Pennsylvania District Attorneys Address Governor’s Threats: ‘We Exist to Protect and Serve’

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf speaks after signing legislation into law at Muhlenberg High School in Reading, Pa., Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019. Wolf approved legislation Tuesday to give future victims of child sexual abuse more time to file lawsuits and to end time limits for police to file criminal charges. (AP …
Matt Rourke/AP Photo

Two Pennsylvania district attorneys on Monday affirmed that their offices will not prosecute business owners who choose to reopen in defiance of Gov. Tom Wolf’s (D) orders but acknowledged that “inherent limitations” to their powers “unfortunately exist” — a reference to the governor’s recent threats.

Wolf on Monday did little to address the frustration among Pennsylvanians who are demanding the governor to reopen their counties, instead doubling down — issuing threats to business owners and accusing county leaders who are moving to reopen of committing a “cowardly act.”

Several district attorneys have said that their offices will not prosecute businesses reopening outside of Wolf’s orders, and two reaffirmed that position on Monday following the governor’s remarks.

“Effectively the governor’s orders revoked our personal freedoms and liberties as individuals,” Lebanon County District Attorney Pier Hess Graf originally stated.

She stood on that position on Monday but admitted that “inherent limitations on my actions unfortunately exist,” referencing Wolf’s threats.

“The state may revoke your license, close your business, and/or impose a civil fine,” Graf said. “The state may also review your insurance coverage. Examples include the Liquor Control Board, the Department of Agriculture, and cosmetology licenses.”

“The state acts at the discretion of your governor and my office cannot control his actions,” Graf continued, reminding citizens that, despite Wolf’s threats, local law enforcement “stands behind this community.”

“We exist to protect and serve,” she said. “Our office and Lebanon County’s police departments are a united front. This includes Pennsylvania State Police.”

Graf, again, reminded residents that her office “retains the authority to withdraw and eliminate prosecution” but ultimately said that the decision to reopen businesses rests with individuals, who must weigh the potential consequences from the state.

“Our blanket refusal to criminalize a business’ decision leaves the individual’s choice – to open or not to open – solely up to the individual,” she said.

“The decisions ahead are difficult,” she added. “They require analysis of the necessity of business against potential health risks and harsh civil penalties. The choice you make ultimately requires thoughtful and educated contemplation.”

Berks County District Attorney John T. Adams issued a similar statement, affirming that his office “will not prosecute any criminal citations for alleged violations of the above-referenced orders or regulations” and adding that the office is directing law enforcement “to not issue any such citations.”

However, Adams noted that the office is “remaining silent on any issue concerning potential civil or administrative penalties that may be imposed”:

Civil or administrative matters are beyond the scope and standing of this office and it would be inappropriate for us to offer any legal opinions or guidance on that topic. Law enforcement and the District Attorney’s Office has no jurisdiction in matters of State Licensing and Civil or Administrative penalties

Both Berks and Lebanon counties remain in the most restrictive “red” phase. Wolf has yet to issue a date for the counties to move to begin reopening.

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