The state of Pennsylvania has a loophole in its restitution laws stating that only an individual can be a victim of a crime and receive reimbursement for losses stemming from a crime. A 2016 Supreme Court ruling narrowly defined a victim in this way, leaving entities such as townships and non-profits to suffer the consequences.
Recently, Bethlehem Township was allegedly scammed by two businessmen hired to replace the townships streetlights. They collected $832,000 from the township without producing the agreed upon streetlights. Both men are serving sentences, but they appealed their court-ordered restitution and won when the state circuit court cited the 2016 Supreme Court ruling. There is no legal way for Bethlehem to collect the money that was stolen from the township.
Other Pennsylvania non-profits have learned of the loophole the hard way, including the First Presbyterian Church of Easton, whose former treasurer has admitted to stealing $362,000 over several years. The woman was convicted in 2014 and sentenced to a minimum of nine months in prison. She is now taking advantage of the State Supreme Court ruling and appealing her court ordered restitution. To date, her appeal was denied, but given the precedents that have already been set, she could prevail. The pastor of First Presbyterian said the congregation and its community programs still feel the crippling effects of the theft.
The Pennsylvania legislature is poised to do something about the problem as the Senate Judiciary Committee considers closing the loophole with bill 897 that has been pending since September of last year. Similarly, the proposed fix House Bill 1806 passed last year and was sent on to the Senate in October but has yet to be reviewed. At a news conference where he appeared together with members of First Presbyterian church, Northhampton County District Attorney, John Morganelli, observed that the legislation has bipartisan support and said that the ambiguity of the current law hurts thousands of crime victims in Pennsylvania every day.
The attorney representing the former treasurer of First Presbyterian argued that debts should be managed by a debt collector and not through court orders. However, victims may have difficulty recovering payments though a debt collector and may not have the time, energy, and resources to file lawsuits to chase down the money that is owed to them. Failing to pay court ordered restitution can result in jail time, which can be a significant incentive for criminals to pay their debts.
As it stands now, only individuals can receive restitution, leaving non-profits, government agencies, businesses, and other entities vulnerable and with no legal remedy to retrieve what has been stolen from them.