Michael Untermeyer doesn’t need this. He doesn’t need the scrutiny, the rebuilding of trust and morale, the litany of small and big stuff to be sweated … in short, he doesn’t need the job.
And yet, the 65-year-old is running – again – to become Philadelphia’s next district attorney. After decades spent in public service doing everything from working as an ambulance driver in his native New York City to an 11-year run as senior deputy in the state attorney general’s office, Untermeyer became a successful real estate developer and businessman.
“I really love public service; I get a real satisfaction out of doing it,” he said by way of explanation when asked what motivated him to run again to head the office he worked in some three decades ago under then-District Attorney Ed Rendell. “I think service is more than a noble cause: Doing something for another human being gives most human beings satisfaction.”
What Untermeyer wants to do for Philadelphia is to make the District Attorney’s Office more just, responsive and responsible through a combination of lessons learned first-hand and from observing best practices in law enforcement around the country. And, like virtually every other Democratic candidate in the race, one of his top priorities is reforming the city’s bail system.
“I think we have the worst bail system in the country,” he said. “People with money get out the next day and they’re back in business. People of limited means sit in jail because they couldn’t come up with a few hundred dollars. Kareem Chappelle couldn’t come up with $600” following his 2013 arrest for failing to appear in court for possession of less than 2 grams of crack cocaine, “and he spent the holidays in jail, lost his home, his car and his job. People with limited means get stuck. There are over a thousand people in jail where the bail is less than $1,000. People whose bail is $500 or less, half of them take three days or more to come up with the money.”
To even the scales, Untermeyer would go with a variant of Washington, D.C.’s successful cashless bail system, which uses risk assessment algorithms to determine how likely defendants are to show up for their court date and the likelihood of their getting into more trouble if they are released.
As ubiquitous in the DA race as his commitment to bail reform is, that is how sui generis his other priority is: attacking white-collar crime.
“I don’t think you want to take away from the emphasis on violent crime, but you want to take away from the emphasis on minor, non-violent crime,” he explained. “If somebody steals your cell phone, it’s one person who is victimized. If Uber is overcharging for distance and time, it affects hundreds of thousands of people. I mention Uber because in San Francisco and Los Angeles, their district attorneys brought suit against Uber” for doing just that – “and they got a $25 million settlement, of which Uber will get some of the money back if they change their practices.
“We should pursue it because we want to protect consumers and the community,” he continued. “Often, these investigations pay for themselves: The defendant reimburses the law enforcement agency” – a detail that sets these types of cases apart from the flashpoint civil asset forfeiture policies of current District Attorney Seth Williams, and something that Untermeyer is quick to emphasize would not continue under his leadership.
“It’s really disappointing that the District Attorney’s Office is using the civil forfeiture statute to bring in as many dollars as it can for law enforcement,” he said. “We have taken property, whether it’s cars, money, homes, from people who have never been charged with a crime. One of the cases I refer to is that of Elizabeth Young, who is fighting to save her house because her son was arrested and charged with selling less than $100 worth of marijuana in the house. The District Attorney’s Office brought legal action against her. She was really lucky to have pro bono counsel to help her, and in criminal court, she won. It wasn’t enough. The District Attorney’s Office appealed the case to the state Supreme Court, where it is now sitting. We have to have a minimum number below which we won’t seize assets,” he asserted, adding that he thinks a $500 threshold for seizure is a good place to start.
That’s not to say Williams’s tenure hasn’t produced initiatives Untermeyer feels are worth continuing. He has particular praise for the Conviction Review Unit, which investigates cases that may have produced wrongful convictions, although he notes that it has been woefully understaffed – with just one prosecutor assigned on a part-time basis – until the last month.
“He’s moving in the right direction, I applaud him for it,” Untermeyer said, before continuing a pattern of rattling off details about a specific case that underscored his position on an issue. “Anthony Wright was convicted of homicide and rape he didn’t commit” in 1991. “The Pennsylvania Innocence Project was able to get him cleared through DNA evidence. The District Attorney’s Office fought Mr. Wright, and wouldn’t release him. It took another three years to get him released. That’s why we need to have a robust conviction integrity unit.”
Among Untermeyer’s other plans for the office: creating a vertical system of prosecution so that people would have the same prosecutor through every phase of the process, and focusing on outreach.
“The DA’s office should be a community-based office,” he elaborated. “If there are 250 assistant district attorneys, every one of them should be assigned to a community in the city. It could be a school group, it could be a geographic group, a residents’ group – and that person is your liaison in the District Attorney’s Office. When you have a question, or a problem or when you need access, you can talk to someone who is a lawyer who has the ability to go into the system and help you.
“I really want to strengthen town watch groups,” he continued. “We need to work with community groups and neighborhoods to take control of the gangs situation. Along the same lines, this is an idea I haven’t seen in other places, is to have a deputy-level ADA whose job it is to work with nonprofit groups like the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, PA Innocence Project, Ceasefire PA. All of these things can make the DAO an advocate for fairness in the city.”
It’s a clearly progressive agenda, especially coming from someone who ran as a Republican both in his 2009 DA bid and a 2011 run for Philadelphia City Council. When asked about his ideological fluidity – he once said, “The difference between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party is the Democratic Party really wants government to serve people, which is why I am a Democrat. The Republican Party doesn’t want to have government, period” – Untermeyer indicated that party affiliation was less important to him than the ability to put his ideas into action.
“I’ve run as a Democrat for sheriff “ in 2007, he said, to further illustrate his approach. “When I decided to run for district attorney last time, I was very late to get in the race. I had a strong desire to get my ideas out there, and that was the way to do it. It was too late to get into the Democratic primary.”
He insists that if he is successful this time around, there will be no other campaigns in his future for either party.
“This job isn’t a stepping stone for some other political office,” he emphasized. “My commitment to this will be seven days a week. I want to serve, to do what I can do for a city I love.”