In the past few years, police departments in Pennsylvania and New Jersey have come under increased scrutiny due to major police corruption scandals in Philadelphia and Camden. The list of corrupt activity is quite long. Police officers in drug and narcotics investigation units have been accused and convicted of stealing drugs and money from suspects and others who were easy targets. Some officers were accused of lying on affidavits for probable cause. Read our article about the Camden police corruption scandal.
Many individuals who are incarcerated in prison or jail in Pennsylvania and New Jersey have questions about their cases and whether they can obtain relief due to the corruption scandals. In some cases, an investigating officer may have been later been caught for engaging in corrupt behavior. So naturally, the question is whether such individuals can file successful appeals based on corruption. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently discussed this scenario in Commonwealth v. Castro. The case deals squarely with the issue of raising police corruption in an appeal or Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) petition.
Background of the Case & Corruption of the Arresting Officer
Jose Castro was present in a home in Philadelphia when the narcotics division of the Philadelphia Police Department engaged in a drug bust. The bust occurred after a confidential informant (CI-142) carried out a controlled drug buy. Officers obtained a warrant and entered the home. Castro was arrested and charged with Possession of a Controlled Substance (PCS), Possession with Intent to Deliver (PWID), and Conspiracy to Commit PWID. A jury found him guilty of PCS and Conspiracy.
The primary police officer who used the confidential informant to obtain the warrant later testified at Castro’s trial. The officer testified that he saw Castro exit the back door and toss a bag containing drugs into the bushes. The officer’s testimony was crucial for the prosecution.
A few days after trial, a local Philadelphia newspaper published an article implicating the officer and others in a police corruption scandal. The officers, including the lead officer in Castro’s case, were accused of stealing money and other items from various local convenient stores in Philadelphia. The news article further indicated that the same officer had used a confidential informant (later determined to be CI-142, the same informant in Castro’s case) to get a warrant. Basically the facts alleged in the convenient store scandal were similar to Castro’s case: use of the same confidential informant to obtain a warrant and subsequent corrupt police behavior.
After his trial, Castro filed a motion for a new trial based solely on the news article. The basis of his post-sentence motion was newly discovered evidence. Castro did not submit any additional documentation or evidence like affidavits and only submitted the news article. The Pennsylvania Superior Court heard the issue and in favor of Castro, ordered an evidentiary hearing. The Commonwealth appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court which ultimately ruled against Castro.
The Legal Issue in the Case
The sole issue before the PA Supreme Court was whether it is possible to meet the after-discovered evidence test where the defendant offers only a newspaper article. Applying well-settled PA criminal appellate law, the court held that the newspaper article in this case met the test.
The problem was that the article did not point to specific evidence, such as reports, witness statements, etc. Instead, the article cited allegations of others, including the store owners who claimed they were robbed. Consequently, the court found that Castro’s motion failed to cite any real evidence such as testimony, physical evidence, etc. In addition, in the last footnote of the opinion, the court hinted that Castro’s lawyer should have presented or at least pointed to actual evidence in the post-sentence motion.
This recent case is important because it deals with the claim of police corruption as the basis for a post-trial appellate motion in a Philadelphia criminal case. The Castro decision highlights an important principle – allegations of police corruption must be supported by some evidence; bold faced assertions simply will not work.
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