Appeals

PA Superior Court: No New Trial Even Though Judge Was Stealing Cocaine from Evidence Storage

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Urwin, holding that the defendant should not receive a new trial in his Murder case despite the fact that the trial judge was later convicted of stealing cocaine from evidence around the time that the judge presided over the case. The Court found that the defendant failed to successfully prove that the judge was actually under the influence at the time of the trial, and therefore the judge’s ongoing thefts did not necessarily mean that the judge was unfair during the trial.     

Commonwealth v. Urwin 

The decedent’s body was discovered in a field in Washington County in February 1977. The police determined that the cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head. The investigators were able to locate her clothing which was scattered nearby and the police seized it as evidence. The victim was last seen with the defendant and a Mr. Davoli, however the charges against Mr. Davoli were dismissed at the preliminary hearing. At the time, the defendant was not charged with her death. 

The case remained unsolved for several decades until the victim’s clothing was submitted for DNA testing in 2009. The results of the testing contained the profiles of both the defendant and Mr. Davoli. The police then questioned Mr. Davoli, and he confessed to his and the defendant’s involvement in the victim’s death. The defendant was subsequently arrested and charged with first degree murder. The defendant was very concerned about proceeding by way of jury trial because he thought that female jurors would not be sympathetic to him. As such, the defendant elected to have a bench trial in front of the Honorable Paul Pozonsky. 

At his trial, Mr. Davoli testified against the defendant. He testified that he and the defendant each had sex with the victim and then the defendant dragged her from the vehicle and beat her with a car tool. The court convicted the defendant of third-degree murder and sentenced him to 10-20 years’ incarceration. The defendant then appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court. The Superior Court affirmed his sentence and, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied his petition for allowance of appeal. 

The PCRA Petition

The defendant then filed a timely Post-Conviction Relief Act (hereinafter “PCRA”) petition. In his PCRA petition, he raised several claims based on trial counsel’s alleged errors. He also asserted that Judge Pozonsky had been convicted of theft of cocaine and that he had been using cocaine during the trial. Specifically, Judge Pozonsky would order police to deposit cocaine in the evidence locker in his courtroom and then take it it for his personal use. The defendant therefore argued that he had an incompetent tribunal which violated his right to due process. A different judge presided over the PCRA litigation, and that judge ordered a hearing at which the defendant’s trial counsel and other witnesses testified.

During the hearing, the witnesses were asked about Judge Pozonsky’s behavior during the trial. The defendant’s sister testified and said that Judge Pozonsky was “acting funny” and “not paying attention to the proceedings.” Additionally, the defendant’s trial counsel stated that although Judge Pozonsky acted not as one might expect a judge to act, he dismissed it “because he always appeared that way.” Further, the Assistant District Attorney who prosecuted the defendant’s case stated that Judge Pozonsky’s behavior was “consistent” with the other experiences he has had with the judge over the years. Ultimately, the defendant’s PCRA petition was denied because he failed to adequately show that Judge Pozonsky was under the influence of cocaine during his trial. The defendant then filed a timely appeal.  

Can You File a PCRA Petition Because of a Judge’s Actions? 

Sometimes. Typically, PCRA petitions allege either after-discovered evidence or ineffective assistance of counsel. However, the PCRA statute is not limited to just those two avenues of relief. 42 Pa C.S.A. § 9543 (a)(2)(i) allows a defendant to get relief if “[a] violation of the Constitution of this Commonwealth or the Constitution or laws of the United States, which in the circumstances of the particular case, so undermined the truth-determining process that no reliable adjudication of guilt or innocence could have taken place.” In the instant case, the defendant argued that he should receive a new trial because Judge Pozonsky was using cocaine during his trial and this undermined the reliability of his conviction. 

The Superior Court’s Decision 

The Superior Court denied the defendant’s appeal. The Superior Court agreed with the PCRA court that the defendant had not met his burden. The Superior Court found that Judge Pozonsky was not addicted to cocaine even though he would regularly order police officers to deposit cocaine in an evidence locker in his courtroom and would use this cocaine for his personal use. The Superior Court cited Judge Pozonsky’s disbarment opinion as evidence that he was not addicted to cocaine. Therefore, the Superior Court determined that the defendant’s claim that Judge Pozonsky was high during his trial as “speculative at best.” As such, the defendant was not entitled to relief, and he will have to serve his sentence barring further appeals.  

Facing criminal charges? We can help.

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers Demetra Mehta and Zak Goldstein

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers Demetra Mehta and Zak Goldstein

If you are facing criminal charges or under investigation by the police, we can help. We have successfully defended thousands of clients against criminal charges in courts throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We have successfully obtained full acquittals and dismissals in cases involving charges such as Conspiracy, Aggravated Assault, PWID, Rape, and Murder. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers offer a free criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with an experienced and understanding defense attorney today. 

Attorney Goldstein Wins New Trial In Sexual Assault Case On Appeal of PCRA Petition

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak T. Goldstein, Esquire recently won a new trial for a client who had been convicted of rape and related charges for allegedly molesting his step-daughter.

In Commonwealth v. R.S., the defendant had been charged with rape of a child and related charges for allegedly sexually assaulting his step-daughter. The client was represented by a different attorney at trial, and at trial, the complainant testified to the details of the alleged abuse. The Commonwealth also called a number of witnesses to testify to the complainant’s disclosure of the allegations as well as the investigating detective.

In response, the defendant’s attorney called his then-wife to testify that she did not believe the allegations and had never seen anything suspicious. He also called the defendant to testify, and the defendant adamantly denied the allegations. The Commonwealth introduced no physical or forensic evidence to corroborate the allegations, and there were no other witnesses who had ever seen anything even remotely inappropriate. Nonetheless, the jury convicted R.S. of the charges based solely on the testimony of the complainant. R.S. was sentenced to 40 years’ incarceration, and his direct appeals were denied.

The Post-Conviction Relief Act Petition

After the Superior Court denied the direct appeal, R.S. retained Attorney Goldstein to file a Post-Conviction Relief Act Petition. Attorney Goldstein reviewed the transcripts and immediately noticed that the trial attorney had made a number of critical errors during the course of the trial. Most importantly, the trial attorney had failed to call character witnesses on R.S.’s behalf.

In Pennsylvania, character evidence is extremely important and may be the basis for reasonable doubt on its own. A defendant who has no prior criminal convictions may call witnesses to testify on his or her behalf and to tell a judge or jury that the defendant has an excellent reputation in the community for being a peaceful, non-violent person. A defendant who produces that type of testimony is then entitled to a special jury instruction which informs the jury that the character testimony, if believed, may provide the basis for reasonable doubt even if the jury otherwise believed the allegations.

Here, R.S. had no prior convictions, but his defense attorney failed to introduce any character evidence at trial. Therefore, one of the main claims in the PCRA Petition was that the defense attorney provided the ineffective assistance of counsel by neglecting to call character witnesses on R.S.’s behalf and thereby failing to obtain this critical jury instruction. The trial court held an evidentiary hearing and eventually credited the attorney’s testimony that he felt that character evidence was not relevant because the defendant’s wife had testified that she did not believe the complainant. The trial court then denied the PCRA Petition, finding that trial counsel had provided the effective assistance of counsel.

The Appeal of the PCRA Petition’s Denial

PCRA Petitions can be difficult to win in the trial court because they are typically heard by the judge who presided over the trial. Naturally, many judges do not want to overturn a conviction for a case where they sat through the trial, particularly if the judge agreed with the result. Fortunately, the improper denial of a Post-Conviction Relief Act Petition may be appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court and Supreme Court if necessary. Judges may also simply disagree with the claims raised in the Petition.

After the trial judge denied the PCRA Petition, Attorney Goldstein immediately filed an appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court. In a lengthy opinion, the Superior Court overruled the trial court and ordered a new trial. Superior Court concluded that based on a century of precedent, trial counsel was ineffective in failing to call character witnesses on R.S.’s behalf, and the mere fact that he had called fact witnesses as part of the defense did not eliminate the requirement that he provide effective representation by calling the character witnesses. The Court noted that this entire case came down to the testimony of two witnesses - the complainant who said that this happened, and R.S. who said that it did not. R.S. suffered prejudice from the fact that the jury was not informed of his outstanding reputation in the community and the instruction that that reputation alone could provide a reasonable doubt.

Fortunately, the Superior Court reversed the conviction and awarded R.S. a new trial at which he will be able to call the character witnesses.

Facing criminal charges? We can help.

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers Demetra Mehta and Zak Goldstein

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers Demetra Mehta and Zak Goldstein

If you are facing criminal charges or under investigation by the police, we can help. We have successfully defended thousands of clients against criminal charges in courts throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We have successfully obtained full acquittals in cases involving charges such as Conspiracy, Aggravated Assault, DUI, PWID, Rape, and Murder. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers offer a free criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with an experienced and understanding defense attorney today.

PA Supreme Court: Chemical Testing Refusal May Be Used Against DUI Defendant At Trial

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak T. Goldstein, Esquire

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak T. Goldstein, Esquire

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Bell, holding that the Commonwealth may introduce a defendant’s refusal to submit to a blood test in its case-in-chief against a defendant in his DUI trial as evidence of guilt. The Court concluded that the prosecution may use such a refusal to argue that the defendant acted with the consciousness of guilt. The refusal, however, still may not be used as the basis for increased criminal penalties unless police have first obtained a search warrant.

Commonwealth v. Bell 

The defendant was arrested for suspicion of DUI on May 16, 2015. After his arrest, he was transferred to the Lycoming County DUI center. At the DUI center, a detective read the defendant the PennDOT DL-26 form, and he subsequently refused a blood test. He was subsequently charged with DUI along with other summary traffic offenses. 

Prior to his trial, the defendant filed a pre-trial motion to dismiss arguing that he had a constitutional right to refuse to submit to a warrantless blood test and thus evidence of his refusal should be suppressed and the DUI charge dismissed. The trial court denied his motion and he proceeded to have a bench trial on the same day. At his trial, the arresting officer testified regarding the defendant’s refusal to submit to blood testing and that the defendant asserted he did not want a needle in his arm because he had previously contracted hepatitis from a hospital needle. At the conclusion of the trial, the defendant was found guilty of all charges. 

 The defendant then filed a motion for reconsideration. He specifically argued that the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Birchfield v. North Dakota precluded states from penalizing DUI defendants for refusing to submit to warrantless blood testing and he should be granted a new trial at which evidence of his refusal would be inadmissible. The trial court agreed with the defendant and determined that he was entitled to a new trial because the court relied on his refusal as a basis for the DUI conviction. The Commonwealth then filed an interlocutory appeal to the Superior Court. The Commonwealth argued that Birchfield did not affect the admissibility of refusal evidence to show consciousness of guilt. In response, the defendant argued that Birchfield created a constitutional right to refuse a warrantless blood test and the admission of his refusal was improper because it penalized him for exercising his constitutional rights. 

The Superior Court’s Decision 

A three-judge panel of the Superior Court reversed the trial court’s order granting the defendant a new trial and remanded the case for sentencing. The panel reviewed Pennsylvania’s implied consent statute and found that suspected drunk drivers do not have a constitutional right to refuse a blood test and it was constitutionally permissible for the Commonwealth to introduce evidence of such refusal. The defendant then filed a petition for allowance of appeal and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. 

What is the Implied Consent Statute? 

The implied consent statute is codified under 75 Pa C.S. § 1547. It provides that that “any person who drives…a vehicle in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania shall have been deemed to have given consent to one or more chemical tests of breath, blood or urine.” If someone does not comply with § 1547, then they can face a license suspension. Further, the statute also allows for the introduction of this evidence into a criminal trial against a defendant. This was the relevant statute in the instant case.  

What Was The Holding in Birchfield

In Birchfield, the United States Supreme Court held that blood and breath tests are governed by the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution. Additionally, although implied consent with respect to warrantless breath tests is constitutionally permissible, blood draws are different because taking blood is more intrusive than giving a breath sample. Therefore, the police need a warrant (or actual consent) before they can take a blood test. Additionally, a state may not impose criminal penalties on a suspect who refuses to submit to a warrantless blood test. The Birchfield Court did not rule on whether evidence of the refusal could be used at trial to show consciousness of guilt. In other words, the Court did not determine whether prosecutors could argue that a defendant who refuses a blood test likely has something to hide.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s Decision 

A divided Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the Commonwealth may introduce evidence of a defendant’s refusal as substantive evidence against him in a DUI trial. In making its decision, the majority analyzed not only United States Supreme Court decisions, but also decisions from other state courts. The majority’s logic was that driving is not a constitutional right and therefore if someone drives in Pennsylvania, they must comply with the implied consent law. The majority acknowledged that this may be a “difficult choice” for some motorists, but because driving is a “civil privilege” there was no constitutional issues in requiring drivers to make said choice. Further, the majority found that Birchfield did not expressly forbid states from introducing these evidentiary consequences for refusal and therefore believed that the United States Supreme Court would agree with their decision. As such, the defendant will not get a new trial, and his case will be remanded for sentencing.  

FACING CRIMINAL CHARGES? WE CAN HELP.

Criminal Defense Lawyers Zak Goldstein and Demetra Mehta

Criminal Defense Lawyers Zak Goldstein and Demetra Mehta

If you are facing criminal charges or under investigation by the police, we can help. We have successfully defended thousands of clients against criminal charges in courts throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We have successfully obtained full acquittals in cases involving charges such as Conspiracy, Aggravated Assault, DUI, PWID, Rape, and Murder. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers offer a free criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with an experienced and understanding defense attorney today. 

 

PA Supreme Court: Police May Often Search Commercial Trucks Without a Warrant

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Maguire, holding that individuals engaged in highly regulated commercial activities such as commercial trucking are not entitled to the same constitutional safeguards as the general public. This decision is highly relevant to those engaged in the trucking industry because it permits the government to set up checkpoints that would normally not be constitutional if they were designed to stop and search the general public. Therefore, those who are employed in this industry must be especially careful when engaged in commercial activities.  

Commonwealth v. Maguire 

On May 20, 2015, the Pennsylvania State Police and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (hereinafter “DEP”) set up a commercial vehicle inspection program in accordance with 75 Pa.C.S. § 4704 which permits the police to set up a “systematic vehicle inspection program…to determine whether they meet standards established in department regulations.” The inspection was scheduled one month in advance, and it occurred at a Clinton County landfill located in McElhatten, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania State Trooper Beaver, a motor vehicle enforcement officer, and a motor carrier enforcement supervisor comprised the team that conducted the checkpoint inspections. This team was stationed in a lot in front of the scale house near the entrance of the landfill. 

This team established and utilized a procedure where the first team member available would stop the next truck entering the landfill. At approximately 2:50 PM, it was Trooper Beaver’s turn to inspect a truck when he observed the defendant driving his truck. Trooper Beaver exited his vehicle and motioned for the defendant to pull into the lot where the team was located. The defendant complied with his request. Trooper Beaver then engaged the defendant in conversation and asked him to provide him with documents pertinent to the truck and its operation. While speaking with the defendant, Trooper Beaver detected smell of alcohol on the defendant’s breath. He then reviewed the defendant’s documents and did a walk-around inspection of the truck. 

Following the inspection, Trooper Beaver had the defendant exit the truck and told him that he smelled of alcohol and asked whether he had been drinking. The defendant stated he had one beer prior to his trip to the landfill. At this point, Trooper Beaver noticed a cooler on the floor of the truck near the gearshift. Inside this cooler, he saw three Busch light beers and two bottles of water. The defendant was then asked to perform a field sobriety test, which he failed. The defendant was then placed under arrest and transported to the Jersey Shore Hospital for blood testing. He was subsequently charged with DUI and five other counts of unlawful activities. 

The Motion to Suppress

The defendant then filed a motion to suppress the evidence. In his motion to suppress, the defendant argued that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated because Trooper Beaver and his team did not comply with the Tarbert/Blouse guidelines which were promulgated to test the constitutionality of systematic, police-conducted vehicle checkpoints which were used to stop members of the general public (specifically for DUI’s). The trial court held a hearing at which Trooper Beaver was the only witness to testify. At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court ordered the parties to submit post-hearing briefs. The Commonwealth filed a brief arguing that the Tarbert/Blouse guidelines are inapplicable to the commercial vehicle safety checkpoints that were used in the instant case. The trial court agreed with the defendant and granted his motion to suppress. The Commonwealth then filed a timely appeal. 

On appeal, the Superior Court agreed with the Commonwealth. The Superior Court held that the Tarber/Blouse guidelines did not apply to a checkpoint for commercial vehicles. Instead, the trial court should have analyzed the checkpoint under the factors discussed in the United States Supreme Court’s case in New York v. Burger (these are guidelines that are directed at commercial related activities). Based on these Burger factors, the Superior Court held that the search was constitutional and reversed the trial court. The defendant then filed a petition for allowance of appeal, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted review.

What are the Tarbert/Blouse Guidelines? 

The Tarbert/Blouse guidelines are factors that a court uses to determine whether a checkpoint is constitutional. Remember, the Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. If the police stop you at one of these checkpoints, this is technically a seizure. These checkpoints are commonly used to deter and arrest people who are suspected of driving under the influence. Pennsylvania appellate courts have held that these checkpoints are constitutional, so long as they sufficiently comply with the Tarbert/ Blouse guidelines.

According to the guidelines:

1) vehicle stops must be brief and must not entail a physical search;

2) there must be sufficient warning of the existence of the checkpoint;

3) the decision to conduct a checkpoint, as well as the decisions as to time and place for the checkpoint, must be subject to prior administrative approval;

4) the choice of time and place for the checkpoint must be based on local experience as to where and when intoxicated drivers are likely to be traveling; and

5) the decision as to which vehicles to stop at the checkpoint must be established by administratively pre-fixed, objective standards, and must not be left to the unfettered discretion of the officers at the scene.

It is important to remember that it is not required that all of these guidelines are present. Rather, they are just guidelines to determine whether the checkpoint in question is sufficiently compliant with the constitution.    

What are the Burger Factors? 

The Burger Court recognized owners of a commercial business or vehicle in a closely regulated industry have a substantially reduced expectation of privacy, and therefore, the Fourth Amendment warrant and probable cause requirements are lower for these individuals. Therefore, a warrantless inspection is constitutional if: 1) there is a substantial governmental interest informing the regulatory scheme pursuant to which the inspection was made; 2) warrantless inspections are necessary to advance the regulatory scheme; and 3) the statute’s inspection program is applied with such certainty and regularity as to prove a constitutionally adequate substitute for a warrant.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s Decision 

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the Superior Court’s decision and held that the Tarbert/Blouse guidelines were not applicable to the instant case. The Court reasoned that when the defendant was stopped, he was engaged in the trucking business, which is a closely regulated industry. Additionally, the Court stated that “owners of certain closely regulated businesses should expect that their businesses would be subject to warrantless administrative searches.” Therefore, the defendant had a reduced expectation of privacy when he was engaged in his trucking business. As such, his case will be remanded to the trial court and the Commonwealth will be able to use all the evidence that was suppressed in their case against him. 

Facing criminal charges? We can help.

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers Demetra Mehta and Zak Goldstein

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers Demetra Mehta and Zak Goldstein

If you are facing criminal charges or under investigation by the police, we can help. We have successfully defended thousands of clients against criminal charges in courts throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We have successfully obtained full acquittals in cases involving charges such as Conspiracy, Aggravated Assault, Rape, and Attempted Murder. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers offer a free criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with an experienced and understanding defense attorney today.


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