After Declaration Legal Action, Increased Transparency In Philly Courts

By Declaration Staff

For years, Philadelphia court officials refused to release records which members of the public were legally entitled to view. Now, in the wake of legal action by The Declaration, those records are again being opened to the public.

Our petition, filed in May 2017, challenged the decision of court officials to withhold three categories of documents: arrest reports, search warrants and juror records.

Arrest reports, often filed at the start of criminal cases, detail the evidence against alleged offenders in order to convince judges to approve charges.

When filed in court, arrest reports are required to be released to the public under a doctrine known as the common law right of access, which permits the public to access any records used by a judge in making a ruling.

In Pennsylvania, where access to police records is severely restricted, review of these court files is crucial for assessing the performance of law enforcement.

In 66 of the state’s 67 counties, these have been routinely available to the public.

Since 2007, however, Philadelphia has shielded these records from public view, with no apparent justification. Our lawsuit helped convince the courts to make those records available again for the first time in ten years.

To address the concerns raised in the petition, court officials agreed to adopt a rule stating that all records relied on to set bail and approve charges would become part of the formal case file, and must be available to the public.

Search warrants and the attached paperwork, except when specifically sealed, are also public records in Pennsylvania. In order to support a search warrant, police have to demonstrate probable cause in a sworn attachment to the warrant.

Certain police units, such as the Narcotics Field Unit, routinely refused to return their statements to the court clerk for public viewing, and the Philadelphia courts made no effort to change this practice.

This is especially troubling because those same types of statements had been used by Daily News reporters to expose alleged wrongdoing by the Narcotics Field Unit before police began refusing to return the records.

In response to the issues raised in our petition, the Philadelphia courts also adopted a rule which explicitly requires both the police officers who execute warrants and the judges who sign off on them to return the attached paperwork for public viewing.

Finally, the courts inexplicably failed for years to turn over the names of individuals disqualified from jury service, even though state law explicitly requires this information to be released.

After we filed our case, Philadelphia’s Jury Commissioner released the requested data, which demonstrated how court officials were illegally disqualifying people with minor criminal convictions from jury service.

There is no new rule with respect to jury records, but we expect that future requests for the same data will be met with compliance, not the defiance exhibited by officials previously.

The new rules on arrest reports and search warrants go into effect on July 1st, 2018. The Declaration will be closely monitoring compliance.

The Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, which oversees all courts statewide, declined to comment on the new rules. The First Judicial District did not respond to a request for comment.

View the new rules issued by the Philadelphia courts here.

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