Philadelphia criminal defense attorney Zak T. Goldstein, Esquire recently won the case of Commonwealth v. R.J.when the Commonwealth agreed to withdraw the case due to the racist Facebook posts posted on social media by the arresting officer. In R.J., police established a DUI checkpoint on a Saturday night. R.J. was stopped at the checkpoint and ordered out of the car when the police determined that they smelled an odor of alcohol coming from the vehicle. They then performed field sobriety tests, which they claimed he failed, and placed him under arrest. Officers then detained R.J. in a holding pen for about an hour prior to administering a breathalyzer. The breathalyzer showed that R.J. had a BAC well above the legal limit, so police formally arrested him and charged him with DUI.
Attorney Goldstein filed a motion to suppress in the Municipal Court, and the motion was originally successful. Attorney Goldstein argued both that police had failed to follow the requirements of the Pennsylvania Constitution in determining the location of the checkpoint and that the Commonwealth failed to meet its burden at the motion because police did not call the officer who actually arrested R.J. to testify. Instead, they called his partner who was standing nearby when the arresting officer ordered R.J. out of the car. Thus, Attorney Goldstein argued that the officer that actually testified was basing his information about the arrest and odor of alcohol entirely on hearsay, and therefore the Commonwealth failed to prove at the evidentiary hearing on the motion that police actually had probable cause or reasonable suspicion to detain R.J..
The Municipal Court found that the checkpoint was constitutional but agreed that the Commonwealth was required to call the actual arresting officer to testify. Therefore, the Court granted the motion. The Commonwealth, however, appealed the granting of the suppression motion to the Court of Common Pleas. The Common Pleas judge found that the two officers were working together, and therefore the collective knowledge doctrine applied. The Court of Common Pleas reasoned that the partner was entitled to rely on the observations of the original arresting officer and that the Commonwealth had met its burden. Therefore, the Common Pleas judge reversed the granting of the motion and remanded the case for trial.
Attorney Goldstein and R.J. made the decision to continue fighting the case even after the Common Pleas Court reversed the suppression motion. Attorney Goldstein still planned to challenge whether police had properly observed R.J. for the twenty-minutes required by PennDOT regulations prior to conducting R.J.’s breath test. However, shortly before trial, the Commonwealth turned over records showing that the arresting officer, who they had not called to testify at trial, had posted dozens of extremely racist and anti-muslim messages on Facebook. The Commonwealth turned this over right before trial, so Attorney Goldstein moved for the court to dismiss the charges based on the fact that the Commonwealth had violated its discovery obligations under the Rules of Criminal Procedure and under the Pennsylvania Constitution. Essentially, the police had known about the messages for months, and therefore they constituted Brady material that should have been turned over prior to the motion to suppress. After Attorney Goldstein moved to dismiss the case due to the Brady violation and discovery violation, or in the alternative, re-open the motion to suppress for a new hearing at which the arresting officer would have to testify and be confronted with the horrific posts, the trial judge asked the Commonwealth to consider withdrawing the charges, and they eventually did. All charges against R.J. were dismissed and he will be eligible to have the arrest expunged.
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