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    Criminal Defense

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    Can Cell Phone Video Be Used as Evidence in Court?

    Jan 18 2022 in Criminal Defense

    It is very common for people to take their phones out and photograph or film exciting things in their daily lives. If you are witnessing a crime, it is understandable that you may begin recording the incident on your cell phone.

    This video can help you review your situation after the fact, but you may be interested in using it to clear your name of any wrongdoing.

    When Are Cell Phone Videos Admissible?

    Using cell phone video as evidence in court is certainly possible, but this evidence is not always guaranteed to be admissible. If you would like to use cell phone evidence in your case, your attorney will have to convince the judge that the video footage is both relevant to your case and reliable.

    For evidence to be allowed into court, it must be considered relevant to the case at hand. Something relevant tends to make an essential fact in your trial either more or less probable. Irrelevant pieces of evidence waste time and may distract the jury from a vital part of the case.

    What Makes a Cell Phone Video Authentic?

    For your video to be declared admissible, it must be deemed authentic. Demonstrative evidence such as a video cannot come from anywhere. Rather, it must be brought forth by someone who can testify in court to the legitimacy of the video.

    Video captured by traffic cameras will carry more legitimacy than a cell phone video captured by someone trying to win a legal proceeding. If the video’s source cannot be found, its authenticity is not good. Therefore, it can be excluded under Pennsylvania’s hearsay rules.

    When Can Videos Be Inadmissible in Court?

    A significant problem with videos such as those captured on a cell phone is the issue of credibility. When you put forth something as evidence, you’re trying to convince the court that something specific happened, and the video should be able to tell its story without guessing. Problems with your cell phone video could include:

    • Lighting – If lighting is poor, it could be hard to tell certain features of the video, such as the identity of a person or the distance between two things.
    • Time of Recording Questions – timing is everything, and maybe your video portrays something that should have occurred at a certain time, but it is impossible to prove it.
    • Location – Is there too much guessing that must go into determining where your video was filmed? If your video requires taking your word for its details, it doesn’t offer much more than your spoken testimony.

    Things to Consider Before Using Cell Phone Video as Evidence

    Before you take steps to use cell phone video as evidence to support your case, there may be several items to consider. Using cell phone video as evidence may do more harm than good in some cases. Here are a few other essential details you should know before using cell phone video as evidence in your case.

    Can an Attorney Subpoena Cell Phone Records to Clear Your Name?

    Many people assume that social media videos online can be used as evidence in a trial to support their case. But for such footage to be admissible, your attorney must recover the original video evidence.

    Often, video data can be acquired by simply asking for it from the originator. But your attorney may be able to file a subpoena, or police can execute a search warrant to access the video footage in question.

    Do Privacy Laws Interfere With Obtaining Cell Phone Videos?

    The ability to utilize cell phone video footage as evidence to support your case can vary widely depending on whether the law requires two-party consent. Under Pennsylvania law, recording a telephone call or conversation without both party’s consent is illegal.

    This means that the audio portion of your video footage may be protected as private communication, but the video footage may not be.

    Contact a Pittsburgh Criminal Defense Attorney for Help

    People often feel that video is the perfect evidence in court, and they’re usually right. While your cell phone video might be good evidence for your case, there is never a guarantee that the judge will allow it.

    With years of trial experience, our attorneys understand Pennsylvania’s evidence rules, and we have successfully used them to help many of our clients.

    If you would like to speak with an experienced Pittsburgh criminal defense lawyer about your case, contact our office today. Call Worgul, Sarna & Ness, Criminal Defense Attorneys, LLC at 412-281-2146, or contact us online for a free and confidential case consultation.

    Man in military fatigue blouse with gavel

    What Is Veterans Court?

    Nov 23 2021 in Criminal Defense

    Pennsylvania’s Veterans Treatment Court (usually called Veterans Court) is an alternative to incarceration for veterans facing criminal charges. Based on similar effective programs (such as Drug Courts), this specialized program helps veterans connect with resources for addiction, mental illness, or other disorders. Veterans Court addresses the underlying issues that often lead to criminal behavior.

    Many veterans find it challenging to adjust to civilian life. Like many other states, Pennsylvania provides Veterans Court as an alternative to imprisonment and other traditional criminal justice actions.

    Infographic about veterans fights the opioid epidemic

    We Owe America’s Veterans

    The United States currently has about 1.3 million active-duty service members from a population of over 258.3 million Americans ages 18 and older. Military service requires enormous sacrifice from members and their families. Long deployments wreak havoc with personal relationships. The pay is often lower for service members than their civilian counterparts, when applicable. And always, there is the possibility of severe injuries or death.

    When America’s veterans sacrifice so much for us, we owe it to them to provide the resources they need when they find themselves in legal trouble.

    Veterans Face Special Challenges

    Of the 2.6 million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, 50 percent suffer from one or more treatable conditions, including:

    • One in six veterans has a substance abuse disorder.
    • One in five show signs of cognitive impairment or a mental health disorder.
    • Veterans are twice as likely to die from accidental overdoses of opioid painkillers.
    • Half of returning veterans have untreated PTSD.

    Approximately 38,000 of all veterans nationwide are homeless. Additionally, most employers are not obligated to hold jobs open for returning veterans. Without proper resources, housing stability, and lack of physical and emotional illness treatment, veterans are trapped in the criminal justice system.

    Addiction, Mental Illness Tied to Incarceration

    According to Justice for Vets, 81% of justice-involved veterans had a substance use disorder before incarceration. About 25% of justice-involved veterans suffered from mental health issues. Some of America’s 181,000 incarcerated veterans might have avoided prison had they received proper treatment, counseling, and support. Veterans Court is an effective diversion program designed to reduce the number of justice-involved veterans.

    Why a Special Court for Veterans?

    Veterans have unique training and life experiences that are misunderstood or ignored by traditional criminal justice courts. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, veterans are more likely to suffer from mental illness, substance abuse addiction, and trauma than non-veterans. These factors, combined with a struggle to adjust to life without the structure and camaraderie of active duty, make veterans vulnerable to the justice system.

    Pennsylvania has the fourth-largest population of veterans in the country, with an estimated 798,000 veteran residents. Both prosecutors and judges realize the need for an effective alternative to the criminal justice system for veterans.

    How Veterans Court Works

    Defendants in Veterans Court must commit to a rigorous program as an alternative to jail or prison. The emphasis is not on punishment, but a focused interdisciplinary program designed to discourage repeat offenders. The court works with the Veterans Administration and other agencies to give participants the help and support they need to achieve:

    • Affordable, stable housing
    • Reliable transportation via a free public transit service for veterans
    • Sobriety
    • Improved mental health
    • Financial independence through a veterans’ jobs initiative

    Specially Trained Probation Officers & Mentors

    Program participants have specialized probation officers who are familiar with the needs of former service members. Additionally, defendants have support and guidance from mentors, informally called “battle buddies.” These mentors share their experience, strength, and hope with participants to guide them through the successful completion of Veterans Court.

    Who Is Eligible for Veterans Court?

    Veterans Court is limited to defendants who are:

    • Veterans from any branch of service (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard)
    • Addicted to substances including alcohol, opioids, and other drugs (both prescribed and illegal)
    • Struggling with major depression, PTSD, and other mental health conditions
    • Not charged with homicide or sex crimes

    Pennsylvania’s Veterans Courts

    Pennsylvania’s first Veterans Court opened in Lackawanna County in November 2009.

    Since then, Veterans Court has been available in the following counties:

    • Allegheny
    • Armstrong
    • Beaver
    • Berks
    • Butler
    • Cambria
    • Carbon
    • Chester
    • Clinton
    • Dauphin
    • Delaware
    • Erie
    • Fayette
    • Indiana
    • Lackawanna
    • Lancaster
    • Lebanon
    • Lycoming
    • Mercer
    • Montgomery
    • Northumberland
    • Philadelphia
    • Washington
    • Westmoreland
    • York

    Help for Veterans Facing Drug Crimes

    Many veterans who suffer severe and catastrophic injuries receive prescriptions for pain relief. This factor may account for veterans being two times more likely to overdose from opioid painkillers than non-veterans. More than 20 percent of veterans with PTSD also have a substance abuse problem.

    Justice-involved veterans account for 14 percent of drug crimes nationwide, according to the U.S. Justice Department. Veterans Courts offer a path to counseling, support, and drug treatment programs, both inpatient and outpatient. Some Drug Courts throughout the state also have a veteran’s track.

    Veterans Court Success Rate

    According to the Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania, 207 of the 233 participants in the 2018 Veterans Court program completed the program. This high completion rate means that 81 percent of participating veterans successfully graduated, allowing them to re-enter civilian life stable and substance-free.

    In an early study of veterans’ courts, researchers found that 89.5 percent of program participants:

    • Remained arrest-free during the program
    • Experienced substantial improvement with depression and PTSD
    • Achieved and maintained a substance-free life
    • Enjoyed better emotional health
    • Found stable housing
    • Formed better personal relationships and social connections
    • Reported improved overall functioning and well-being

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    Police body camera

    Police Misconduct in Pittsburgh

    Jul 18 2021 in Criminal Defense

    Police officers are supposed to uphold the law and protect innocent citizens. However, officers’ actions have become questionable in many situations where they interact with the public, such as during the Black Lives Matter protests in Pittsburgh and nationwide.

    If you or a loved one was injured due to police brutality or another case of police misconduct, contact an attorney right away. These situations often result in wrongful arrests that require an aggressive defense.

    What Is Police Misconduct?

    The Pittsburgh Code of Ordinances Section 661.01(a) defines police misconduct as:

    “…any alleged improper or illegal acts, omissions or decisions directly affecting the person or property of a natural person by reason of:

    1. A violation of any general, standing, or special orders or guidelines of the Police Bureau or Department of Public Safety; or
    2. A violation of any federal law or the Pittsburgh Code;
    3. Any act otherwise evidencing improper or unbecoming conduct by a police officer employed by the City of Pittsburgh.”

    Types of Police Misconduct

    There are three broad categories of police misconduct:

    • Procedural – This type of misconduct refers to any action that violates police procedure.
    • Criminal – This refers to any misconduct specifically against a local, state, or federal law.
    • Constitutional – This includes any actions that violate a citizen’s civil rights.

    Actual misconduct can often fall into more than one category. For example, a false arrest in which an officer beats the suspect is both a criminal and constitutional violation. It may even be considered procedural misconduct when it violates police union regulations.

    Common Examples of Police Misconduct

    When you think of police misconduct, you often associate it with police brutality. However, that is only one type of behavior that qualifies as misconduct. There are many examples of misconduct, including the following:

    • Police Brutality – This refers to excessive force on someone beyond what is necessary for the situation. Police officers should have techniques that subdue a violent or dangerous suspect (or a weak, unarmed suspect) without intentional harm. The murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in May 2020 is an example of police brutality.
    • Abuse of Authority — Includes police actions that use their position of authority to perpetrate a crime or civil rights violation. This abuse may involve sexual abuse or forcibly coerced confessions.
    • Bias/Racial Profiling – When an officer uses racial or other prejudicial attributes as the basis of an arrest, search, or harassment, it indicates bias or racial profiling. Profiling often when a police officer pulls over a male person of color because they “look suspicious.”
    • Bribery, Kickbacks, or Extortion – A police officer should never receive extra compensation for their duties. They should also not turn a blind eye to crime with financial motivation. It is unlawful for law enforcement officers to use their position to take advantage of a financial opportunity.
    • Falsifying Evidence – This can include planting evidence at a crime scene or making up false witness statements.
    • False Arrest – An officer must have probable cause that a suspect committed a crime to make a lawful arrest. Without that probable cause, they wrongfully deny a person their constitutional right to freedom.

    These are just a few examples of police misconduct. If you think you are the victim of police misconduct, call a lawyer who can look into the situation and help you file a report with the appropriate agencies.

    What Should I Do If I’m the Victim of Police Misconduct?

    First, you should contact an attorney right away. You will have to interact with the government when reporting police misconduct. While they should accept your report, they may try to protect the police officer and place blame on you. It would help if you had someone on your side to represent your rights and make sure your story is heard.

    Reporting Police Misconduct in Pittsburgh, PA

    Incidences of police misconduct in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, should be reported to the Office of Municipal Investigations (OMI). They handle citizen complaints about misconduct by any employees of the City of Pittsburgh, including fire, EMS, and police.

    The Citizen’s Police Review Board (CPRB) also investigates complaints against police officers. This independent review agency can investigate allegations and hold public hearings. During those hearings, they may review complaints, question witnesses, and elicit testimony from police officers.

    How Is Pittsburgh Cracking Down on Police Misconduct?

    In the past, complaints of police misconduct often got swept under the rug. Officers would either escape discipline entirely or take a few days off. When they returned, the alleged police misconduct would continue.

    However, in July 2021, the Pennsylvania Attorney General, Josh Shapiro, announced the launch of a statewide police misconduct database. The database will track complaints and confirmed cases of misconduct. It will identify officers with a history of “red flags” to warn other law enforcement agencies who might hire them.

    The database is not accessible to the public; however, police departments must use it when hiring new officers. Suppose a department hires an officer who has a history of discipline. In that case, the department has to write a public report explaining their reason for hiring them.

    Get Help from a Police Brutality Lawyer

    If you were injured or wrongfully arrested because of police misconduct, our experienced criminal defense attorneys at Worgul, Sarna & Ness, Criminal Defense Attorneys, LLC, can help.

    Call us today at (412) 281-2146 or use our online contact form for a free consultation.

    Man opening letter

    Do I Have to Go to Court If I Get a Summons?

    May 24 2021 in Court, Criminal Defense

    In most cases, yes, you must appear in court if you get a criminal summons. However, there are some exceptions. For example, you might not have to go to court for a criminal summons if you have an attorney who appears on your behalf or if the matter can be handled via telephone.

    It is recommended that you call a defense attorney as soon as you get a summons to appear in court. You might face legal consequences if you fail to appear in court or miss the deadline to respond.

    What Is a Summons?

    A summons – also called a “court order” – is a document issued by the court, usually at the beginning of a civil lawsuit or a criminal proceeding. You do not have to be a plaintiff or a defendant to receive a summons.

    A summons contains the following:

    • The name of the person receiving the summons (your name)
    • The name and type of court that issued the summons
    • The case number associated with your summons
    • The name of the defendant in the case (this may or may not be you)
    • When and where you must appear
    • What the case is about

    People who are party to a case may receive a summons simply to provide information in a case. For example, you might be called by the prosecution, the defense, or the court itself to give information in a personal appearance.

    Can I Avoid Court If I Get a Summons to Appear?

    If you receive a criminal summons, you might have to go to court. However, it is possible to avoid court by hiring a criminal defense lawyer.

    There are several benefits to hiring an attorney for a summons:

    • Your lawyer may be able to call the court and find out what type of information they need from you. If you are not the defendant, you might be allowed to make a recorded statement or a written statement.
    • Your attorney can appear on your behalf so that you may skip going to court.
    • If you must appear personally, your attorney can accompany you to protect your rights.

    Is a Subpoena Different from a Summons?

    Although the court issues both documents, a subpoena is different from a summons:

    • A subpoena is a demand for you to provide evidence in a court case, either in the form of turning over physical evidence, giving testimony, or both. They are typically issued during the investigation or discovery process. Both defendants and witnesses can be subpoenaed.
    • A summons is typically issued at the beginning of a case. For example, in civil cases, it is the start of a lawsuit. For criminal matters, the state uses a summons to initiate a criminal case against an individual.

    Received a Criminal Summons? Call Us Today

    It can be upsetting to receive a criminal summons, particularly if you do not expect it. However, if you are also the defendant, there may be charges against you. Hiring a criminal defense lawyer to help you or appear on your behalf in court is a smart idea. A strong legal advocate could improve your situation if you are facing criminal charges.

    If you received a criminal summons, contact Worgul, Sarna & Ness, Criminal Defense Attorneys at (412) 281-2146, or use our online contact form for a free, no-obligation consultation.

    Sentence Reduction Despite Client’s Record

    May 03 2021 in Case Results, Criminal Defense

    Our client was charged in Federal Court for a significant drug offense. This would have been the individual’s third conviction, which exposed him to penalties as a career offender and possible life imprisonment.

    Attorney Samir Sarna negotiated with the prosecution and secured a drastically reduced 8-year sentence to cover everything. What makes this so noteworthy is that this agreement was all done without the client having to cooperate or testify in exchange for his sentence.

    The outcome of an individual case depends on a variety of factors unique to that case. Case results do not guarantee or predict a similar result in any similar or future case.