Gov. Tom Corbett signed a package of five criminal justice bills into law yesterday that are expected to have a significant impact on juveniles convicted of murder, mandatory sentencing for straw purchasers, teen sexting and changes in how law enforcement can use wiretaps.
Wiretaps have been used successfully for years by federal, state and local police agencies in order to gather evidence against criminals and corrupt officials. The bill, HB 2400, which was among those signed by Corbett on Thursday, amends statutes that have not been updated since 1998 – before the widespread use of cell phone technology.
A summary of the other bills are:
• House Bill 2400 downgraded the offense of teenage sexting from a felony to a misdemeanor.
• House Bill 815 restored the 5 year minimum mandatory sentence for straw purchasers of illegal handguns.
• House Bill 135 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.
“Criminals use multiple disposable cell phones to hinder an investigation,” said Greg Rowe, Chief of the Philadelphia District Attorneys Office Legislative Unit. “Under the existing law a judge could authorize a wiretap on a specific phone number. The new law is target specific, targeting the person, not the phone number. The bill is a response to modern technology.”
In general, electronic surveillance is illegal in Pennsylvania. However, in the course of a criminal investigation, law enforcement officers can petition a judge to have a phone number tapped if the evidentiary requirements are met. Regarding privacy concerns, Rowe said law enforcement authorities would still have to meet official requirements.
“A judge still retains the oversight in these cases, so police just can’t tap anyone’s phone whenever they want. We worked with the ACLU all summer on this, and they were neutral on it.”
In a memorandum sent to the Pennsylvania Senate and dated Sept. 28, Andy Hoover, legislative director of the ACLU Pennsylvania, outlined several objections the organization had with the bill before it passed. One of those objections involved the indiscriminate use of seized cell phones by the police. However, with the present revisions, the “ACLU of Pennsylvania no longer has a position on House Bill 2400.”
“HB 2400 allows the police to intercept messages sent to and to send messages from mobile devices that they have seized in some way, such as from an informant or an arrestee,” Hoover said in his memo. “The previous language of the bill allowed this power without any oversight. The committee amendment inserted a requirement that the police must first obtain approval from the district attorney or the attorney general or his or her designee before using seized devices in this way. While the ACLU of Pennsylvania would prefer that the oversight power is in the hands of a court, which is a more neutral party than a prosecutor, this revision is a positive change to the legislation. In conclusion, interested parties with diverse missions worked together to strike a proper balance between public safety and privacy in HB 2400. As a result of that work, the ACLU of Pennsylvania is now neutral on House Bill 2400.”
The Pennsylvania State Senate and House of Representatives used their final session days to focus on other criminal justice and public safety matters as well. The new laws provide appropriate sentences for juveniles convicted of murder, restore tough sentences against straw purchasers of illegal guns, provide what prosecutors consider are more rational teen sexting laws, and reinvest savings from the Department of Corrections and Board of Probation and Parole.
“The Legislature deserves enormous credit for its comprehensive, bipartisan work to protect victims and support law enforcement,” said Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams who also chairs the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association’s 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.”
Another significant proposal that was signed into law was Senate Bill 850; Sentencing for Juvenile Murderers. In June of this year the United States Supreme Court ruled in the case Miller v. Alabama and found that juvenile life sentences without the possibility of parole was unconstitutional. Under Pennsylvania law, a juvenile convicted of first or second degree murder would face the mandatory sentence. S.B. 850 ensures that a juvenile convicted of murder would serve an appropriate amount of prison time but also retaining the possibility of no parole in specific cases.
“Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his immaturity, impetuosity and failure to appreciate risks and consequences,” wrote Justice Elena Kagan regarding Miller v. Alabama. “It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him — and from which he cannot usually extricate himself — no matter how brutal or dysfunctional.”