Beaver County’s district attorney is threatening to appeal the county’s judiciary to a higher court if it attempts to proceed with a series of scheduled “non-essential” hearings next week.
District Attorney David Lozier notified the courts Thursday morning he is refusing to bring police officers into the courthouse for the hearings, suggesting the county’s judges are putting the community at needless risk by taking first responders off the street during a time of emergency.
The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has ordered courts temporarily closed for non-essential functions through at least April 30 in continued response to the COVID-19 global pandemic. But in Beaver County, the definition of “closed” has repeatedly come into question.
In its statewide issuance of a “judicial emergency,” the Supreme Court mandated all trials for April be postponed. It temporarily suspended all other court functions as well, except those deemed as “essential.” Included in that list were preliminary hearings for jailed defendants, bench warrant hearings, hearings involving the protection or detention of juveniles, mental health detention hearings, and pleadings relating to the public health or involving immediate and irreparable harm.
But the Supreme Court also allowed for “any other function deemed by a president judge to be essential consistent with constitutional requirements.”
It is the last provision, as exercised by Beaver County President Judge Richard Mancini, that has repeatedly led to controversy.
At issue this time are “suppression hearings” scheduled for next week.
BeaverCountian.com obtained an email sent Thursday morning by District Attorney David Lozier to court administrator William (Bill) Hare. In the email, Lozier protests the hearings, expresses concern for the safety of the community, and threatens to appeal to a higher court if they are not removed from the schedule.
Suppression hearings allow attorneys an opportunity to challenge evidence that may be presented at trial. During the hearings, defense attorneys and prosecutors may call witnesses, including police officers and experts. A judge listens the testimony, along with argument by attorneys, and then issues a ruling on whether or not evidence will be deemed admissible.
In an interview with BeaverCountian.com Thursday night, Lozier confirmed the authenticity of the email, although declined to comment on its contents specifically.
“This is simple. Nobody wanted these to happen but nobody in the courts would make a decision, which seems to be happening a lot lately,” Lozier said.
“At times like this, people need to make timely decisions, it’s important … Working together with defense attorneys my office was able to resolve 90% of these issues at this point. We did that by either arriving at a plea deal or agreeing that witness and officer testimony would be required. Under the current Supreme Court order, those hearings requiring live testimony can’t happen. So those few remaining cases will need to be continued. All of the attorneys are in agreement, but the court is not acting. So I made my intentions clear.”
The following is the email sent by Lozier to Hare:
Bill, I hear there are informal discussions about proceeding with supression hearings next week.
First, suppression hearings as a class are not essential events under the PA Supreme Court order.
Second, the Commonwealth has the right to call live witnesses, officers or experts in hearings. We cannot do that under the current orders from the Governor and the Secretary of Health. The Supreme Court order clearly defers to the health and safety recommendations established by Secretary Levine. A live hearing for a non-essential function does not fit those guidelines.
Third, as Chief Law Enforcement Officer in Beaver County I will not call police off the street for these hearings at this time. Police are stretched thin and their jobs are getting more hazardous every week. They are exposed every shift and take this exposure back to their families. We are seeing an increase in mental health and possibly suicide calls. Communities which are a week ahead of us in this outbreak have seen significant increases in 911 calls stretching first responder resources even as police and EMTs themselves are getting sick. The police are needed on the streets and in their communities, not here. Plus, we don’t need to expose them and they don’t need to be exposed by us.
If there is serious discussion about holding live suppression hearings I expect you to voice my concerns and let me know if there is a forum for this very serious discussion.
Please be aware that normally I would fax notices to officers today for suppression hearings next Wednesday. I am holding those notices.
We request an answer this week so we can either prepare or appeal the issue.