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Civil Liberties Group Questions Need for Victims' Rights Amendment

Marsy’s Law could allow crime victims to deny access to evidence needed for the people accused of a crime to defend themselves. (ohioduidefense/Pixabay)
Marsy’s Law could allow crime victims to deny access to evidence needed for the people accused of a crime to defend themselves. (ohioduidefense/Pixabay)
February 1, 2019

HARRISBURG, Pa. – A proposed amendment to Pennsylvania's state Constitution claims to protect the rights of crime victims, but civil-liberties groups say existing state laws are much better suited to the task.

The amendment known as Marsy's Law aims to grant crime victims enforceable rights equal to those of the accused. It passed the state Legislature last year and is likely to come up for a second vote by midsummer.

According to Andy Hoover, communications director with the ACLU of Pennsylvania, similar laws in other states have had serious, unintended consequences. And in Pennsylvania, he says the rights of crime victims already are protected.

"The Crime Victims Act that passed in 2007 does have some guarantees for victims, but it's much easier to change and alter a statute that it is a constitutional amendment," says Hoover.

Supporters of the measure say Marsy's Law would bring balance to the criminal justice system by ensuring that crime victims are not revictimized.

But Hoover contends that Marsy's Law would put the rights of victims and the rights of the accused in direct conflict. He points to one provision that gives alleged crime victims the right to deny the accused access to evidence they may need to prove their innocence.

"That undermines a person's right to a fair trial," says Hoover. “If one person can simply deny key information, it's going to be harder for that person to put on their case."

He adds the amendment would also increase criminal justice costs to the state, and to counties – that bear 100 percent of the cost of indigent defense in Pennsylvania.

Hoover believes those who support the measure have a fundamental misunderstanding of why the rights of the accused, who are presumed innocent under law, are protected in the Constitution.

"The state is trying to deprive that person of liberty and maybe even their life," she says. “And that's why their rights – the right to due process, right to counsel, right to a speedy trial – are guaranteed by the Constitution."

Marsy's Law must pass a second vote in the Legislature, and then be approved by voters in a general election, before it could become part of the state Constitution.

Andrea Sears, Public News Service - PA