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Pittsburgh Legal Blog

Criminal defense tries to avoid first-degree murder conviction

A criminal homicide case represents perhaps the greatest challenge to Pennsylvania defense attorneys in terms of the absolute focus and commitment demanded to effectively defend the matter. Total immersion in the facts and attention to detail is required. Where guilt is overwhelming, or where the criminal charge may be reduced to a lesser offense, a criminal defense attorney's experience and track record of dealing with prosecution attorneys in the past may be a determinative factor in getting a favorable resolution.

Those factors may apply in the recent arrest on criminal homicide charges of a 48-year-old Erie man by the Pennsylvania State Police. The authorities accuse the man of murdering his 51-year-old wife and disposing of her body in Lake Erie when they were out on his commercial fishing boat. The man reported her missing on Sunday, June 11, saying that she must have fallen overboard.

Criminal defense in murder case requires intensive investigation

When a suspect is arrested days or weeks after the main perpetrators have been charged with a crime in Pennsylvania, defense counsel must carefully investigate to verify the facts that occurred. In some cases, accused suspects already in custody will provide the names of unrelated individuals simply to obtain preferred treatment by the police and prosecutors. An experienced criminal defense counsel will be attuned to discovering such travesties before they get ingrained into the prosecution's settled presentation of the case.

A recent example of such a potential issue is the arrest of two men in connection with the homicide of another man at a large outdoor party in Crawford County. The two suspects were arrested after the shooting. Police said that one of them shot the victim and then fled with the assistance of the second suspect. Several days later, the Pennsylvania State Police arrested a 20-year-old man and charged him with several violent offenses indicating some undefined involvement with the shooter.

Family law decisions are not reflected in cable TV reality shows

The cable television soap opera called "Teen Mom 2" is filled with separations, divorces, marriages and custody battles. The program, however, should not be used as a real-life guide to these matters, whether one lives in Pennsylvania or another state. In family law cases, the adventures of reality television stars are not good signposts to determine how to measure one's own strategies, lifestyles or actions.

The possibility that the stars are acting or overreacting for the dramatic effect on the ongoing viewing public must always be kept in mind. That they may be playing the fates of their children for the sake of ratings is another potential danger to keep in mind. On the other hand, there may be some general common-sense patterns that may come out of observing the antics displayed by the characters from week to week.

Drunk driving dismissal does not save truck driver's license

Pennsylvania DUI laws require that an individual who refuses to take a blood-alcohol test is subject to a mandatory loss of his or her driver's license for one year. For a commercial truck driver in that predicament, the driver will also lose his or her commercial license forever, according to a recent Commonwealth Court decision. The appellate decision has a couple of interesting legal issues with respect to Pennsylvania's drunk driving laws and pertaining to its administrative laws regarding license suspensions.

One point made by the Court is that when the operator remained silent in response to the request of the police for him to take a blood-alcohol test, that is the equivalent of a refusal to take the test. Therefore, the refusal results in the standard one-year loss of license. However, the defendant had been acquitted of drunk driving in the county court trial. The Commonwealth Court upheld the loss of license despite the acquittal in the criminal case.

Are prosecutors pursuing mandatory minimum sentences?

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently issued a memo to the 94 U.S. attorney offices across the country, encouraging a tougher stance in drug prosecutions.

Specifically, Session encouraged prosecutors to pursue every available drug charge, even if those additional charges might trigger mandatory minimum sentencing. Mandatory minimum sentences allow prosecutors to seek enhanced prison terms for drug, firearm and violent crimes. In practice, prosecutors might pursue a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence for a drug possession arrest of 1 kilogram of heroin, or 5 kilograms of cocaine (about 11 pounds), or 1,000 kilograms of marijuana (over 2,000 pounds).

Jeff Sessions reverses Obama policy limiting marijuana sentences

Pennsylvania's drug sentences can be quite harsh, but those who are convicted under the federal drug laws are likely to find themselves in prison for a longer time than they might expect. Attorney General Jeff Sessions just reversed an Obama-era policy meant to reduce the sentences for people convicted of low-level, nonviolent drug offenses. Moreover, people who legally use medical cannabis are not immune from federal prosecution.

Previous policy urged prosecutors to downplay low-level, nonviolent drug crimes

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