Twenty-seven years ago, Jason Sarasnick was arrested and charged with a nonviolent drug offense. He pleaded guilty and moved on with his life. Today, he’s president of his family’s hardware store and has been elected three times to Bridgeville Borough Council.
But now, Sarasnick, 46, is being forced to resign from council because of that decades-old guilty plea.
Pennsylvania’s constitution prohibits people guilty of “infamous crimes” from serving in public office. All felonies are infamous crimes, according to Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court. Even if that felony is so old that Chuck Noll was still coaching the Steelers when it happened. Even if it took place when the Golden Girls was still on TV and Back to the Future Part II was still in theaters.
On Friday, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. told the media that he received a tip that a Bridgeville councilman may be ineligible for office. Zappala, who is running for state attorney general, said that he spoke with the councilman and gave him “a week to 10 days” to resign.
Now Sarasnick is barred for life from serving on Bridgeville council or holding any other elected office. And he has almost no recourse.
A court battle would be long and extremely costly.
Gov. Tom Wolf could issue a pardon, which would allow Saranick to serve in the office to which he was elected. But there’s a years-long wait at the state’s Board of Pardons, and Wolf’s office claims that the governor is helpless to expedite the process.
It’s understandable why the Commonwealth would want to avoid a government run by perpetrators of “infamous crimes.” But it’s not like this provision has prevented our state government from being loaded with criminals anyway. Rather, the law locks out people who made mistakes early in life, like Sarasnick or Corry Sanders—the McKeesport councilman-elect who was prevented from being sworn-in earlier this month because of another decades-old guilty plea.
Consider this: The U.S. Constitution creates three requirements to hold elected office: age, citizenship, and residency. This means that a convicted felon still in prison could run for U.S. Congress and legally hold office while still locked up. But under Pennsylvania law, a guy who admitted to making a poor decision in the 1980s, when he was 20 years old, can’t be a Bridgeville borough councilman today.