania plaintiffs who “had their death sentences vacated but were nevertheless detained in solitary confinement.”

Read the opinion here.

IN OTHER NEWS

(Criminal justice news that could use a second look.)

Some municipalities view Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed $25 per capita fee to use state police as a bargain compared to the cost of establishing a local department. Photo from The Morning Call.
  • From The Morning Call: “To some municipalities, Wolf’s proposed state police fee sounds like a bargain”

“The governor’s fee for the township’s 31,432 residents would equate to $785,800. That’s still far below the $4 million to $5 million experts estimated in 2012 would be needed to start and maintain a police department. Neighboring Upper Macungie Township’s relatively new police force took up $4.2 million of its overall budget in 2016.” And related, from The Tribune-Review in September: “Money from increased fees and gas taxes that drivers have been paying since 2013 on the promise to fix Pennsylvania’s crumbling roads and bridges is increasingly being diverted to support the state police, budget figures show. Many government officials, legislators and construction industry members said the practice needs to stop, especially as the nation’s highest gas tax — ushered in by the 2013 transportation funding overhaul known as Act 89 — generates billions in new revenue for roads.”

  • From ACLU-PA: “State Senate Bill Will Force Counties to Violate the Constitution”

“This legislation creates a no-win situation for counties and cities that want to welcome immigrants and that know they have obligations under the constitution,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “If this bill becomes law, people will be held in jail when they should not be held. We are prepared to challenge illegal detentions when they occur.”

  • From ACLU National: “Flying Home From Abroad, a Border Agent Stopped and Questioned Me … About My Work for the ACLU”

“It didn’t happen during the Bush years when I traveled to meet with and represent Afghan and Iraqi survivors of U.S. military torture, to Guantanamo as an observer at the military commissions there, or to attend meetings and give talks abroad about U.S. human rights abuses in the national security context. It didn’t happen during the Obama years when my work included challenges to unlawful targeted killing, anti-Muslim discrimination, unfair watchlisting, illegal spying, and other U.S. government abuses at home and abroad. Over all those years, government officials made their views known about this work — often in opposition, sometimes in support. But no government agent ever asked the chilling question I was asked this time: Do you understand why someone might have a different perspective about you?”

“The Government indeed asserts that it violates separation of powers for the judiciary to entertain a constitutional challenge to executive actions such as this one. There is no precedent to support this claimed unreviewability, which runs contrary to the fundamental structure of our constitutional democracy.”

THE APPEAL — The Appeal is a weekly newsletter helping to keep you informed about criminal justice news in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and beyond. If you’d like to receive this weekly newsletter, you can subscribe here.

JOIN— The ACLU of Pennsylvania’s mailing list to stay up to date with our work and events happening in your area.

DONATE — The ACLU is comprised of the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU Foundation. The ACLU Foundation is the arm of the ACLU that conducts our litigation and education efforts. Gifts to the ACLU Foundation are tax-deductible to the donor to the extent permissible by law. Learn more about supporting the work of the ACLU of Pennsylvania here.