Visiting the D.A.’s office in the lovely banana republic of Pennsylvania

I made a trip into Lancaster to speak with someone in the D.A.’s office about a private criminal complaint. Unfortunately, the key person(s) leave before the actual office hours of the department, so I’ll have to try later this week.

Not all states have this, but in Pennsylvania, a private citizen can lodge a criminal complaint; and, if (I would say right now) lucky enough to get an A.D.A. who knows the law, you go right on to service. Otherwise, you have to get a judge to rule on a “petition for review”, and it becomes like that little bill in the ABC Schoolhouse Rock cartoon from the 1970s.

From what I understood from our local magistrate district judge’s office, the paperwork that I filed last month hit a logjam. The issue was not whether the statute applied, but rather, the location of the defendant. Since the defendant is not in Pennsylvania, the person in the office was suggesting that the A.D.A. decided that crime took place outside of Pennsylvania.

However, Pennsylvania—like many states—has a long-arm statute, 42 Pa.C.S. section 5322. Under (a)(4), the statute is very clear that jurisdiction will be found for actions

. . . Causing harm or tortious injury in this Commonwealth by an act or omission outside this Commonwealth.

This is why states bring charges against out-of-state individuals all the time. If the criminal directs his activity into your state, usually your state applies the long-arm.

(By the way, “Commonwealth” is the fancy name the state of Pennsylvania uses for “State”. They might as well just be honest and say banana republic, but that’s an aside.)

Since my county borders Maryland, I wonder what the result would be if someone on the Maryland side of Mason-Dixon threw a crabcake across the border and hit someone on the Pennsylvania side. Would Craig Stedman’s crew say, “sorry, the injury was in Pennsylvania, but the perpetrator was in Maryland! So we disapprove.” Probably not. (Especially if it wasn’t a crabcake, but one of more lethal devices so often making news lately in America.)

[Update: Oh, here’s a twist for you. The reason the paperwork goes to the county seat is because the infraction is graded as a felony. Supposedly, if it’s a misdemeanor, there isn’t that extra step. So a state that’s felony-heavy ends up making it worse to pursue justice, than other states (like California), which grade the violation a misdemeanor.]

[Update #2 5/7/13: New information tells me that the dividing line in the update above is wrong: it’s summary offenses versus non summary offenses (so misdemeanors also need the sign-off);


I was also told at the D.A.’s today that it isn’t just probable cause that’s required to be shown. There’s another hurdle involving prosecutorial resources.

It’s strange, though, that the Lancaster D.A.’s website, itself, doesn’t mention that. In fact, here’s a quote:

If the Assistant District Attorney determines, based upon the facts, circumstances and the law, that probable cause exists, the complaint will be approved and returned to the District Justice to issue process.

That’s what I thought I had read about this procedure. If you show probable cause, the complaint will be approved. Nothing about prosecutorial resources or the location of the defendant.

They should fix that, if it isn’t really true.]