January 29, 2011|By Nancy Phillips and Craig R. McCoy, Inquirer Staff Writers
In a move that will spare thousands of crime victims from having to testify at initial court hearings, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ordered judges to accept the testimony of police officers, rather than victims, against defendants accused of property crimes.
“This is monumental,” said Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery, who joined with Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille in pushing for the policy. “This will make things more just for the victims and the accused.”
Each year in Philadelphia, as many as 5,000 victims of car thefts, burglaries, frauds, and other felony property crimes will be spared initial court appearances. Instead, police will testify that the items in question were reported stolen.
The change is designed to end the practice by which victims must go to court merely to testify that they owned property and gave no one permission to take it. Given the delays that plague the Philadelphia courts, this has forced victims to show up repeatedly – and led many to simply give up.
The change would affect preliminary hearings in Municipal Court, at which judges decide whether there is enough evidence to merit a full trial in Common Pleas Court. The victims would still have to appear at those trials.
The change, enacted by a unanimous vote of the seven-member high court Thursday and announced Friday, will begin in 30 days.