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Citizens group wants common law grand jury in Westmoreland County

| Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

A citizens group filed court documents on Friday seeking to convene a common law grand jury in Westmoreland County, but legal experts say such a body has no real authority.

It's the latest of a number of similar filings throughout the nation by people wanting to empanel investigating grand juries that are separate from the government. Citizens in the group would seek jurors from the local population, then make presentments to prosecutors.

Locally, groups in Allegheny and Beaver counties have issued the same call.

The move, however, is not backed by the law, according to a local official and a legal scholar.

“This is a rogue band of citizens with no legal authority,” said Wes Oliver, associate professor and director of the criminal justice program at Duquesne University School of Law. “To what extent there was ever a common law grand jury system that was self-creating, there no longer is.”

The Westmoreland group, founded by Tom Altman of Greensburg, wants to convene a grand jury that is not presided over by a judge and/or convened by county or state prosecutors.

Altman claims his grand jury is legitimate under the law and the Constitution.

But legal experts say that in 1946, the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure were established, doing away with the common law grand jury model.

District Attorney John Peck said grand juries must be approved by the courts.

“I don't know there is a statute or procedural rule that allows citizens to convene grand juries,” Peck said.

Altman filed documents with Clerk of Courts Bryan Kline seeking to formalize the grand jury process. Kline said he was required under state law to accept the filing.

Altman said he paid the $21.40 filing fee under protest.

“We're working to undo tyranny that's been done,” he said. “We're stirring a pot that's real big, but it has to be stirred.”

Unless common law grand juries are officially recognized by the courts, prosecutors offered presentments or individuals subpoenaed by the self-formed grand juries would not be legally compelled to cooperate, Oliver said.

Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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