Pennsylvania

How Decades-Old Drug Offenses Kept Two Elected Officials Out of Office

Youthful non-violent drug indiscretions are "Infamous Crimes" in Pennsylvania.

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The war on drugs never forgets.
123rf.com/Igor Golovnov

The war on drugs never forgets.

That's what two different Pennsylvania men—one a Democrat, the other a Republican—found out the hard way recently when decades-old non-violent drug convictions surfaced to prevent them from serving the public as elected officials on local councils.

In February 2016, Corey Sanders, a 45 year-old African-American Democrat elected to the McKeesport City Council was denied the right to take his seat on the council because of a more than two decades-old conviction for possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance.

Not long afterwards, news of Sanders' story apparently forced Jason Sarasnick, a 46 year-old white Republican and thrice-elected member of the Bridgeville Borough Council, to resign his seat after the local district attorney received a tip about Sarasnick's 1992 felony conviction of possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance. 

What their intertwined stories show is how unforgiving the war on drugs can be, and how its consequences can come back to haunt anyone, no matter their politics or personal histories, long into their lives.  

In a March 2016 phone interview with Reason, Sanders described how his first and only run-in with the law, back in 1992, continues to hang over him.

Though Sanders didn't want to get too specific regarding the crime that led to his arrest, he admits "I was involved with people in the drug trade and I wouldn't cooperate with the police and tell on the people they needed me to tell on. Therefore, I made a hard bed to lie in. But I'm a person who could lie in that bed."

Sanders pleaded no contest because, he says, he was stuck with a public defender who didn't do much to defend him. "They gave me maximum felony charges on everything. Even possession. They smacked my head up. I did five and a half years in prison, I did six months at a halfway house, and then I had to do nine years state parole. I did a total of 15 years." 

Less than two years after his 1997 release, Sanders opened a barbershop which he continues to own and operate to this day. He has been active in the community and frequently speaks with at-risk youth about his experiences in the penal system. He is married with four kids, and he is currently the Vice President of the McKeesport Business Board.

Sanders won his seat in the November 2015 election. But when a "citizen's complaint" reached the desk of the Alleghany County District Attorney, Sanders' past conviction was discovered, and he was barred from taking the office to which he was elected. Only a full pardon from the governor would allow him to be eligible to serve. 

Sanders' predicament ended up inadvertently affecting another Pennsylvania elected official. Once Sanders' story was circulated around the Keystone State, Sarasnick, who had served on the Bridgeville Borough Council since 2008, was forced to resign his seat after the local district attorney received a tip about Sarasnick's decades-old felony conviction of possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance.

Like Sanders, Sarasnick is a father and respected businessman who has long since moved on from this regrettable moment of his youth, and preferred not to offer a full retelling of the details of his arrest to Reason, instead choosing to simply name the charges to which he plead guilty.

The drug war—with the help of a little known provision of the state's constitution—had done in the political careers of both men.

Both Sanders and Sarasnick had been ensnared by a legal requirement most Pennsylvanians have never heard of: Article II, Section 7 of the state's constitution which reads, "No person hereafter convicted of embezzlement of public moneys, bribery, perjury or other infamous crime, shall be eligible to the General Assembly, or capable of holding any office of trust or profit in this Commonwealth."

A Pennsylvania court ruled in 2001 that "all felonies are 'infamous crimes.'"

There's a certain logic to requiring politicians to keep on the right side of the law: Banning someone convicted of embezzlement, bribery, or perjury from holding office makes sense. 

But do all felonies really rise to the level of marking a person for life? 

That's a question worth asking, especially considering some of the crimes that do not constitute an infamous act: theft, fraud—even domestic violence. Each one of these offenses carries the possibility of being prosecuted as a misdemeanor, and thus would not prohibit someone from serving in elected office, even if convicted.

But a conviction for intent to distribute a controlled substance, which is almost always prosecuted as a felony no matter how small the amount, forbids you from serving the public even if you turn your life around, maintain a spotless criminal record, and are elected by the constituents of your community.

Sarasnick told Reason that he was unaware of the statute about "infamous acts" and that there is no mention of felony convictions on the due diligence application form for potential candidates. He says if he had been aware of it, he would have never sought office. Considering how many years have passed and how few people were privy to his criminal history, he suspects that "perhaps someone with an axe to grind, maybe some opposition constituents, dug it up."

Now married with two pre-teen children, Sarasnick has run his family's hardware store for more than 20 years, and says suffering through and learning from his troubled youth made him the person he is today.

Like Sanders, Sarasnick has taken the time to mentor young people and though he describes himself as a "socially conservative Republican" who opposes most drug law reform (he makes an exception for "legitimate" uses of medical marijuana), he says "if someone is able to turn their life around and become a better person, I believe in second chances." He adds, "There's a lot of people out there who look back at their youth and say, 'I did that too. The only difference is you got caught and I didn't.'" 

Sanders expressed similar sentiments, telling Reason, "Too many people think that once you're in the system, you're a recycling bin. You're always going to be in the system. Ignorant people feel as though you went away, there's no way you deserve a second chance. But they only feel like that until it happens to them. Until it comes home."

Even if he is able to secure a pardon from the governor, Sanders is not certain he would attempt to run for office again. But he hopes his predicament will motivate the legislature to add more specificity to the "infamous acts" clause, so that rehabilitated non-violent drug offenders aren't excluded from public office for life. Sanders says, "People are looking at this law now, so it's not going to just end with Corey Sanders, it's going to help people, black and white, coming out of prison."

In some ways, the drug war looks like it's on its last legs, with recreational marijuana use legalized in four states and the District of Columbia, increased efforts toward decriminalization, and widespread support for ending mandatory minimum drug sentencing popping up on both sides of the aisle.

But while the trend toward ending zero tolerance laws for non-violent drug-related crimes has helped ease some of the drug war's current social pressures, it also obscures the harsh reality that for many, laws informed by drug war-era zero tolerance leave a scar of shame that affects people long after they've served time, reformed their lives, and even become pillars of their communities.

No matter how fast obsolete drug laws are liberalized, it will take many more years to expunge from the books all the obscure statutes that single out drug offenses for a lifetime of scorn. Until then, the laws will keep judging people like Sanders and Sarasnick for who they were—not who they are. 

"My past helped make me the man I am today," Sanders told me, "but it doesn't define the man I am today. If a person doesn't change through trials and tribulations, that's a person who got older with no growth."

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55 responses to “How Decades-Old Drug Offenses Kept Two Elected Officials Out of Office

  1. decades-old non-violent drug convictions surfaced to prevent them from serving the public as elected officials on local councils.

    “Intercepted!”

    1. Most laws passed lately seem intended to keep libertarians off the ballot. But if every whine about the coercive exercise of superstitious prohibitionism were made into a vote, the LP would have… what? 20% of the ballots? That would change some laws and expunge the scarlet letter in a hurry.

  2. So, the convictions prevented two upstanding people from falling into the degrading profession of politician and the attendant life of lying, cheating, theft and dishonor.

    I don’t feel sorry for them; I think they just dodged a leap into a sewer.

    1. Fisher finds one positive unintended consequence of the drug war and tries to spin it as a bad thing. Admitting one positive outcome does not negate all arguments against the drug war, Anthony.

  3. Drugs will ruin your life, mostly because of what government will do to you out of the belief that drugs will ruin your life.

    1. Well… revealed faith tells us that enjoyable drugs are the gateway to demonic possession.

  4. No person hereafter convicted of embezzlement of public moneys,

    You embezzled but it wasn’t from the King’s coffers? You’re fine.

  5. “No person hereafter convicted of embezzlement of public moneys, bribery, perjury or other infamous crime, shall be eligible to the General Assembly, or capable of holding any office of trust or profit in this Commonwealth.”

    Emphasis mine. At least they’re honest about it.

    1. No person hereafter convicted of embezzlement of public moneys, bribery, perjury or other infamous crime

      The only one that might apply is the undefined “infamous crime”. For somebody with enough stroke, I’m sure they would have gone the other way.

      1. Someone like, oh, Barry the Commander in Chief? He actually likes to make jokes about his drug use, but then he never “got caught,” did he?

  6. “Jason Sarasnick, a 46 year-old white Republican and thrice-elected member of the Bridgeville Borough Council”

    Does that mean that every law the city council passed in now invalid? Because that’s what I think it means.

    1. I’m pretty sure that the government will immunize itself from the consequences of its own actions unless they see a benefit to their power.

      So, any tax cuts in that time period might be right out. It’s an interesting question.

  7. Idiots. If you’re not capable of making your past disappear then you’re not going to make it in politics.

    1. +1 Clinton playbook.

      1. Would Mr Clinton pass the necessary background check to live in the White House or fly on Air Force One?

    2. What kind of weak-ass oppo research did their opponents do, anyway? Convictions usually show up on the most feeble background check.

  8. I think this is a travesty. Serving in public office is infamous, but is it really fair to tell some kid that just because he served one term on some town council that he can never again get high? What would Rob Ford do if this nonsense spread!

    1. Roll over in his grave?

    1. Or how about all the states where it’s a felony for a teacher to have sex with an *18 year old student.*

      I guess that’s somehow an ‘infamous crime’ too.

      1. Once it hit the papers it certainly would be.

  9. [insert standard libertarian condemnation of drug war here] HOWEVER, I’d love to see a database that analyzed the previous occupations of politicians, and compared those with your average Joe Sixpack. I think it’d be interesting.

    1. Within two terms of Christian National Socialists coming to power in Germany, the genetically selfish were tattooed on the forearm. This kept them from owning guns, from voting… but prompted many to from join the Manhattan Project in NM to work on a final solution to the Final Solution. Once peaceful democracy is ruled out, the only remaining answer to naked coercion feels a lot like force.

  10. If us commenters have learned anything this week, it’s that being a father is not something to be celebrated; it is a selfish act that directly ties you to the state. Therefore, using fatherhood to symbolize positive change is pretty damn pathetic.

    1. That’s funny. I’ve been told I’m selfish for not having kids. Sometimes you just can’t win.

      1. As someone who has kids, why on earth would people think you’re selfish for not having kids? What’s their argument? That you get to go out on weeknights and they can’t?

        1. Gotta keep your genetic material alive. And probably values.

        2. You get married, have kids, you buy a house. Then you get divorced and do it all over again. Everyone else is weird, and therefore needs to explain themselves.

        3. I think it’s the fact that I live like I’m on semi-vacation year round instead of being fruitful and multiplying. I don’t see why anyone would care.

        4. The first time I heard this was a loooong time ago, in CCD class. I assumed then, and now, that the speaker means that life is such a big, wonderful bowl of cherries that you’re selfish for not procreating so that children can share in your good fortune.

          1. …as a slave to the Social Security tax passed at the urging of Father Coughlin after Herbert Hoover’s enforcement of prohibition destroyed the economy. That’s assuming the kid does not fall afoul of some victimless felony law. Great future, what?

        5. If it is selfish, I/everyone else should be disinterested in the decision. No value judgement necessary.

          Will say, though, everyone I’ve known who never had kids never “matured” beyond the age of 30. Having kids changes you, if you don’t have them, you don’t change. I find it strange to listen to a 52 year old go on breathlessly about the great ski-trip he just went on. I’ve not been envious per se, just that I feel like saying “I’ve got more important stuff to do that takes up my time”. People with kids relate to each other, and have things they can commiserate about. A 55 year old “30 year old” can be tedious to be around.

          1. I am a 34-year-old “16-year-old,” and somehow make it through life not talking about diapers, or Little League, or minivans, or complaining about my wife. I guess I’m doing it all wrong.

            1. If you’re not complaining about your wife, you ARE doing it wrong.

            2. My wife is my best friend. I’d be pretty bored without her.

              1. You should have kids… then you’ll be on your knees begging for boredom. And then you won’t be selfish anymore…

      2. Well, duh, Hipster. You’re a dude. Of course everything you do is bad.

        1. I strongly disagree. The fact that I’m terrible is only coincidental to me being male.

  11. when decades-old non-violent drug convictions surfaced to prevent them from serving the public as elected officials on local councils.

    This is a bad thing, right?

    *looks around for confirmation*

    1. Public school=gubmint school, public park=government park, public interest=government dictates, ergo “serving the public”=serving the entrenched looter state, which is a bad thing.
      But the real reason for keeping them out of office is to keep people from serving individual rights OR taking political jobs fanatical prohibitionists could be gorging on while destroying the economy for producers.

  12. Before I saw the bank draft which had said $9426 , I didnt believe that…my… brother woz like actualy earning money part-time at there labtop. . there uncles cousin has done this 4 less than fifteen months and by now repaid the dept on there place and got a great new Mini Cooper . read the full info here …

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  13. I’m having trouble engaging my sympathy circuits. I can’t help but think either of these people would have voted to strengthen the WoD every chance they got.

  14. Start working at home with Google! It’s by-far the best job I’ve had. Last Wednesday I got a brand new BMW since getting a check for $6474 this – 4 weeks past. I began this 8-months ago and immediately was bringing home at least $77 per hour. I work through this link, go to tech tab for work detail.
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  15. Beer, wine and liquor became felonies via the Wesley Livsey Jones Five and Ten law just days before Herbert Hoover was sworn in as president. Helping Obama’s great-grandfather flee Alabama was a felony. Noxon’s nationalsocialist advisor commented on prohibitionism “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.”

  16. As I understand, Felony denotes a serious crime, being guilty thereof might well preclude one ‘from holding public office. Seems as if that is the case in PA.

  17. So, two people with felonies have had their political influence stricken, while thousands around the country have had their political influence negated by laws forbidding felons the right to vote. There’s a bigger problem here.

  18. Once someone does the time, they shouldn’t have their crimes hanging over them every time they try to seek employment or seek office. Someone with a background such as these men, have a better understanding of the realities that so many Americans are faced with. I can only hope that once my husband, Lenny Singleton, is released he will not have such a hard time finding employment.

    Lenny committed 8 “grab & dash” robberies in a 7 days while high on alcohol & crack. He did not have a gun. He did not murder anyone. In fact, no one was even physically injured & no one filed as a “victim”. He stole less than $550 & these were his first felonies. He earned a college degree & served in our Navy before his addiction. What he needed was some help.

    What he got was 2 Life Sentences + 100 yrs. The judge, w/o any explanation to the courtroom, sentenced Lenny to more time than rapists, child molesters & murderers.

    Lenny works every business day, lives in the Honor’s Dorm, takes every available class for self-improvement, and in his spare time, he has co-authored a book called, “Love Conquers All”. During the entire 20+ years he has been in prison so far, he has not received a single infraction for anything – rare for lifers.

    Taxpayers will pay well over a million dollars to keep Lenny for the rest of his life for stealing less than $550 in crimes where no one was even physically injured.

    Please learn more and sign Lenny’s petition at http://www.justice4lenny.org.

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