Philadelphia Votes Yes To Police Reform

How do the two new measures impact residents?

Philadelphia voters overwhelmingly approved two police reform measures on the 2020 ballot. 

The first measure aims to amend the city’s “stop and frisk” practice.

“Essentially, a police officer has to have a reasonable belief or suspect that a crime was in the process of being committed, had been committed or was going to be committed very soon,” says criminal defense lawyer Justin Capek with Philadelphia’s Schatz & Steinberg. “A police officer can’t stop someone simply because of race, gender, sexuality, etc.”

Capek thinks the measure is a good thing, particularly this year, after national protests erupted following the May 25 murder of George Floyd while in custody of Minneapolis police. 

“[Philadelphia] is saying, ‘We’re not going to tolerate this racially disparate stop-and-frisk procedure, where people of color are overwhelmingly stopped more than others.’” 

So what if you’re stopped unconstitutionally? 

“It becomes a choice between righteous indignation and resistance, which can lead to even more unpleasant results; or simply complying, albeit humiliating,” Capek says. “You’ll likely have a better chance of having any contraband recovered being suppressed as the fruits of an unconstitutional search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution and Article 1 Section 8 of the PA Constitution. This is because most officers in the Philadelphia Police Department now deploy Axon body worn cameras, which provide objective insight into the nature of the stop.”

His best advice is simply to comply. “Then let the judicial system run its course to correct the constitutional violation,” he says.

The second measure provides for the creation of a Citizens Police Oversight Commission, which would undo the existing Police Advisory Commission. 

“Citizens can say, ‘This isn’t working right in our district, and we need to address it.’ Such a commission provides an additional non-law-enforcement lens to a situation, when without it, oversight becomes myopic for police officers,” he says. “Having a public commission run by citizens is conducive to police accountability. Officers might be a little bit more cautious interacting with citizens. If you are aggrieved by the police, wrongfully arrested, brutalized or treated like a second-class citizen, there is a citizens’-based commission that can help you address those grievances, and not one supervised by the same people that you’re claiming have violated your constitutional rights.”

The commission could prove valuable to civil cases, Capek says. 

“For example, I represent a hip-hop artist, and this gentleman is a felon. He’s prohibited from owning any weapons,” Capek says. “He posted a music video to Instagram in which he is holding a spray-painted airsoft gun and fake 'cocaine' represented by protein powder. Based on that video, a warrant was obtained to search his house. The airsoft gun and protein powder were found. He was locked up for 90 days, and the protein powder was inexplicably never sent to the lab for a narcotics test, which obviously would have ruled out any indicia of prohibited narcotics. They let him sit just to punish him. An oversight committee could have said, ‘This isn’t right. We have to do better.’” 

Capek does caution against adding the oversight committee measure as a talking point for the divisive “defund the police” conversation. 

“It’s not defunding the police,” he says. “It’s creating an oversight commission that keeps people accountable. I was in the military, and every additional layer of accountably lends well to the mission. No one is saying stop law enforcement; that’s silly. But I think with everything that’s come to light the past 12 months, there needs to be some level of oversight. The police will still arrest bad people, but sometimes, they make mistakes and decisions that aren’t constitutional. A non-law-enforcement organization to address those concerns is conducive to a safer community and restores faith in law enforcement.”

If you have questions or concerns as a result of an arrest, a Pennsylvania criminal defense lawyer can help

For more about this area of law, read our criminal law overview.

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