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Could top judge OK search of colleague’s chambers? Ex-jurist charged in drug case says answer is no

Posted May 21, 2014 4:00 PM CDT
By Martha Neil

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A retired Pennsylvania judge charged with stealing drugs from evidence files while he was still on the bench is challenging a search of his Washington County Courthouse chambers authorized two years ago by the county's chief jurist.

The president judge of Washington County didn't have the power to order a search of a colleague's chambers, contends former Court of Common Pleas judge Paul Pozonsky in criminal court filings by his lawyers. They say an administrative court order by President Judge Debbie O'Dell Seneca that state police to search Pozonsky's chambers was "illegal, invalid and unconstitutional," and are asking that evidence gathered during the search be suppressed, WTAE reports.

Pozonsky, 58, is accused of insisting that police evidence in drug cases be kept in his chambers, then stealing cocaine from evidence files and replacing some of it with baking soda. He was removed from hearing cases by Seneca early in 2012 after he ordered that evidence in over a dozen drug cases be destroyed. (He later withdrew the order, the Associated Press reports, but the evidence had already been destroyed.)

At a Wednesday court hearing on the evidence issue, the prosecution said the need to preserve evidence justified an administrative order to search Pozonsky's chambers, while the defense argued that a search warrant was required, the Washington Observer-Reporter explains.

On May 9, 2012, a law clerk for Pozonsky found a gun that was supposed to be evidence in a homicide trial “just lying on a table in the judge’s chambers outside an evidence box,” Washington County District Attorney Gene Vittone testified. The clerk brought the gun to the DA's office, and a meeting among officials resulted in the administrative order requiring Pozonsky to return all evidence. State police then immediately removed from his chambers drug evidence, a rifle case and an ax handle, the newspaper reports.

Although it was not illegal for Pozonsky to keep evidence in his chambers, “I was alarmed by everything that happened that morning,” Vittone said, referring both to the weapon found unsecured on May 9 and the judge's order to destroy evidence. “I started researching everything we could do.”

A deputy attorney general testified that state police proceeded directly to where evidence was stored in Pozonsky's chambers and the judge's law clerk opened a locked file cabinet, negating any need for a formal search or a search warrant.

Pozonsky has never responded publicly to the theft and drug possession charges he faces. He retired in 2012 and moved to Alaska after being criminally charged in May of that year. Although he attended Wednesday's hearing, he made no comment.

His lawyer, Robert Del Greco Jr., said in 2013 that Pozonsky "resigned at the outset of the investigation out of respect for the law. For him to continue to sit as a judge would probably be disrespectful to the citizens of Washington County as well as disruptive to the bench," the AP article reports.

A senior Bedford County judge is presiding over the criminal case against Pozonsky, who is being prosecuted by the state attorney general's office.

See also:

ABAJournal.com: "Ex-judge charged with stealing drug evidence while on the bench"

Tribune-Review: "Search targeted in former Washington County judge's cocaine theft case"

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