New policy focuses on elder abuse prosecution

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A new policy implemented by the Allegheny County district attorney requires local police officers to contact a prosecutor before issuing any criminal complaint in elder abuse cases.

The idea behind the change, District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said, is to ensure the investigation is handled quickly and thoroughly.

"These are not commonplace for most police officers to deal with," he said. "The realities of investigating these crimes are complicated."

The same procedures are already in place in Allegheny County for crimes such as homicide and rape.

"You want to bring the appropriate resources to bear, and we're the right mechanism to do that," Mr. Zappala said.

The types of crimes listed in the policy update -- which apply to any victim older than 65 -- include neglect, aggravated assault, robbery, rape, sexual assault, theft by deception, identify theft, home improvement fraud and misapplication of funds.

Often, Mr. Zappala said, thieves target elderly people in financial crimes.

It is essential in elder abuse cases to move quickly in an investigation -- not only to freeze assets and protect the person from further victimization but also to preserve testimony in the event the victim becomes unable to testify, Mr. Zappala said.

"... The practical effect of this process should eliminate the defense tactic of either continuing the case repeatedly and/or waiving the preliminary hearing hoping that the victim either dies or no longer can assist in the prosecution," Mr. Zappala wrote in a memo to the Allegheny County Chiefs of Police Association.

The change in policy right now affects Allegheny County, but it could be used in other jurisdictions as well, provided they have ample resources, Mr. Zappala said.

"These partnerships are being explored right now," he said.

The work came out of a committee from the state elder law task force chaired by Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Debra Todd.

Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, said it's important for law enforcement officers and prosecutors to be on the same page when dealing with elder abuse charges.

"It is not uncommon with a number of highly technical and often complicated prosecutions to have someone designated and specially trained to handle those types of cases."

Other examples he cited include prosecuting domestic violence and methamphetamine production labs.

Elder abuse cases often involve a lot of documents, including powers of attorney, bank records, trusts and guardianships. They sometimes start out in orphans court before being referred to criminal prosecutors.

A local example is the ongoing prosecution of former Allegheny County Councilman Charles P. McCullough. He is accused of defrauding an Upper St. Clair widow out of nearly $200,000 while acting as her attorney.

Shirley Jordan, who provided information about the alleged fraud to the Post-Gazette in 2007 when she was 90, died after Mr. McCullough was charged in 2009.

The case is still pending and is currently before the state Superior Court on appeal of a lower court ruling in which the judge refused to dismiss the charges.

Mr. McCullough has not yet gone to trial in the matter.


Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2620 or on Twitter @PaulaReedWard.

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