A Pittsburgh criminal defense lawyer was in the middle of a trial before an Allegheny County judge in an Attempted Homicide, Aggravated Assault, and Reckless Endangerment case, when the defense attorney learned for the first time that his client and another witness had previously provided written statements to the police. Prosecutors are required to provide such statements to the defense prior to trial through what is called the "discovery" process, so the failure to provide the statements was a violation of the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure.
After being provided with the statements in the middle of the trial, the assault defense lawyer needed time to review the statements and consider his strategy in moving forward, so he requested a continuance. Fortunately for the defense lawyer, the judge understood that the prosecution's violation of the law should not impair the defendant's right to present a valid and informed defense.
Upon returning to trial, the Pittsburgh defense lawyer requested a mistrial. This was probably due to the fact that the statements changed how the attorney would have handled the trial from the start. The judge granted the mistrial, and the defense attorney then sought a dismissal of the charges.
Motion to Dismiss for Constitutional Violation
When a defense attorney believes that a client's rights have been violated, the attorney often seeks a dismissal of the charges. For example, in a Penn State Possession of a Small Amount of Marijuana and Drug Paraphernalia case, I was able to convince the Centre County judge to dismiss the charges for a speedy trial violation committed by the Centre County District Attorney's Office.
The Pittsburgh criminal defense attorney sought dismissal of the charges by arguing that his client's constitutional right against double jeopardy had been violated. As most people know, the double jeopardy clause generally provides that a person cannot be tried twice for the same crime. The defense lawyer argued that the mistrial during the first prosecution only occurred because of the prosecution's failure to provide the defense with the discovery materials as required by Pennsylvania law, and, because the mistrial was the prosecution's fault, the prosecution should be prohibited from trying the defendant again. The Pittsburgh judge noted that the prosecution's actions in the case were "grossly negligent" and granted the defense request to dismiss charges.
The prosecution appealed the judge's dismissal decision to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania. The Superior Court noted prior Pennsylvania precedent which stated that the double jeopardy clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution prohibits a retrial if the prosecutorial misconduct was intended to provoke the defendant into requesting a mistrial or if the prosecutor's actions were intentionally undertaken to prejudice the defendant to the point of the denial of a fair trial. The court emphasized that its focus is on whether or not the prosecution acted "intentionally" to subvert the court process, and the focus is not on the prejudice or harm to the defendant. The Superior Court then held that the Pittsburgh judge had erred in dismissing the charges because the judge had only found that the prosecution acted with gross negligence as opposed to intentionally. By reversing the trial judge's dismissal of the case, the prosecution will now be able to take the case to trial again. To read the entire opinion, you can search for Commonwealth v. Kearns on the Superior Court website.