Krasner and Street rebuke new SEPTA special prosecutor law

Act 40 would require a special prosecutor be appointed to oversee SEPTA crimes

Philly DA Larry Krasner speaks to the press

Philly DA Larry Krasner speaks to the press Jared Piper/PHL City Council

All eyes are on SEPTA this week – not only due to the transit police voting to strike but also because of a newly signed law that would require special prosecutors to oversee crime taking place near SEPTA’s operations. 

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, alongside state Sen. and Pennsylvania Democratic Party chair Sharif Street, criticized legislation seeking to supplant his authority to oversee criminal activity occurring near the city’s public transportation authority. 

“This has to be rejected. It never should have passed. It never should have been signed into law by our Democratic governor. That never should have happened,” Krasner, a Democrat, said during a press conference Thursday. 

The legislation, Senate Bill 140, was introduced by Republican state Sen. Wayne Langerholc earlier this year as part of the party’s efforts to oust Krasner, a district attorney they say is failing the city with his prosecutorial approach and priorities. The legislative action also comes following an effort by Republican legislators to impeach Krasner last year, when a Commonwealth Court judge ruled that the seven Articles of Impeachment brought against Krasner didn’t meet the constitutional standard for misbehavior in public office. 

Senate Bill 140, which was approved by the state Senate in May, passed through the Democratic-led state House Wednesday by a margin of 159-44, with 58 Democrats approving the measure. It was then signed into law by Gov. Josh Shapiro on Thursday as part of the package of budget bills finally approved by the legislature. 

What is Act 40?

Now known as Act 40, the legislation requires a special prosecutor to be appointed by the attorney general to investigate and institute criminal proceedings for criminal activity taking place within the city’s public transportation authority. 

While no perimeter is established in the bill, a spokesperson for the district attorney’s office said the legal team for Senate Democrats interpreted the law as establishing preemptive authority that extends to 500 yards within any SEPTA property, which would cover the vast majority of the city. Langerholc said the interpretation isn’t accurate, but Street said the 500-yard radius was taken from an analysis of an unrelated statute, Title 22, that establishes the jurisdiction for the SEPTA Transit Police.

“This is not going to inhibit Philadelphia prosecution in any way. (Krasner’s) still going to be district attorney. He still can have his staff prosecute crimes where they occur. This is for SEPTA,” Langerholc said, underscoring that the special prosecutor has a choice on which cases to lead.

What has been the response?

Unsurprisingly, the debate surrounding Act 40 and law enforcement in Philadelphia was divided. Although a group of Democrats joined Republicans in approving the bill in the House, many from the party expressed opposition to what they called a voting rights issue. 

“I’m sure it’s going to be litigated. At least it should be,” Street said Thursday. “We’re the only majority-minority county in the state. So what the General Assembly has suggested now … is that we can’t be trusted to select who makes prosecutorial decisions … It is blatantly unconstitutional and it is wrong to take away prosecutorial discretion from the voters of Philadelphia.”

Shapiro signed the bill into law Thursday without directly addressing the issue. Previously, during his time as attorney general, Shapiro and Krasner wound up on opposing sides of a bill designed to give the attorney general’s office concurrent jurisdiction to prosecute gun crimes in Philadelphia. Shapiro later distanced himself from the legislation and said he would continue collaborating with the Philadelphia prosecutor. 

Republican leadership in Harrisburg, on the other hand, has said the bill is a measure to “crack down on the unchecked crime” taking place in the city and its mass transit system. 

“This dereliction of duty has cast a negative light on the City of Philadelphia and the commonwealth, which has significantly impacted safety and ridership,” Langerholc said following the bill passing out of committee in May. “The working families, students and visitors of Philadelphia are in dire need of prosecutorial solutions, and my legislation will help restore law and order on SEPTA’s buses, trolleys, trains and stations.”

What’s next?

As Street mentioned, the legislation is likely to wind up in the courts. Attorney General Michelle Henry has 30 days from the bill taking effect to appoint a special prosecutor, but Henry’s office has yet to indicate what action it will take.

Henry’s office said in an email that it is reviewing the legislation to fully understand the parameters of the jurisdictional complexities and the office’s responsibilities. 

“The premise of Act 40 is a lie – just like the lasagna of lies MAGA Republicans have been spewing since before the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol,” Krasner said in a statement. “I urge Attorney General Henry to recognize the blatant unconstitutionality of Act 40, and call on pro-democracy and justice-seeking elected officials and law enforcement leaders in Pennsylvania to join me in focusing on the crucial task of protecting the public’s safety – and securing our nation’s democracy – in 2024.”