How a controversial gun crime provision passed under the noses of Philadelphia’s lawmakers

By: - July 12, 2019 10:47 am

State House Democrats are expressing frustration with the communication breakdown that left them in the dark about concerns from progressive Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner over a bill passed during the final, frenzied hours of last month’s budget debate.

According to a half a dozen Democratic lawmakers, some interviewed on the basis of anonymity to speak freely about internal matters, there is lingering anger — particularly among rank-and-file Philadelphia Democrats — that a proposal that takes authority away from the state’s largest city slipped through the cracks.

“It’s not even a question of if you like Krasner or not. Even people critical of the DA would be upset by the lack of transparency” and preemption of Philly’s sovereignty, one Democrat told the Capital-Star.

The set up

The bill at issue — House Bill 1614 — was originally a measure to close a loophole created by a state Supreme Court ruling earlier this year.

On May 31, a high court ruling questioned the legal authority of local and state police to cooperate without municipal government approval. This could have interrupted drug enforcement among other cases, according to the Attorney General’s office. 

The bill allows local police to work together with the OK of just their own police chief. That measure itself had its own small share of naysayers within the caucus, who worried about handing unelected officials more power.

But added in — by a unanimous vote — was a measure sponsored by Rep. Martina White, R-Philadelphia, that gave the Office of Attorney General the authority to prosecute the illegal possession, sale, or purchase of firearms. The AG can only bring charges if the district attorney declines to bring a case. 

The provision also sunsets in two years — when Krasner’s first term ends.

Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office backed the bill in its original form. But it has denied it supported the Philadelphia-specific measure. Shapiro pledged earlier this week to not unilaterally use the new power to go over Krasner’s head.

The measure entered the spotlight following reporting by The Intercept, an online progressive news outlet, and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The ‘P’ word

Stopping any bill that cuts into Philly’s home rule is usually priority No. 1 for the city’s  Democratic lawmakers.

That’s because preemption bills are a common source of partisan fights in Harrisburg.

Republicans who control the General Assembly have considered overturning everything from Philly’s paid sick leave policy to the soda tax and regulations on “stop-and-go” convenience stores.

Meanwhile, Krasner remains a divisive figure among Republicans. Even as GOP legislators lead the way on certain aspects of criminal justice reform in the Capitol, others see Krasner as not taking necessary steps to fight crime.

The state Republican Party often calls out Krasner for his prosecutorial tactics, such as trying to overturn death penalty convictions. The state party said in response that the Philly DA had “been nothing short of an embarrassment and a disaster.”

White’s measure that started the brouhaha was originally a standalone bill with bipartisan support that would have applied statewide. It had the support of three Philly Democrats as well.

 When it reached the end of the legislative pipeline, however, the bill just affected Philadelphia.

White told the Philadelphia Inquirer the change would bring more resources to fight rising gun violence in the city.

Rep. Mike Zabel, D-Delaware and a former Philly prosecutor, told the Capital-Star that he didn’t think the measure would mean much in practice.

The two offices already might cooperate from time to time on cases, he said. Instead, the bill was “more a political wedge than change in how” gun crimes are prosecuted, Zabel said.

Nineteen minutes late

What’s left many Democrats so frustrated is that they never saw the measure coming.

Before bills are voted, lawmakers discuss the bills, trade opinions, and ask questions of top staff. This is known as caucusing a bill.

When the Philadelphia DA bill was discussed in closed-door caucus meetings, lawmakers asked to know Krasner’s position. House Democratic leadership did not have an answer, but promised to get one.

According to emails acquired by the Capital-Star, Democratic Whip Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, had contacted Krasner’s office on June 14 requesting that the DA review White’s proposal. 

“This could run as an amendment next week and wondered where you guys would be on something like this,” Harris wrote.

Their office did not reply before White offered her amendment up for a vote on June 18. With no clue of Krasner’s opposition, it was approved unanimously by every Democrat and Republican.

The bill was voted finally on June 19 and approved with just one dissenting vote from Rep. Dan Miller, D-Allegheny. 

Miller told The Intercept he opposed the underlying bill because he felt questions of law enforcement cooperation “should best run by the civilian leadership.”

That same day, Mike Lee, an assistant district attorney in Krasner’s office, expressed the office’s opposition to the bill to Harris, according to an email acquired by the Capital-Star.

After consulting with the DA’s gun violence task force, Lee wrote in an email that “jurisdiction issues are not at the heart of gun violence in Philadelphia.” The email added that the bill could compromise the existing task force’s ability to function.

But that email arrived 19 minutes after the final vote on House Bill 1614. The vote was held at 3:11 p.m., according to House records. The email was sent at 3:30 p.m..

After passing the House, the Senate made some technical changes that required House approval before going to the governor’s desk.

By then, Krasner’s opposition was communicated to the House Democrats. But it did not show up in a packet of information distributed to lawmakers — and acquired by the Capital-Star — on the day’s votes.

The packet lists the Office of the Attorney General, the PA District Attorneys Association, Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association, PA FOP, PA Municipal League as supportive under “Stakeholder Feedback.” No one is listed as opposed.

The bill was agreed to one final time with just three dissenting votes — from Miller, Rep. Chris Rabb, D-Philadelphia, and Rep. Mary Jo Daley, D-Montgomery.

The lack of focus on the bill’s flaws struck Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, a first-year progressive Philadelphia Democrat, as an oversight.

“We devote a lot of time discussing important issues, [but] this absolutely should have been at the top of the list,” Fiedler said.

‘We can change it’

With Wolf signing the bill July 2, it is now law. Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, has already proposed legislation to repeal the measure. 

He said in a statement that “Philadelphians want safe, peaceful communities, which is why our relentless focus should be on ending gun violence instead of playing the blame game.”

The bill was also passed alongside a budget that provided $2.5 million in extra funding for a gun violence task force in Philadelphia, as House Democratic spokesperson Bill Patton pointed out.

Patton added that “concurrent jurisdiction can be a useful tool for prosecutors and it should apply in every county, not just one.”

Speaking to reporters earlier this week, Wolf said he likewise wanted to see statewide concurrent jurisdiction on illegal guns for the attorney general, but “in the end, what the Legislature gave me was something that applies just to Philadelphia.”

“Doing it in one part of the state is better than doing nothing at all,” Wolf said.

Some House Democrats have also pointed out that Krasner’s office currently lacks a dedicated lobbyist to handle the opaque inner workings of the Capitol.

Sixty-six of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties are members of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, which wields powerful influence in Harrisburg. The organization often advocates for expanding criminal penalties and prosecutorial powers — which led Krasner to leave the association last fall.

In an email, Jane Roh, spokesperson for Krasner, pointed to the passage of last year’s influential Clean Slate Act as an example of a positive relationship between their office and the General Assembly.

She continued that “the passage of HB 1614 obviously raises a number of questions about communications and procedures moving forward, and as such the DAO is reviewing our options for better management of external affairs.”

In a subsequent email, Roh added that “at no point was [Lee] asked to review the version of 1614 targeting Philly by House or Senate members,” and was instead asked to review language that impacted the entire state.

This might not be the end of the line for bills impacting the contentious official’s powers. Looking at the furor, one top House GOP staffer told the Capital-Star that even if it was Krasner’s authority to enforce the law, “we can change it.”

They added that if Krasner continued as is, last month’s bill “ought not be the last law we pass.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated with additional comment from Kranser spokesperson Jane Roh at 3:02 p.m., July 12.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.