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Court says DA was wrong to dismiss citizen complaints against Pittsburgh assault weapons ban

Keith Srakocic

Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court ruled Tuesday that Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala violated his duty when he dismissed private criminal complaints against Pittsburgh’s assault weapons ban. The court’s opinion is that Zappala should have investigated those complaints.

Pittsburgh City Council passed a package of gun ordinances in 2019 in response to the shooting attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill months earlier. The bills would ban semi-automatic rifles and certain ammunition and firearms accessories within city limits. The legislation has not yet been enacted as its constitutionality remains tied up in court. The Commonwealth Court deemed them unconstitutional late last month.

When the complaints were made, Zappala issued a press release stating he would decline to investigate complaints against former Mayor Bill Peduto and council members regarding the ordinances. He argued someone must first be charged with violating the law.

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A Common Pleas judge sided with Zappala in 2019. But Commonwealth Court reversed that Tuesday, arguing that Zappala should have considered the complaints individually.

“Not only could this previously written press release not have been drafted in consideration of the allegations contained in the Private Criminal Complaints, it was effectively an abdication,” of the district attorney's duties, Judge Christine Fizzano Cannon wrote in the decision.

Furthermore, the court argued that the complaints weren’t about violations of the gun ordinances but rather of alleged instances of official oppression by the mayor and council for passing those ordinances.

The DA’s office maintained its position against investigating the complaints Tuesday.

“This matter involves a City of Pittsburgh ordinance that never came into existence. It still does not exist. You cannot enforce an individual’s grievances against a law that does not exist,” a spokesman said in a statement. “Upon remand, the matter will be handled in due course.”

According to the court’s opinion, Rule 506 under Pennsylvania’s criminal procedure code obligates Zappala to review each private criminal complaint and accept them or offer written reasons for denying them.

The matter will now be sent back to the trial court for further review.

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.