District Attorney Ordered to Disclose Drug Forfeiture Account Records
The Cambria County Court of Common Pleas has affirmed in part and reversed in part a final determination by the County’s Assistant District Attorney, which partially denied a Right-to-Know Law (RTKL) request for records showing the utilization of drug forfeiture funds. The President Judge, Norman A. Krumenacker, III, held that the District Attorney is obligated to disclose certain financial records related to the drug forfeiture account, subject to redaction of investigative information. Debartola v. Cambria County District Attorney’s Office, No. 2018-0095 (C.C.P. Cambria, Opinion and Order, Nov. 19, 2018).
In response to an open records request, the District Attorney disclosed some financial records showing the disbursement of funds to the supervising detective of the county’s drug task force. The District Attorney did not disclose records breaking down how those funds were utilized by the receiving officers, arguing this information was contained in work papers and investigative notes on confidential informant/case expense sheets. The District Attorney asserted such records are exempt under the Criminal History Records Information Act (CHRIA), the Controlled Substances Forfeiture Act (CFSA), and Sections 708(b)(16)-(17) of the RTKL.
The court explained that there is a distinction between records that are investigatory in nature, i.e. records that are created for the purpose of or during an investigation, and non-investigatory records, i.e. records that are created for some purpose other than an investigation, but that contain some investigatory information. Per the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s recent decision in Pennsylvania State Police v. Grove, 161 A.2d 817 (Pa. 2017) (Grove II), the court held that investigatory records, such as the confidential informant/case expense sheets, must be withheld in their entirety. On the other hand, the court held that non-investigative financial records related to drug forfeiture accounts must be disclosed subject to redaction of investigative information contained therein.
The court noted that the General Assembly amended the Controlled Substances Forfeiture Act (CFSA) in 2017 to increase reporting requirements and oversight of forfeiture process. The decision examines this amendment and provides persuasive guidance to district attorneys, law enforcement agencies, and the general public regarding which drug forfeiture records are subject to public disclosure. The CSFA requires counties, through the controller and the district attorney, to conduct and provide the Attorney General with an annual audit of forfeited property. The CFSA exempts the audits from public disclosure, but the exemption does not extend to financial records related to the drug forfeiture accounts including account statements, deposits, checks, disbursements, reports submitted to the controller for preparation of the audit, and standardized reports submitted to the Attorney General for use in an annual report to the General Assembly summarizing forfeitures throughout the Commonwealth.