Lancaster, Pa.—In a newly released decision, Lancaster County Judge Leonard Brown determined that forfeiture records being sought by reporter Carter Walker and the media group LNP are subject to a Pennsylvania Right to Know Law request. However, the judge also ruled that the newspaper’s current request was not detailed enough to order the Lancaster District Attorney’s Office to hand over the requested records immediately. Walker and LNP will file a new request for detailed receipts covering expenses paid for out of the district attorney’s forfeiture fund. The ruling should make it clear that district attorneys across Pennsylvania need to provide this information to the public.
“We are pleased that Judge Brown’s ruling makes it clear that the Lancaster district attorney must make public how it spends funds it takes in through forfeiture,” said LNP reporter Carter Walker. “When this request was initially submitted, the district attorney was unwilling to release any information. Since then, through this case, hundreds of financial documents have been shared with the public. While we are disappointed that we will have to go through the process to request these records once more, we expect to be able to report to our readers in detail about how the district attorney has spent government funds. Today’s ruling should also pave the way for members of the media and the public to get similar information from DAs across the Commonwealth.”
Walker filed a request for civil forfeiture records with the district attorney in September 2018 and was denied. Upon appeal, the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records concluded that the records were subject to the Commonwealth’s Right to Know Law and ordered the district attorney to make them available. Rather than respect the office’s decision, District Attorney Craig Stedman appealed in court.
Walker and LNP were represented in their request by the Institute for Justice (IJ), a public interest law firm that has challenged forfeiture abuse in Pennsylvania and nationwide. IJ will continue to represent Walker and LNP in a similar case in Berks County.
“The decision establishes good precedent for members of the public to get the information they deserve about how local governments are spending the millions of dollars taken in every year through forfeiture,” said IJ Attorney Kirby West. “It’s disappointing that it will take more time for LNP to receive this information, but we are confident that a more detailed request will reveal the records that they have been seeking for months. We look forward to continuing our work with LNP to advance government transparency in Pennsylvania.”