Pennsylvania’s Auditor General Eugene DePasquale is recommending a series of changes to make sure district judges aren’t giving people a criminal record for offenses that should be civil violations. The Auditor General’s recommendations come after it was discovered nearly 3,000 people in Erie County, Pennsylvania plead guilty to criminal charges that should’ve been filed as civil violations. 

“Thousands of defendants wound up with criminal records that they didn’t deserve, or in some cases, they didn’t even know they had,” says DePasquale.

All of the cases happened under District Judge Brenda Williams-Nichols in Erie County. The Auditor General says a motive has yet to be discovered, but says it’s unlikely there was any bad intent by Judge Williams-Nichols. Many defendants plead guilty to criminal complaints that should have been filed as civil complaints. Examples include overdue library fees or school lunch bills. DePasquale’s office believes some defendants were told if they plead guilty to the criminal complaint, it could save them from having to pay the state money, and the matter could go away if they paid the overdue bill. The filing of a criminal charge avoided almost $100 in court filing costs, which would have had to be paid up front if it was a civil complaint. But because of the misfiling of the charge as a criminal complaint, defendants were left with a criminal record they didn’t deserve. 

“Having a criminal record can impact a persons ability to get a job, a promotion, or perform even certain types of volunteer work,” DePasquale says.

Now the Auditor General is making three recommendations to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, or AOPC, to make sure this mistake doesn’t repeat itself. The first recommendation is the AOPC should conduct a review of every district court in every County to see if this happened elsewhere. The second asks the AOPC to strengthen the training required for magisterial judges to clarify procedures around the correct handling of civil cases. The third is to clarify language on charging documents to make sure defendants understand difference between criminal and civil complaints, and the pleading guilty to a criminal complaint will result in having a criminal record.

“I believe the recommendations we are putting forward, if the AOPC goes along with this, and I’m hopeful that they will, that this will make sure that this type of debacle never happens again,” DePasquale says.

The AOPC has the authority to implement these changes themselves. The Office would not have to go through the state legislature to do so.