A state House of Representatives committee recently passed a resolution urging the Supreme Court to alter rules that would allow prosecutors to delay the release of information on arrest warrants to the public.
The resolution, which was unanimously approved by state Rep. Tarah Toohil, R-Butler Township, and other members of the judiciary committee, would allow prosecutors to delay the public release of a warrant for 10 days or until it has been executed, whichever comes first. Prosecutors could also seek a further delay if good cause is shown.
Toohil has expressed concern about the current rules, which allow the public and members of the news media to immediately obtain a copy of the warrant from a district judge. The media often prints information on the case before the person is arrested, potentially putting law enforcement at risk and compromising the criminal case, she said.
“It’s important for officers’ safety,” Toohil said. “If arrest warrant information is put out, the way technology is, it goes out on the Internet. Often people who are going to be arrested find out before the officer gets to the door.”
Melissa Melewsky, an attorney with the The Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, said the association opposes the rule change, believing it goes too far and would needlessly delay the dissemination of public information.
“It allows for arrest warrants to be sealed indefinitely. That clearly raises a constitutional issue,” Melewsky said. “We don’t want law enforcement to be at risk, but we believe the proposal goes too far.”
Melewsky noted there are currently safeguards in place that allow police to file a petition with county court to seal a warrant if good cause is shown. The proposed rule change would make that process easier for police by extending that right to district judges.
Sam Sanguedolce, first assistant district attorney for Luzerne County, said he’s not convinced the rule change is necessary, given there is already a procedure in place.
“It will alleviate a step in the process, but you still have to show the necessity,” said Sanguedolce. “It’s just a different judge making the same decision.”
Toohil said there are instances when a county judge might not be immediately available. The rule change would address that issue. “If it’s the weekend and a major drug investigation is coming to a head,” she said, “there needs to be easier access to the courts to make sure the warrants that need to be sealed are getting sealed.”
The House resolution will now go to the floor for a vote. If passed, it would serve as an endorsed recommendation of the House, but would have no legal bearing on the court rule, which can only be changed by the Supreme Court.
Jim Koval, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, said the Supreme Court is considering the matter. It’s not known when it will issue a ruling.