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Pa. troopers more likely to search Black, Hispanic drivers

Plus, would higher bond prices prevent more abandoned wells in Pa.?


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This is The Investigator, a free weekly newsletter with the top news from across Pennsylvania.
A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom producing investigative journalism for Pennsylvania.

May 25, 2023 |
Trooper data, higher bonds, unclaimed money, caucus rejection, treatment event, data release, inside jobs, rebate rescue, runoff bill, and gun debates.
A new report that examined interactions between Pennsylvania State Troopers and motorists found Black and Hispanic drivers were slightly more likely to face discretionary searches during traffic stops last year.

The analysis found no disparity among racial and ethnic groups for warnings, citations, and arrests statewide, but found State Police were slightly more likely to search Black and Hispanic drivers than white drivers during searches where the trooper initiated the investigation based on probable cause, reasonable suspicion, or permission from the driver.

The analysis is the first in over a decade after State Police ceased collecting traffic stop data in 2012 — a practice they resumed after this 2019 Spotlight PA investigation.

Also this week: After the Pennsylvania legislature stripped an independent board of its ability to use a tool — financial bonds — to keep oil and gas drillers from abandoning greenhouse gas-spewing wells without plugging them first, Democrats in charge of the state House are working to reverse that decision.

Finally, Pennsylvania is sitting on billions in unclaimed money that state Treasurer Stacy Garrity wants to send directly to the people it belongs to, a move that would drop the current system that leaves the legwork to owners.

"They invited me, and then rejected me."

—State Sen. Doug Mastriano on his rejection from the new Legislative Jewish Caucus; its founders told the lawmaker the caucus "will not launder the dangerous antisemitism out of your past."

Support Spotlight PA's investigative journalism for Pennsylvania and for a limited time, your gift will be DOUBLED.
We've got just **10 more days** to hit our challenge goal of raising $40,000 in support of Spotlight PA's trusted, nonpartisan, no-nonsense investigative and public-service journalism for Pennsylvania. If we do it, every single gift will be DOUBLED. Don't miss this chance for your support to go twice as far.

Thank you to the 287 people who have given so far, including Janice M., who said, "Spotlight offers me a reliable new source with professional journalists who provide, balanced and in- depth reporting." Join Janice & make a tax-deductible gift now » 

You can also give via Paypal or Venmo, or send a check to Spotlight PA, 228 Walnut St., #11728, Harrisburg, PA 17108-1728.
POLICING VS. TREATMENT: Join us TODAY at 6 p.m. ET for a free panel on how Pa. wants to spend a $1B opioid settlement, the policing versus treatment debate, and how Pennsylvania's spending plans compare to other states'. Register here and submit questions to

ELDER LAW: Join us Thursday, June 1 at 6 p.m. ET via Zoom for a free Q&A on Pennsylvania's elder protection laws and how they could be improved. Register here and submit questions to
» How Local Government Works: Are government officials’ personal social media posts public records?
» Penn State’s budget proposal shifted after private meeting of trustees, university leadership
» How Harrisburg Works: New caucuses, special election season, and the death of a bill

Spotlight PA and PINJ release competency case docket data to the public 

In March, Spotlight PA and the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism published an investigation into Pennsylvania’s broken competency system — a series of legal processes meant to protect people whose mental illness may prevent them from participating in their own defense.

The investigation found this system often harms the very people it’s meant to protect.

Integral to the reporting was a unique dataset the newsrooms requested and purchased from the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, the government body that oversees local courts and maintains thousands of case records from across the state.

Spotlight PA and PINJ are now making the data acquired through those requests available to the public so that researchers, other journalists, and anyone interested in examining these sources can put them to use. 

Spotlight PA, PINJ, and AOPC officials discussed the request for months to identify case dockets that included evidence that a defendant had been evaluated for competency between 2018 and 2022. Ultimately, using 23 different docket entries and two different dispositions, AOPC found 697 cases across 23 counties and provided the case information in a database.

The newsrooms aimed to obtain the largest possible dataset of cases involving competency proceedings in Pennsylvania and determine what types of crimes the people involved in those proceedings had been charged with.

AOPC provided the newsrooms with four separate but related datasets: 

  • Case and disposition data showing the charges brought in a case.

  • Sentencing data showing the sentence the person received.

  • Attorney data showing the attorneys and judges involved in the case.

  • Docket entry data showing the competency-related docket entry in a case.

Spotlight PA and PINJ used only the first dataset in the analysis, given the limitations of both time and the data.

The data were messy upon delivery because of spelling and punctuation mistakes in the way court clerks docketed competency proceedings, charges, and defendant names. Spotlight PA cleaned the case and disposition data using the software OpenRefine to look for these variations and fix them. All changes were checked against the online dockets and other public records to ensure accuracy.

After fixing spelling and punctuation issues, the newsrooms used pivot tables to count the most common charges brought against people who went through competency proceedings. The newsrooms also used pivot tables to analyze the grade of the charges. Grades indicate whether the charges were more likely to be low-level crimes like summary offenses or misdemeanors than homicides or felonies.

The resulting analysis of cases from 2018 through August 2022 found people going through competency proceedings were most often charged with low-level crimes that could stem from them experiencing mental health issues in public.

Limitations of the data

The analysis and the dataset likely leave out hundreds of cases across the state, as only 23 counties are represented from 2018 through August 2022. 

This is because some counties, such as Allegheny, do not publicly docket competency proceedings. Others document competency proceedings using a free-text field in the statewide case management system, a field AOPC does not include in data requests because it can contain private information.

Spotlight PA and PINJ used only the “case and disposition” dataset in the analysis. As such, the other datasets have not been examined for inconsistencies or issues. The other datasets should be checked against existing dockets and other records for accuracy before attempting any analysis.

Spotlight PA and PINJ have removed defendant names from the datasets to protect the privacy of the individuals whose cases are included. Names are available by searching the case number in Pennsylvania’s online case management system. 

The full dataset with names included is available upon request. Please email Matt Dempsey at to inquire. —Danielle Ohl, Spotlight PA

This week's top news story in PennsylvaniaINSIDE JOBS: A Beaver County school official and an Allegheny County school board member have been fined $750 for conspiring to trade jobs for their children, the BCT reports. The state ethics commission says Blackhawk School District Superintendent Robert Postupac's son and Moon Area board member Mark Scappe's daughter were given full-time jobs as a result — one of which didn't previously exist.

This week's second top news story in PennsylvaniaREBATE RESCUE: A bill that would expand Pennsylvania's rent and property tax rebate to potentially include an additional 173,000 people moved one step closer to reality this week with unanimous 20-0 approval in the state House Finance Committee. Next stop: Consideration by the full chamber. Spotlight PA has the background on the program's decade of decline and the push to reverse it.

This week's third top news story in PennsylvaniaRUNOFF BILL: Count state Rep. Tom Jones (R., Lancaster) among the opponents of state Sen. Ryan Aument (R., Lancaster)'s push to require runoffs in primaries where the winner gets less than 50% of the total vote. Jones, of the hardline Pennsylvania Freedom Caucus, won his open 2022 primary with 50.2% of the vote, writing on Facebook: "Primary Election Runoffs = BIG MONEY CONTROL!!!"

GUN DEBATES: The Dem-controlled state House on Monday passed a long-sought "red-flag" bill, mostly along party lines, and it's headed to the GOP-controlled state Senate. A universal background check bill also cleared the lower chamber, while a mandatory lost-and-stolen reporting bill did not. @StephenJ_Caruso has a play-by-play from the state House's first serious legislative debate over firearms in years

PRISON DEATHS: About one-fourth of all suicides at Pennsylvania's 23 state prisons since 2018 have happened at two facilities — SCI Rockview and SCI Benner Township — in Centre County, the CDT (paywall) reports. The prisons are some of the system's oldest and newest, respectively. Four inmates have died by suicide this year at Rockview alone, the highest single-year tally there since 2011.

» APCourt weighs plan to force power plants to pay for emissions

» INQUIRERMontgomery first county to inspect local gun stores 

» ICNShell agrees to pay $10 million after permit violations

» PENNLIVEShapiro’s election official pick subjected to odd vetting

» TRIBLIVEUnions say UPMC's market dominance suppresses wages

Send your answers to

PRESIDENT PUZZLE (Case No. 201): From Will Shortz's book Puzzlemaster Deck: 75 Mind Bogglers: Take the last name of a U.S. president in six letters. Reverse it, and an E at the end, and you'll get a seven-letter word meaning "to go back over." Who is the president and what is the word?
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.
Last week's answer: Your name. (Find last week's clue here.) 
Congrats to Pam A., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Jon N., Candace M., Norman S., Kevin M., Elizabeth W., Tish M., Annette I., Judy A., Michael H., Joe S., Ted B., Chris W., Donna D., Joseph P., Beth T., Kirby D., Jack S., Michelle T., Fred O., Andrea H., Trish B., and Mary B.
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