How Decades-Old Drug Offenses Kept Two Elected Officials Out of Office
Youthful non-violent drug indiscretions are "Infamous Crimes" in Pennsylvania.
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."