Pennsylvania lacks uniform rules for control of evidence
Pennsylvania's judiciary lacks uniform rules on how judges deal with evidence in criminal cases — a problem, legal experts said, underscored by accusations that a Washington County judge stole cocaine evidence.
“Certainly, if we've learned anything from this, it's high time to have a standardized rule statewide. Whether it's the clerk of courts or the district attorney, it would make a lot of sense for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to figure this out,” said University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff.
“It's not a good idea, even for a judge, to have control of and access to, this type of evidence. There needs to be some additional controls besides the judge himself.”
Washington County judges lock evidence in their chambers during trial and then typically return it when the case finishes.
In Westmoreland County, a court assistant puts evidence in a courtroom safe and then delivers it to the Clerk of Courts Office when a case concludes. In Butler County, the court reporter typically holds evidence in a locked evidence room or secured courtroom during trial. The sheriff holds sensitive evidence, such as large quantities of drugs. Prosecutors or police keep evidence such as drugs in Allegheny and Beaver counties.
Former Washington County Judge Paul Pozonsky, 57, faces a preliminary hearing on Thursday on 15 charges stemming from allegations that he stole cocaine from evidence envelopes and at least once replaced the drug with baking soda.
Judges in Washington County said the allegations against Pozonsky are an anomaly and won't prompt them to change their practices.
“If things are marked into evidence, the court reporter keeps them. She's in charge of the documents. Currency, guns, drugs, we'll keep during trial and at the end, give them back to police,” said Judge Katherine Emery. “It's just been our practice. It's so someone couldn't change it after it's been introduced. I would think once it's admitted, it should be under the court's jurisdiction.”
Allegheny County Assistant District Attorney Kevin McCarthy said for decades that was the practice of judges, particularly in less populated counties.
“We follow the practice in Allegheny County that when drugs are introduced, they come with the police officer, where it's been clocked out from their evidence locker. It's still in evidence, but it's in the custody of that officer,” McCarthy said. “Anytime there's a break in the proceedings, he'll lock them in the evidence locker in the DA's office.”
Allegheny County Judge Jeffrey A. Manning, who heads the criminal division, said evidence should be returned to the party who introduced it.
“I have no facility to lock it up and, secondly, I have no need for it. Why would we take it from law enforcement that has evidence logs and put it in a locked filing cabinet?” said Manning, who is a member of the Supreme Court rules committee that makes recommendations for the court to adopt statewide.
“The matter having come up, it may be good to adopt a written rule so there's uniformity throughout the state,” Manning said. “I certainly will raise it in the rules committee.”
Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck said evidence retention by judges and the court clerk hasn't presented a problem.
“That's the way it's been my entire career. I'm kind of surprised (other counties) return (evidence) to the police and prosecutors,” Peck said. “Shouldn't it be maintained by an independent person?”
Bobby Kerlik is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7886 or firstname.lastname@example.org.