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Why public defenders want a cut of opioid windfall

Plus, Pa. moves toward requiring many police departments to collect racial data.

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.

April 11, 2024 | spotlightpa.org

Public defenders are face to face with the impacts of Pennsylvania's opioid epidemic, but they're being turned away from shares of historic legal settlements with the companies that fueled it.

While a secretive state trust overseeing county-level disbursements warns against spending shares on public defenders, it has greenlit funding for prosecutors' offices and jailhouse contraband scanners, Spotlight PA reports.

Also this week, Spotlight PA published an interactive tool readers can use to see which candidates for attorney general most closely align with what matters to them. We also explained why independents can't vote in primaries, and have the latest on a federal case involving undated mail ballots

Finally, more Pennsylvania municipalities are turning to stormwater fees as they face the burden of maintaining aging infrastructure. The model faces pushback from farmers who employ separate mitigation practices and large property owners confronted by pricey bills

ROW RACES: Join us TODAY from 6-7 p.m. ET on Zoom for a live guide to Pa.’s candidates for attorney general, auditor general, and treasurer and how their terms would impact you. Register for the event here and submit your questions to events@spotlightpa.org.

BROKEN PRIMARIES: Join us Friday, April 19 from 6-7 p.m. ET on Zoom for a Spotlight PA members-only event with Nick Troiano, author of The Primary Solution, a new book on how our partisan primaries are fueling the political divide in America and what we can do about it.

Become a Spotlight PA member here and you'll be automatically registered for the event.

» Group of Penn State trustees push to name football field after Joe Paterno in private meetings

» Pa.’s top election official answers your questions about misinformation, voting machines, and more

Tougher distracted driving rules paired with racial data collection

The Pennsylvania House recently passed a bill that would empower police to pull over and fine people for handling their cellphones while behind the wheel, a long-sought expansion of the state’s distracted driving laws.

To get it through the chamber, members of the Democratic majority amended the measure to require state and some local law enforcement to collect data on the race of the drivers they pull over — information that makes it possible to audit departments for racial bias.

During a previous attempt to pass the distracted driving bill, the Legislative Black Caucus balked over concerns that it would be unfairly applied to people of color. 

The addition of the data collection component is a compromise — one that works for most caucus members, including state Rep. Manny Guzman (D., Berks). He told Spotlight PA ahead of the final vote that it was "a hard pill to swallow," adding he would support the bill if it meant ensuring data collection. (He later voted yes). 

The measure now returns to the state Senate, where lawmakers previously approved the distracted driving language. A spokesperson for the GOP majority said only that the new language “will be reviewed.”

State Sen. Rosemary Brown (R., Lackawanna), the bill’s sponsor, said she has “education to do in my chamber to make sure they understand how we got to this point.”

Still, Brown, who has been working on the bill for more than a decade as a member of both the state House and Senate, said she thinks she’ll ultimately get her chamber’s support. “It is well overdue,” she said. 

State Police already collect racial data, though the agency quietly paused collection a few years ago before resuming the practice. Some local departments also collect it, but the policy isn’t universal. 

A spokesperson for state House Majority Leader Matt Bradford (D., Montgomery) said the new version of the bill was developed in concert with Brown and the Legislative Black Caucus to “ensure that drivers are treated equally and to mitigate profiling of individuals.”

Brown’s legislation was considered during the previous legislative session, when the chamber was under Republican control. At the time, Black Caucus leaders said the addition of mandatory racial data collection would help their members support the measure. Ultimately, GOP leadership never brought the bill up for a vote

One group that doesn’t support the bill’s new language? The Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association. 

In a statement, Executive Director Scott Bohn said the group supports stricter phone use regulations, but not data collection, and added that its preference would be for racial and other data to simply be put on drivers’ licenses. 

After years of working through iteration after iteration of the measure, Brown said she sees this approach as the best way of accomplishing the bill’s goals to further “public safety” and “prevent crashes … in a very reasonable, responsible, and fair manner.”

If the state Senate passes the measure and Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro signs it, police will not be able to fine drivers for violating the law for 12 months. Brown said the gap between passage and enactment is intended to give people time to familiarize themselves with the rule. Katie Meyer, Spotlight PA 

Spotlight PA’s Stephen Caruso contributed reporting.

🤔 NEXT QUESTION: Are you on top of the news? Prove it with the latest edition of the Great PA News Quiz: Next eclipse, 2024 protest votes, and a 'Big Oil' lawsuit
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» BILLY PENN: Pa.'s primary lands on Passover this year

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» INQUIRER: How Yass’ firm makes money from Trump’s Truth Social

» PUBLICSOURCE: Racist deeds still echo in Pittsburgh area 

» NCPA: Pennsylvania considers removing Sunday hunting ban 

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START TO FINISH (Case No. 251): Before any changes I’m a garlic or spice. My first is altered and I’m a hand-warming device. My second is changed and I’m trees in full bloom. The next letter change makes a deathly old tomb. Change the fourth to make a fruit of the vine. Change the last for a chart plotted with lines. What was I to start? What did I end up?

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Last week's answer: Vice, vise. Find last week's clue here

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