FILE - PA Eugene DePasquale 8-12-2019

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale speaks during a news conference Aug. 12, 2019, in Harrisburg.

The Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC) should review Pennsylvania’s 517 district courts to verify they did not improperly file criminal charges in cases that should have been classified as civil complaints, the state's auditor general says.

The call from Eugene DePasquale comes after a former district justice in Erie County improperly filed criminal charges for theft of services. DePasquale’s audit found hundreds of cases that should have been classified as civil complaints.

Filing a criminal charge helped defendants avoid roughly $100 in court filing costs and cost the state an estimated $32,737.70 in fines and court costs. However, reclassifying the charge added a criminal record to defendants.

“I’m not here to tell you (the AOPC has) agreed to these issues, but they are aware of our recommendations, and hopefully they will agree to them moving forward,” DePasquale said during a news conference Monday.

“The public should be able to trust the judges at all levels are acting fairly and within the bounds of the law,” he added. “No defendant should ever wind up with a criminal record because a judge, for whatever reason, handed out the wrong complaint form or what may have also been the case is thinking you’re doing the person a favor by trying to get them out of paying some state fines, but (instead) giving them a criminal record (that) could impact them the rest of their life.”

The problem came to light after a job applicant discovered a pre-employment background check revealed a criminal record the candidate did not know existed. A newly elected district justice notified the Erie County court administration, the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, which oversees the state’s district court system, and the Pennsylvania Department of the Auditor General.

Cases date to at least 2002 and range from owing $7 on a school lunch account to overdue library books. In response, on Aug. 5, Erie County’s president judge announced the sealing of nearly 3,000 civil cases that were misfiled as criminal cases.

The court system should expunge the erroneous records at no cost to the individuals involved, a process that usually costs several hundred dollars, DePasquale said, but he shied away from assigning a motive.

“We don’t know the motive,” DePasquale said. “I’m hopeful that it wasn’t intentionally giving 3,000 people a criminal record that didn’t deserve it.”

DePasquale also called on AOPC to strengthen training for magisterial district judges to clarify procedures around the correct handling of civil cases. AOPC should also improve the language on charging documents, so defendants understand the difference between a criminal and civil complaint, and that pleading guilty to a criminal complaint will result in a criminal record, DePasquale said.

“All of our recommendations can happen without the Legislature,” DePasquale said.

The Center Square Contributor