A York County judge departed from decades of case law to rule Wednesday that a York City councilman is eligible for public office despite his conviction of a felony 20 years ago.
Michael Helfrich's crimes may have been felonies, but they were not "infamous," York County Common Pleas President Judge Stephen P. Linebaugh ruled. The decision means the 42-year-old Helfrich, who was elected in November, is likely the first convicted felon to survive the scrutiny of the Pennsylvania court system without being removed from office.
York City Mayor Kim Bracey, who challenged Helfrich's eligibility in a legal action known as a quo warranto action, said Wednesday that she has "definitely not" made a decision on whether or not to appeal the ruling. Bracey said she had not yet had a chance to read the opinion or discuss it with city solicitors.
"I want to read it and understand it," she said.
When she does make a decision, Bracey said she will base it on "what's in the best interest of the city."
The mayor has 30 days to appeal the decision to a higher court.
Soon after the ruling was filed Wednesday, Helfrich said simply, "I feel good."
The significance of his decision was not lost on Linebaugh, who said Wednesday that this would have been an open-and-shut case if not for a recent Supreme Court ruling that opened the door for judges to consider the circumstances of a crime before determining whether someone is eligible for public office or not.
In the case of ousted Wrightsville Mayor Steve Rambler, the justices acknowledged that the court may some day be called upon to reconsider its long-held view that all felonies are infamous. They encouraged courts in future cases to consider the "underlying conduct" and multiple factors while making such a judgment.
"Had it not been for that, I would have said, 'Well, the law of the commonwealth is it's a felony.' End of case," Linebaugh said. "I thought I was obligated to look at each one of those factors.
Helfrich was elected after a successful write-in campaign that defeated longtime city Councilwoman Toni Smith, who publicly questioned Helfrich's ability to serve on the council because of his felony convictions.
The narrow victory led to a lengthy recount process, and all the while questions lingered over Helfrich's eligibility for office. A few days before Christmas, he was certified the winner of a York City Council seat.
Before the calendar flipped to 2012, Bracey filed a petition in York County court contending that Helfrich's felony convictions make him constitutionally ineligible for public office. At issue was a single, ambiguous phrase in the state Constitution, which bans from elected positions anyone convicted of "embezzlement of public moneys, bribery, perjury or other infamous crime."
Helfrich was 20 years old when he pleaded guilty in 1991 to two state felony charges of possession of and conspiracy to deliver drugs. According to a court transcript, Helfrich offered a ride to the airport to a man whom he knew to be in possession of LSD and psilocybin mushrooms.
In his opinion, Linebaugh rejected the idea that Helfrich had been convicted of "infamous crimes" simply because they were felonies.
"Whether it was correct or not, we may not know until the Supreme Court says it was correct or not," Linebaugh said. "I didn't want to have a rush to judgment on something that I thought was going to be extremely important not just for the citizens of York City and York County but for the entire commonwealth."
Linebaugh emphasized that people should not interpret his opinion to mean that drug crimes are never infamous. For example, he said, a person convicted of dealing drugs to children would almost surely be deemed ineligible for public office.
"Unfortunately, some people may try to paint with a broad brush and misread what the opinion says," Linebaugh said. "This opinion is very fact-specific to York City, Michael Helfrich and the facts of his case."
What's different about this case, York County District Attorney Tom Kearney said, is the method Linebaugh used to make a decision. Using guidance from the Rambler case, he put Helfrich's crimes through a test of infamy, Kearney said.
In Linebaugh's rationale, the circumstances of crimes are important - not just their classification as felonies.
"Even though it's a felony, you've got to look at what type of felony it is. He appears to believe that the Rambler decision permits the courts to conduct that examination," Kearney said.
In the 35-page opinion, Linebaugh also referred multiple times to the fact that Helfrich's crimes were well-publicized before the election and that voters elected him anyway.
"It is the will of the people of York that Mr. Helfrich, whose crimes and convictions were well publicized and known, serve on the City Council. The people of York, the citizens actually affected by the York City Council, disagree with the representatives of the State as to whether (Helfrich's) felony convictions should prevent him from serving," Linebaugh wrote.
Helfrich said he spent part of Wednesday responding to congratulatory text messages and phone calls from supporters. But, "I've had to keep it short."
"The decision came down on a busy work day for me," he said.
Helfrich said he's looking forward to accepting tasks and appointments to council committees "without having to give the caveat that I don't know if I'm going to be there the next week."
Even as he walked to a downtown bar to meet friends Wednesday evening, Helfrich said he wouldn't be staying out late. He has a 7:30 a.m. meeting with city administrators to talk about the budget.
"It's just time to continue work and try to encourage new means of economic development and ways to cut these crazy taxes," he said.
- Reach Erin James at 505-5439 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ydcity.