Why is the Philly DA Taking The Declaration to Court?

By Declaration Staff

Last spring, The Declaration requested records about Philadelphia’s Preliminary Arraignment Reporting System from the District Attorney’s Office. The DA is now taking us to court for making that request.

The PARS system electronically shares information about new arrests between police, prosecutors and the courts. And as we reported last June, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement also has access to some of this same data.

ICE access to this database has been in the news before. In 2010, then-Mayor Nutter barred federal authorities from seeing the names of victims and witnesses in PARS, and activists have periodically called for a complete termination of immigration agents’ access several times since.

However, little has been written about the system since the election of Donald Trump, an event which spurred increasing attention to local collaboration with immigration authorities. Have the terms of ICE’s access to PARS changed since 2013? The public doesn’t know, because it hasn’t seen the latest contract with ICE.

So we made a request under Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law to the District Attorney, one of the owners of the computer system. Our request asked for the system’s current bylaws and the current contract allowing ICE access. The DA, however, claimed that it did not keep those records.

Instead, it claimed that only the First Judicial District, Philadelphia’s courts, had copies — but the RTKL only applies to internal court records if they involve financial transactions, and the FJD denied our request on the basis that the PARS records were not financial, though we disagree with their decision.

This is not the first time the DA has tried to dodge public oversight by refusing to keep adequate records.

In 2016, B.J. Graham-Rubin, at the time Chief of the Civil Litigation Unit, admitted in an affidavit that the DA’s Office doesn’t bother to write down its policies on perjury by prison guards, on the process for seeking the death penalty and presumably on any number of other issues of public interest.

The RTKL addresses the DA’s irresponsible actions with the PARS records, however. Agencies cannot give their records away to avoid scrutiny, because the law also applies to records which an agency can control but which are outside of the government’s physical possession.

Pennsylvania’s state Office of Open Records found that, because the District Attorney was a founding member of PARS, it had control, or constructive possession, of the records and had to provide them to The Declaration.

Rather than complying with the law, the District Attorney then chose to appeal, forcing us to hire an attorney. The Office’s position relies on quasi-judicial arguments similar to the claims that they have been rebuked and sanctioned for making in another case.

The lawsuit comes at a time of immense change for the DA’s Office. Former District Attorney Seth Williams pleaded guilty to a federal corruption charge last summer, and former prosecutor Beth Grossman and defense attorney Larry Krasner are currently vying to become the next DA.

Ahead of the vote on November 7th, Krasner has been emphasizing his progressive credentials, while even career prosecutor Grossman has been running on her embrace of more limited changes.

Asked for comment on the DA’s litigation in this case, Krasner told The Declaration that “any inadequacy in record-keeping practices inside the DA’s Office is inexcusable. Should I be elected, such lapses won’t be tolerated.”

Grossman did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for the District Attorney’s Office also declined to comment.

Regardless of the outcome of the election, public records are the public’s property, and The Declaration will continue fighting for the public’s right to hold its servants accountable.

Terry Mutchler, the first and former Executive Director of the Office of Open Records is representing Managing Editor Austin Nolen, the named party in the case. Oral arguments are scheduled for December 7th, 2017, at 10 A.M. in Courtroom 426, City Hall.

To view the full certified record in this case so far, including the decision of the Office of Open Records, click here.

Please donate to The Declaration to support our journalism and our advocacy for more transparency in Philly government. You can make a recurring donation with Patreon or make a one-time donation with PayPal.

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