Pennsylvania District Attorneys: ‘We Will Not Prosecute’ Businesses Defying Governor’s Orders

Gov. Tom Wolf speaks at a news conference in his Capitol offices as he unveils a $1.1 billion package intended to help eliminate lead and asbestos contamination in Pennsylvania's schools, homes, day care facilities and public water systems, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020 in Harrisburg, Pa. Looking on are Democratic state …
Marc Levy/AP Photo

An increasing number of Pennsylvania district attorneys are stating that their offices will not prosecute businesses for violating Gov. Tom Wolf’s (D) orders restricting them from reopening.

“People are being smart, wearing masks, and maintaining social distance. Using criminal sanctions would not be helpful,” Dauphin County District Attorney Fran Chardo said in a Saturday press release, which indicated that prosecution would only occur in an “extraordinary circumstances.”

“The criminal law is a blunt instrument and is not ordinarily used for enforcement of a Governor’s decree,” Chardo added.

Dauphin County is one of several Pennsylvania counties that Wolf has failed to allow to move on to the next phase of reopening. It remains in the most restrictive red phase — a lockdown phase that prevents most business owners from resuming operations.

Wolf recently extended the lockdown order for counties remaining in the red phase to June 4. Only “life sustaining” businesses are permitted to operate, with a small exception for those who applied for waivers — a controversial process that has been under intense scrutiny, spurring a class action lawsuit on behalf of businesses that were rejected for reasons that remain largely unknown.

Dauphin County Board of Commissioners Chairman Jeff Haste outlined the county’s plan to defy Wolf’s order on Friday, demanding the governor to “return our state to the people (as prescribed by our Constitution) and not run it as a dictatorship.”

The decision to remain locked down “has ruined the livelihood of millions of hard-working Pennsylvanians in exchange for 0.4 percent of our population,” Haste explained, expressing sympathy for those who lost loved ones to the Chinese coronavirus while also noting “great concern for the families that now have to struggle with financial concerns, mental health stress, addiction and more because of the shutdown.”

“For centuries, our people and businesses have shown they can adapt to changes to survive and prosper,” Haste said. “They cannot, however, do a thing when a dictator and an unelected secretary place them in lockdown.”

We “stand behind our District Attorney in his decision not to prosecute any case against a business that chooses to open following the mandated guidelines as laid out in the yellow phase of reopening PA,” he added.

Chardo is not the only district attorney to express that stance.

Lebanon County commissioners said the county “plans to move forward and will require businesses who are ready to reopen to follow CDC guidelines” despite the governor’s decision to exclude the county from moving forward. District Attorney Pier Hess Graf indicated that her office will not prosecute business owners who opt to reopen in defiance of the governor’s orders.

“Effectively the governor’s orders revoked our personal freedoms and liberties as individuals,” Graf stated in a release.

“The essential question is how do we as a society weigh the need for the economic success of those around us against the community’s ability to remain safe,” she added.

York County district attorney Dave Sunday said last week that his office will also not prosecute nonessential businesses reopening in defiance of the governor’s edicts and directed law enforcement to “not issue any such citations.”

“In analyzing the ever-changing scope and application of these orders, we find that their enforcement as criminal penalties is not possible on the consistent basis required of prosecutors and law enforcement,” Sunday said in a Friday letter.

He continued:

Accordingly, this office will not prosecute any criminal citations for alleged violations of the aforementioned orders and regulations, as amended, issued by the Governor and Secretary of the Department of Health concerning the operation of non-life sustaining businesses.

Lancaster County followed suit. The district attorney’s office said it will “not prosecute any alleged violations of the state-mandated orders issued in response to COVID-19, nor will it prosecute pursuant to directives of the Governor’s administration regarding the operation of ‘non-essential businesses’”:

“The COVID-19 pandemic and administrative orders from our state officials have placed law-enforcement all across Pennsylvania in uncharted waters,” District Attorney Heather Adams said Sunday.

“Our interpretation of existing law in balance with the constantly shifting definitions of what is and is not allowed, per these orders, brought us to this informed decision: we will not prosecute,” she added.

Wolf, while blasting local leaders who are standing in defiance of his order, admitted that he has not asked Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D) to act, particularly in red phase areas where district attorneys have vowed to refrain from prosecuting business owners.

“No I have not. Nor do I intend to,” Wolf said during Monday’s press briefing.

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