Marsy’s Law Could Get Passed In PA, But Some Worry About Its Unintended Consequences

Dec 18, 2018

When a new state legislative session starts next month, a group of crime victim advocates plans to hit the ground running to finish a longstanding effort.

They want an amendment that would ensure victims’ legal rights in the state constitution, just as defendants’ rights are.

But not everyone is convinced it’s a good idea.

The effort to pass Marsy’s Law started in California a decade ago. The constitutional amendments are now on the books in 11 states.

But the law has sometimes gotten flack for its unintended consequences. Earlier this month, for instance, a South Dakota police officer invoked it to stay anonymous in a case in which he’d used deadly force. He is considered a victim because the suspect allegedly fired at police.

Pennsylvania Victim Advocate Jennifer Storm said that wouldn’t happen here.

The language being considered would put the commonwealth’s current victims’ rights laws and practices into the constitution. Those don’t include anonymity. They do include, for example, the ability to submit legal statements at sentencing.

“Victims aren’t getting anything new, other than enforcement,” Storm said.

The amendment would include a few practices not currently governed by law. One of the more contentious provisions would allow victims to “refuse an interview, deposition or other discovery request made by the accused or any person acting on behalf of the accused.”

The ACLU, which opposes Marsy’s Law, has said that is overly broad and could hurt defendants’ cases.

Storm and other Marsy’s Law backers argue that allowing victims to refuse pretrial discovery is common practice in Pennsylvania, and so defendants should not be impacted by that provision of the amendment.  

Pennsylvania ACLU Legal Director Elizabeth Randol added that while the group is fine with the substance of current victims’ rights laws, enshrining them in the constitution makes them harder to change if an unexpected consequence arises.

“As an amendment, it sets up competing sets of rights between victims versus defendants,” Randol argued.

The Marsy’s Law amendment passed the General Assembly this past session, and now needs one more passage by lawmakers before it goes to voters for a referendum.

Gov. Tom Wolf has said he supports it.