In yet another embarrassing blow to Beaver County District Attorney David Lozier, the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office has dropped a felony wiretap case brought by his detectives against Aliquippa’s assistant police chief.
Deputy Attorney General Alicia Werner filed a motion with the court today, notifying a judge that her office no longer wants to proceed with a prosecution of Joseph Perciavalle for recording a conversation with Aliquippa Police Chief Donald Couch in March 2018.
The move by the Attorney General’s Office comes after the Pennsylvania Bar Association (PBA) issued ethics guidance to one of Lozier’s own prosecutors advising her to exercise caution in following his lead on the case.
County detectives discovered the recorded conversation while searching Perciavalle’s smartphone, which had been seized after they arrested him the first time in June 2018 on unrelated charges.
Defense attorney Steven Townsend insisted Beaver County Detectives had overstepped their bounds during a search of Perciavalle’s phone and should never have been snooping at his audio recordings to begin with.
While the Attorney General’s Office continues to believe Perciavalle’s recording of Couch likely violated the Wiretap Act, they now appear to agree with Townsend’s assessment of the search by county detectives. In her filing with the court, Werner told a judge the decision to drop the case came “after fully considering and evaluating the search warrants effectuated on the Defendant’s phone and the supporting case law.”
Prior to Perciavalle’s charges, the officer had gone to Lozier repeatedly in 2016 with possible evidence of corruption in the police department.
The officer has alleged that Lozier took no action on the information he provided and that his arrests by county detectives, several of whom are former Aliquippa police officers, were acts of retaliation. Lozier denied those claims.
Townsend made it clear he intended to call Lozier as a witness as part of his defense of Perciavalle.
Perciavalle was first arrested by county detectives on June 8, 2018 on charges of felony distribution of sexually explicit material to a minor, felony unlawful contact with a minor, and misdemeanor corruption of a minor. Perciavalle has been on paid administrative leave since that time.
County detectives alleged that Perciavalle sent then-17-year-old Lauren Watkins a text message containing a short video of a semi-nude woman urinating while on a swing.
Both Perciavalle and Watkins have said the “meme” video was sent to her by mistake as part of a group text message intended for her father, Aliquippa Police Sgt. Kenneth Watkins, who has since been demoted to patrolman.
The video was discovered when detectives were examining Lauren Watkins’ phone as part of their investigation into the 2018 Mother’s Day murder of Rachael DelTondo. That case remains unsolved.
During a preliminary hearing on Dec. 4, Watkins testified that the clip was accidentally sent to her by Perciavalle, and that she had not viewed it until she was shown a copy by county detectives as part of their investigation.
District Judge Edward Howe subsequently dismissed the two felony charges of disseminating sexually explicit materials and unlawful contact with a minor, but held for trial the misdemeanor corruption of minors charge and the felony wiretap charge for recording Couch.
Perciavalle argued his recording of Couch was lawful, because he had been acting as an informant against Couch and had reason to fear there may be an attempt to intimidate him. Couch is also currently on administrative suspension.
Following the PBA’s ethics guidance in March, the Beaver County District Attorney’s Office recused itself from prosecuting Perciavalle. The Attorney General’s Office then took over prosecution of the cases against him and on May 9 refiled the two felony charges against him that were dismissed by Howe last year.
The results were the same, with a second judge dismissing the case.
Townsend strongly criticized the Attorney General’s Office for refiling the charges against Perciavalle, echoing his client’s assertions that he believes what the public is witnessing is retaliation against a whistleblower.
Today’s move by the Attorney General’s Office to drop the felony wiretap case against Perciavaille leaves just a single remaining misdemeanor charge of corruption of minors from Dec. 4.
In a motion still pending before the court, Townsend is asking a common pleas judge to dispose of that charge as well, saying the case can not stand as a matter of law when the underlying offenses have all been dismissed.