Sporting a tie and a slick new haircut, Michael Helfrich worked the crowd like a seasoned politician.

Most cars whizzed by on Market Street, but some drivers pumped the brakes and rolled down the window, curious to see who had turned the steps outside Martin Library into a roadside campaign stop.

Helfrich jumped to shake hands, make eye contact, pass on a flier. Spell my name right, he told prospective voters as they left a recent forum for York City Council hopefuls.

As the write-in candidate in a five-person race for three open seats, Helfrich is aggressively trudging an uphill climb to victory. But, if elected, he will likely end up in a courtroom for the second time in his 41 years.

That's because Helfrich -- a York native, environmental activist and education proponent -- is also a convicted felon, a label some say disqualifies him from holding elected office.

In January 1991, when he was 20, Helfrich offered a man a ride to the airport. That man was in possession of LSD and psilocybin mushrooms, which Helfrich knew, according to a court transcript. They got caught.

Helfrich pleaded guilty to two felony charges -- possession of and conspiracy to deliver drugs. He served 45 days in jail.

Twenty years later, his candidacy colored by a buried past, Helfrich is still paying for what he says was a dumb mistake.

Michael Helfrich believes he has a right to sit on city council. At the ballot box Nov. 8, voters could decide to put him there. Lawyers and judges might decide if he stays.

The law: According to Section 7 of Article II of the Pennsylvania Constitution: "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."

So where does that leave a convicted felon looking to make a run for public office?

"There's no definition of infamous crime," said Ron Ruman, spokesman for the state Department of State, which oversees Pennsylvania's election process. "Because of that it really has to be looked at on a case-by-case basis."

Matters of eligibility are left

to local district attorneys "to decide if they want to go after the person," Ruman said.

The Constitution's ambiguity is the subject of case law that dates to 1842, when a Pennsylvania court first said felonies are infamous crimes. That standard has survived more than 160 years of litigation, according to two Pennsylvania law professors.

"The law is fairly static in this area in that infamous crimes has been generally defined by our Supreme Court to mean felonies," said Joseph Sabino Mistick of Duquesne University School of Law. But, he said, "whenever you use a phrase like that without some objective criteria, it's the source of litigation."

Two cases: The lasting interpretation of the infamous crime clause does not leave much "wiggle room" for convicted felons who seek an exception, said Anne Poulin, a law professor at Villanova University School of Law.

Both professors pointed to two recent cases.

The state Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that a Berks County man could hold public office despite his 1979 convictions related to holding a former girlfriend at gunpoint for three hours in a parking lot. All of the charges, which included terroristic threats and recklessly endangering another person, were misdemeanors.

The court disagreed with the district attorney's assertion that Eden Richard Jr. had committed an infamous crime. In a reversal of a lower court's ruling, the Supreme Court said only felonies and "crimen falsi" crimes are infamous.

Crimen falsi crimes include those specifically mentioned in the Constitution, like perjury and bribery, and "anything that goes to one's truthfulness," Mistick said.

The 2000 opinion was reaffirmed a year later, when the Republican nominee for mayor of Scranton sought a pre-election ruling on his eligibility from the Commonwealth Court. According to court documents, in 1991 Robert Bolus "purchased, used and disposed of a stolen Caterpillar Truck Loader" and "solicited another individual to conceal the stolen loader" from state police.

The court declared him ineligible, noting that Bolus' crimes are infamous both for being felonies and crimen falsi.

Dishonesty not involved: Helfrich has offered one main defense to why he should prevail if he wins the election and finds himself in court.

He has noted that his conviction of conspiracy to deliver drugs has nothing to do with dishonesty, which is the link among the specific crimes mentioned in Pennsylvania's Constitution. It would make sense, Helfrich contends, that only crimes involving falsehood qualify as "infamous."

"What that has to do with a black-market crime, I don't know," he said.

It's certainly an argument, Mistick said, but to prevail in court it would require a departure from traditional interpretations.

"He must argue that the crimen falsi crimes are distinguished and sort of qualifiers for the 'other infamous crimes' phrase. That's his best argument, absolutely," Mistick said. "I don't think that's a standard that the courts have yet accepted. It appears that it would be a fresh interpretation of the law."

Helfrich disagreed, pointing to a 1993 case involving an Adams County woman convicted of felony possession with intent to deliver marijuana. In determining whether Holly Millhimes' crime was infamous -- and therefore a constitutional impediment to holding office -- the county's Common Pleas Court ruled that her crime did not meet the threshold, according to court documents. The court concluded Millhimes was eligible to serve as Straban Township's tax collector.

"It is not for this court to substitute its judgment for the will of the citizenry unless the conviction is clearly a crime of infamy," the ruling reads. "Certainly drug offenses are of great public concern in our current climate. ... Nevertheless, I do not feel that intense public concern alone is the criteria by which infamous crimes are to be defined. Otherwise, the shifting winds of public opinion could become an undesirable constitutional measuring device."

Election judge: Helfrich further contends the community has already settled the question of his trustworthiness. Between 2003 and 2010, Helfrich said he served several times as a judge of elections, an appointed role for which he disclosed his prior conviction.

Beyond that, he's been the recipient of various community awards, including being named York City Leader of the Year in 2004. Helfrich is perhaps best known for his work as Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper.

Helfrich also said he believes the seminal 1842 case -- which various courts have cited in concluding felonies are infamous crimes -- is outdated, having relied on a definition of felony that included an element of violence, death or theft.

"Obviously, if I get the vote of the people, that is the people showing they trust me enough to be an administrator for the city," he said. "Therefore, by definition, if people trust me enough to do it, I am not infamous in this community."

Wrightsville: Helfrich has also said he is optimistic the unsettled case of a former York County mayor could provide a clearer definition of "infamous crime."

Former Wrightsville Mayor Steve Rambler was removed from office in May 2008 when a York County judge backed former District Attorney Stan Rebert's assertion that Rambler's criminal past made him ineligible to serve.

Rambler pleaded guilty to federal felony extortion and was ordered to serve two years of probation and pay a fine after he admitted in 1996 to soliciting sexually explicit correspondence, including nude photos, from people he contacted through swingers' magazines. He then sent letters threatening to reveal the correspondence unless they paid him $50, records state.

In January 2010, the state Superior Court overturned the lower court's decision to remove Rambler, determining that Rambler's crime was equivalent to a misdemeanor under Pennsylvania law and therefore not infamous.

District Attorney Tom Kearney, who inherited the case from Rebert, appealed the court's decision. The state Supreme Court heard arguments earlier this year but has yet to make a ruling.

Depending on the court's decision, the case could have bearing on Helfrich's situation, Rambler attorney Josh Autry said.

"We would like to get a fairly clear ruling so that people know whether or not they can run and whether or not they should vote for the person that's running," Autry said. "We need a clear standard on who is qualified to run for office."

Defender: Potentially complicating matters is the fact that Helfrich's defense attorney in 1991 was Tom Kearney, the same man who today could prosecute Helfrich for violating the election code if voters give him a seat on the city council.

That history creates a potential conflict of interest, Kearney said. But, he added, it would be premature to make any judgments unless and until Helfrich is elected.

"If I have a conflict of interest, as a practical matter my resource is to request that the attorney general assume jurisdiction of the matter. They can choose to say no," Kearney said. "We're dealing with a lot of 'ifs' before we get to that."

As for whether Helfrich's crime was "infamous," Kearney declined to comment. He said he is hoping the Supreme Court's ruling in the Rambler case clears up that question.

Pardon? With a clean record for 20 years and a history of community service, Helfrich said he is hopeful the state Board of Pardons will forgive his conviction, erase it from his record and, theoretically, remove any barriers to his holding elected office.

Helfrich said he intends to file an appeal before the Nov. 8 election and hopes for an answer before possibly taking office in January.

On average, the wait time is three years, said Tim Suplizio, an administrative assistant for the Board of Pardons.

If Helfrich is successful in his bid for a pardon, that would effectively resolve the question of his eligibility to hold office, Kearney said.

If he is elected and his legitimacy challenged, Helfrich said he would not use city resources to defend himself in court.

Helfrich contends that voters should view his past, like his community service record, as a qualification.

"I have the perspective of what it's like to be completely disenfranchised for doing something dumb," he said, " ... and having the opportunity to come back."

Reach Erin James at ejames@yorkdispatch.com or 505-5439.