Court upholds law taking jurisdiction over mass transit crimes from Philly's district attorney

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — The elected prosecutor in Philadelphia lost a court decision Friday in his lawsuit seeking to halt a law that directed a special prosecutor be appointed by the attorney general's office to handle crimes on the city's mass transit system.

A divided Commonwealth Court turned down District Attorney Larry Krasner's argument that the law passed late last year by Republicans in the General Assembly, along with dozens of Democratic votes, violates the state Constitution.

Krasner, a Democrat, sued over the law in January, arguing it unconstitutionally stripped him of geographic jurisdiction, removed his core prosecutorial functions and other grounds.

He said he plans to appeal the 4-3 court decision to the state Supreme Court, which currently has five Democratic and two Republican justices.

“I’m not going to comment specifically on the various positions taken by the majority other than to say that we respectfully disagree with it and we look forward to the decision of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court,” Krasner said in a phone interview.

The law gives the special prosecutor the ability to take over crimes “within” the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, known as SEPTA, and when that occurs, requires the district attorney to suspend investigations and proceedings and turn over the files to the special prosecutor.

It was passed amid concerns by some about crime in Philadelphia and their belief that Krasner's progressive policies have made the situation worse. Krasner argues he's prosecuted the vast majority of crimes that come to his office from SEPTA. Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro signed the law.

Big-city progressive prosecutors across the United States have been on the defensive in recent years, battling recall efforts, tough-on-crime challengers in re-election bids and, in Krasner’s case, an impeachment procedure.

Generally speaking, progressive district attorneys support finding alternatives to imprisonment and refraining from prosecuting low-level crimes to reduce incarceration rates and address perceived social inequities in the criminal justice system.

In a dissent, Judge Christine Fizzano Cannon said the law improperly delegates the General Assembly's legislative authority, allowing the special prosecutor to decide what “within” means in regard to SEPTA. She said that was too vague and represents a fatal defect in the law. Cannon and two other judges said they would have thrown out the law.

“SEPTA is an agency. It is an entity. It is not a specific place or a tangible thing. The meaning of ‘within’ in relation to SEPTA conveys no concrete impression to the ordinary person; it is simply incomprehensible,” Fizzano Cannon wrote.

She argued the law also violates the due process rights of criminal defendants by preventing them from challenging the special prosecutor's authority.

Attorney General Michelle Henry announced Friday she appointed as special prosecutor Michael Untermeyer, a Philadelphia lawyer with experience as a prosecutor and hearing examiner. The news release announcing his appointment said the court's decision allowed Untermeyer's hiring to proceed.

Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman, an Indiana County Republican, said in a statement responding to the court decision that Krasner has perpetuated lawlessness and the legislation means the prosecutor’s “reckless inaction on crime will no longer negatively impact riders and employees of SEPTA.”

The SEPTA prosecution jurisdiction bill’s primary sponsor, Sen. Wayne Langerholc, a Republican from Cambria County, has said he envisioned the special prosecutor as picking and choosing which crimes to pursue, leaving the rest to Krasner. The law is set to expire along with the end of Krasner's second term in December 2026.

Krasner also is awaiting a Supreme Court decision about whether the state Senate can proceed with a trial regarding whether to remove Krasner from office. Republicans who controlled the House last session voted to impeach Krasner, but trial in the GOP-majority Senate is on hold while the high court weighs the matter.

Mark Scolforo, The Associated Press