Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePaquale on Monday announced a number of recommendations to prevent the state's district justices from giving people a criminal record for offenses that should be civil violations, like what happened in Erie County.

To prevent the situation from happening in other counties, DePasquale shared the following recommendations:

  • The Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC) should immediately conduct a review of district courts in every county to determine if this problem has occurred elsewhere;
  • AOPC should strengthen the training required for magisterial district judges to clarify procedures around the correct handling of civil cases; and
  • AOPC should strengthen and clarify the language appearing on charging documents to ensure defendants understand the difference between a criminal and civil complaint, and that pleading guilty to a criminal complaint will result in having a criminal record.

An audit of the Erie County District Court 06-2-04 found former district justice Brenda Williams-Nichols improperly filed criminal charges for theft of services in cases that should have been classified as civil complaints. The filing of a criminal charge avoided nearly $100 in court filing costs, which would have to be paid in a civil action.

The problem first came to light after a job applicant found out a pre-employment background check revealed a criminal record that he did not know existed. After the issue was discovered, the newly elected district justice notified the Erie County court administration and the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, as well as the Pennsylvania Department of the Auditor General.

Erie County’s president judge announced on Aug. 5 he had sealed nearly 3,000 civil cases that were misfiled as criminal cases.

Despite the fact the cases were sealed, DePasquale said the court system should fully expunge the erroneous records at no cost to the individuals involved. It ordinarily costs several hundred dollars.

Erie District Court 06-2-04 covers Corry, Elgin and Union City boroughs and Amity, Concord, Union and Wayne townships.

Read the audit