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McKeesport students learn about justice from public defender

| Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012, 5:12 a.m.
Allegehny County chief public defender Elliot Howsie addressed McKeesport Area High School students Tuesday during discussions on the criminal court process. Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
McKeesport Area freshman Treysaun Tillman engages in conversation with classmates and Allegheny County chief public defender Elliot Howsie during a discussion of the criminal court process on Tuesday. Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News

Allegheny County Public Defender Elliot Howsie was at McKeesport Area High School Tuesday talking to students about the law.

“‘Judge Judy' is not really how things work,” said Howsie, who told social studies students at his two morning lectures that his goal was to give them an outline of how the legal procedure works for someone who's been accused of a crime.

Many students admitted to being fans of the aforementioned TV show and were quick to supply common legal phrases like “probable cause” and “plead the Fifth Amendment,” though the discussion demonstrated they were less aware of how such concepts are applied within the legal system.

Howsie, who has been chief public defender since March, tried to sort out some of the confusion. The chief defender said he's observed that students often visit the courthouse to examine how that particular aspect of the law works but don't understand the process leading up a person's day in court.

The defense attorney used a traffic stop on a student driver as a starting point to show how the criminal justice system functions.

Student Treysaun Tillman, 14, offered himself as a defendant for the hypothetical case, suggesting to the guest speaker that he was driving a Bugatti sports car when police pulled him over.

Howsie tweaked the scenario a bit — “Let's say you're driving a Cavalier” — then explored how the situation could proceed.

Suspected for being an underage driver, the police make the traffic stop. The officer notices the smell of marijuana in the car and conducts a visual search from outside the vehicle based on the reasonable suspicion the drug may be inside the vehicle. Supposing he sees marijuana in an open ash tray or on the seat, the officer would have probable cause to search the interior of the car, Howsie explained.

“It's our job to test the evidence,” said Howsie, who was accompanied by his first assistant Shanicka Kennedy.

Kennedy discussed how information from Facebook, phone texts and other electronic sources can be admitted as evidence in court.

Noting that people use texts as a means of threatening and fighting with each other or post photos of themselves online with stolen or illegal goods, she said, “All of that information can come into play.”

“You need to be very careful how you are presenting yourself to other people,” she advised.

Howsie, who noted he and Kennedy are the first African Americans to have their respective positions in the public defender's office, advised students on career and educational choices and conduct in college.

The high school's college access counselor, Bill Starry, helped organize the attorneys' visit to the school. He said the district was pleased to have the speakers because of lessons they can impart in terms of career planning and the social studies curriculum.

Chandlar Barfield, 14, said she found the discussion interesting and informative.

Chandlar said she watches many of the court programs on television and has read a bit on the law.

As for a career choice, she said, “It would be a good thing to go into.”

Treysaun said afterward that he also learned much from the discussion and added, “I got his card.”

Eric Slagle is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1966, or